“The probability that we may fail in the struggle ought not to deter us from the support of a cause we believe to be just.”
This famous quote from Abraham Lincoln was a favorite of Coach John Wooden’s. It brings to mind the idea of doing the right thing, no matter what the outcome might be.
In 1947, Coach Wooden’s Indiana State Sycamores received an invitation to play in the NAIB national playoffs. It was held in Kansas City, Missouri, and drew top teams from all over the country.
In his book My Personal Best with Steve Jamison, Coach recounted what followed:
The invitation carried with it a prohibition against black players. Like most people, I had been raised to believe segregation was wrong.
Now, as a coach, I was being asked to participate in segregation, a system based on the belief that some people are better than others.
Clarence Walker, a student-athlete from East Chicago, was a ninth or 10th man on the Sycamore team and worked hard, attended class, and was a good fellow. He also was black.
I quietly turned down the invitation.
The following year it happened again. We finished 27–7 and had attracted nationwide attention with our so-called racehorse style of basketball.
When the invitation from the NAIB arrived, it was difficult to say no quietly—we would be one of the main attractions in Kansas City. Nevertheless, I informed the committee that the Sycamores would not attend and gave my reason.
They offered a compromise: “Walker can play in the games, but he must not be seen publicly with the team. He must stay in a private home away from the other players. He must not attend publicity functions with the Sycamores.”
I felt this humiliation was worse than leaving Clarence behind in Terre Haute. The answer was easy: “No.”
Then I received a call from the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) suggesting I reconsider: “If Clarence agrees to the impositions, he will become the first black player ever permitted to play in a national college basketball tournament.”
I talked it over with Clarence, who then talked it over with his parents in Chicago. They all agreed that it was worth it, so I accepted the NAIB’s invitation to play in Kansas City starting March 8, 1948.
And Clarence Walker became the first black student athlete to play in a national college basketball tournament.
As Coach liked to say: If you sacrifice principle trying to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one.
Photo by Abhishek Chandra on Unsplash