Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thornton and Tech: Chasing after USL

(Seventh in a series)
     When George "Petey" Thornton became the first black athlete at Louisiana Tech University in the fall of 1968, integrating the basketball program, it was not a surprise. The time had come.
     By that season, the University of Southwestern Louisiana -- "first program to integrate a major sports team at a large public university in the Deep South" (as a 2011 Sports Illustrated story described it) -- had had black players on its team for two seasons and was building a dominant program.
     In my freshman year at Tech, 1965-66, we heard USL had a black player on campus -- Leslie Scott of Scotlandville, La. (near Baton Rouge), sitting out as a transfer from Loyola (Chicago).
     By the next season, Scott was eligible, but only a bit player. Because Beryl Shipley, rightly credited with being the first coach in the South to break the color "barrier," had brought in a guard from Indianapolis (Marvin Winkler) who had broken Oscar Robertson's high school career scoring record in Indiana and a 6-9 center from Birmingham, Ala. (Elvin Ivory), who the word was could jump and take a quarter off the top of the backboard. And, yes, as we found out, those guys could play.
     (But Tech's great team of 1966-67 beat the USL team twice and won the Gulf States Conference championship, thank you.)
     The talk was -- "word on the street" as a friend of mine at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram always put it years later -- that those USL players, and some in future years, were well taken care of with extra benefits (read: money) and academic breaks (read: manipulation).
     Proof? Well, the NCAA came down on USL's program after the 1972-73 season with 125 rules violations and gave it a two-year "death" penalty, suspending the program and vacating results of the two previous seasons in which the Ragin' Cajuns -- led by fabulous talents Dwight "Bo" Lamar, Roy Ebron and Payton Townsend -- reached the NCAA Tournament's "Sweet Sixteen." 
     That was the end of Shipley's college coaching career. He always had his detractors -- opposing coaches, especially, and the NCAA investigators -- and he had his revisionary apologists. USL people, boosters and media and fans, felt as if the university was a scapegoat and an example for NCAA righteousness; many of us don't exactly see it that way.
     To the end of his life, such as in the SI story published a month after his death in 2011, Shipley didn't own up to much of the wrongdoing -- he had his own version -- and blamed USL officials for betraying him and having him take the fall. That's how it felt to me.
     Debate it all you want. Here's the point: Other schools felt they should recruit black players, too. Coach Scotty Robertson at Louisiana Tech, who battled Shipley and USL for nine seasons, for one was pretty darned competitive.
George "Petey" Thornton:
His Tech basketball photo
     Enter George Thornton.
     (Just a note of comparison: USL integrated its team two years before Tech; Tech integrated its team two years before LSU -- with Collis Temple Jr. of Kentwood, La.)          
     Robertson did not share his plan to integrate the program with the players on his team.
     "We knew it was going to happen," said Bud Dean, who had just finished his sophomore season (after a redshirt year). "What I remember is we had several black kids visit [the campus] that spring (1968), three or four, a couple from Hammond (La.). ... But Coach Robertson, that [alerting the players of his plans] wasn't the way he handled things."
     "I don't remember Scotty prepping us for that," said John Whitmore, Dean's roommate and the only senior on the 1968-69 team when Thornton was a freshman. "I was from a small school (in Mendota, Ill.), so [integration] didn't bother me."
     However, Robertson did share the news with a couple of young sportswriters.
     Here is a message my old friend Orville K. "Buddy" Davis sent me a couple of weeks ago:
     "You remember the time when Scotty was concerned about you and me running a story in The Tech Talk [school newspaper] about him [Thornton] about to join the team because he was wondering about how some in Ruston might react. He preferred to keep it as low-key as possible."
     One of us -- me -- did not recall that.
     "I can see our conversation on the steps leading out from Memorial Gym like it was yesterday," Buddy reminded me.
     That did bring back the memory.
     "I sure remember cuz Scotty cornered me one day outside of his office," Buddy added. "He and I later laughed about it and how times changed to where the only color that mattered was red and blue and if Tech won or lost."
     Most of the Tech players -- but not all -- were fine with George joining the team. In town and on campus, the "welcome" wasn't as warm.
     Dean and Whitmore, who in the fall would be in the dormitory room next to Thornton and Mike Palmer, a 6-7 white freshman forward from St. Louis, played against him in an informal (and against-the-rules) scrimmage on his campus visit. They were impressed.
     "Petey was the perfect guy to be the first African-American player for us," Dean said. "He was not a pretentious, outlandish person. He was quiet, kept to himself. We all liked him and he got along with us. We knew the time had come, but he didn't bring undue attention to himself."
     "I took personal responsibility to make him feel part of the team," Whitmore said, "and I think Bud did, too. ... [George] was a personable guy. You could talk to him. He was a humble guy. He didn't act like he was better than anyone."
     But here in the late 1960s, the civil rights movement still prevalent and resentment among white people strong in the Deep South, there were moments of trepidation.
     Whitmore remembered several black students at Tech and some lived in the dorm, where there was a shot or two fired through windows.
     Thornton's recollection: "The only people [on campus] that I sensed didn't want me there were the campus security officers. I got called 'boy' a couple of times. I had a nice car once and they stopped me said, "Hey, boy, where'd you get this car?' "
     He also recalled times when people would not speak to him as he crossed campus. But there were a couple of instances when he found out that his basketball teammates would stick up for him.                               
     Once was on a visit by several players, Thornton included, to a pool hall in Ruston. When the pool-hall operators wouldn't allow him to enter, all the players left. Same on a basketball trip to Mississippi and a stop at a restaurant. When Thornton was refused service, the rest of the team walked out with him.
     There was a game in South Louisiana when the razzing from the stands was audible and repetitive. "They were calling me names," Thornton said, "and Coach [Robertson] said, 'Stay close to me.' " But major problems were avoided.
     As for his teammates, he said, "I know the players didn't all like me, but nothing was said to me directly."
      However, there was one thing that caused a stir in the dormitory, the "only point of contention," as Dean put it. It was a picture of white girlfriend from the St. Louis area that Thornton had on the desk in his dorm room.
      "I remember we had some football players that made some comments about it," Dean said, "and some came [from another floor] to look. Our response [basketball players] was that 'it's his business; why would it be your business?' We thought maybe that's the way it was done in St. Louis."
      Word got back to Robertson and Thornton said, "He called me into his office and said, 'George, I know this is OK up north, but people here aren't used to this.' He suggested I put the picture in my desk drawer, and I did. I didn't want to make trouble.
      "I knew they'd hung some people on trees down there [the South], so I stayed close to my friends  on campus. ... I knew where my place was. Scotty said, 'We don't want any trouble,' " and advised him to avoid joining a fraternity. But there was no trouble attending services at a Church of God in Ruston; "they accepted [me] and that felt good."
      He found friends, too, among the [black] janitors in the Tech gym, who in his second year at school "invited me and Willie Odom to their house and we got a nice home-cooked meal."
      Odom was a walk-on from Shreveport, a 6-2 forward who I had seen play in high school for Bethune. "I asked Coach to keep Willie on the team," George said, "and he did, so I felt they had some respect for me."
      There was respect for his basketball talent, too, although he didn't develop into a "star."
      "He was a good teammate," Dean said. "He was such a gifted athlete. He was not a great player, but he had talent. He was strong, he could run, he could jump. He didn't have a great shot. He'd have to take a pencil and draw in a shot. ...
      "Petey was not a shooter or scorer offensively. He could score off offensive boards and breaks but not off the dribble or in a pattern."
      "He was very athletic; he could run the floor very well," Whitmore said. "He was what today they refer to as 'long.' He didn't shoot that well, but he was an excellent team-type player."
       "I wasn't very good," George said of his arrival at Tech. "I was tall and lanky. But I learned how to move; I knew what to do, how to fit into a team."
        And the big addition to the program in his second year was the second black player on scholarship, Mike Green. Thornton was a good fit; Green was the player to carry a program.
       (Next: Playing with a superstar)


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