The Integration of UK Basketball in the 1960's

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The following article was written by A Sea of Blue's member and frequent commenter, FortyYearCatFan.  It is reprinted here in its entirety, with permission.  Some formatting changes have been made to adapt the article to the blog.

 

 

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The Integration Of UK Basketball In The 1960's

 

The widespread integration of college basketball began in the 1950's although some schools started earlier. CCNY in 1950 may have been the first integrated team to win the NCAA title. Bill Russell and KC Jones led the University of San Francisco to back-to- back NCAA titles in 1955 and 56. Wilt Chamberlain led the Kansas Jayhawks to the NCAA championship game in 1957 (where they lost an historic 3OT game to undefeated North Carolina). Oscar Robertson went to Cincinnati in 1956 and led UC to back-to- back Final Four appearances in 1959 and 60 (as well as the #1 AP poll ranking in 1958). Kentucky native (and UK fan) Tom Thacker was a key player as the Bearcats won back- to-back NCAA titles in 1961 and 62 plus a runner-up finish in 1963.

Kentucky had dominated college basketball throughout the 1940's and 1950's. UK ranked #1 in W-L percentage during those two decades and won 4 NCAA titles and an NIT title in that era. UK was undefeated and probably the best team in the country in 1954 but declined to play in the NCAA tournament that year because its 3 senior stars were ruled ineligible to play in the NCAA.

(Here http://www.bigbluehistory.net/bb/rupp.html is an excellent reference on UK's efforts to integrate its basketball program under Adolph Rupp)

Continued after the jump ...

But the integration of college basketball changed things for the Wildcats. Beginning in 1960, every NCAA champion has been an integrated team. And the best HS players in Kentucky during the 1960's included many black players. Names like Michael Redd and Clem Haskins in 1963, Westley Unseld in 1964, and Alfred (Butch) Beard in 1965 are legendary in Kentucky high school basketball history.

The year 1967 topped them all. Black stars Jim McDaniels, Jim Rose, Clarence Glover, and Jerome Perry led the Kentucky All-Stars to a sweep of Indiana and enrolled as a group at Western Kentucky. And 1969 would produce black stars like Tom Payne and Ron King. It was clear that integration of American society in the 1960's was going to produce a sea change in college athletics, too.

UK basketball started to recruit black players actively in the mid 1960's. The UK administration (Presidents John Oswald and Frank Dickey) encouraged the integration of UK athletic teams with a strong public statement. That was no small step in the segregated South of the early 1960's. UK signed black track star Jim Green of Eminence KY and football stars Nat Northington and the late Greg Page to athletic scholarships. These may have been the first athletes to integrate SEC athletic programs.

But basketball was another story. UK didn't really try very hard to sign Clem Haskins so he went to Western Kentucky where he led the Hilltoppers into the NCAA tournament and earned All-American honors. But UK did try to sign Parade 1st team HS All- American Westley Unseld of Louisville Seneca in 1964. Unseld was a 2-time Kentucky state champion and was rated among the Top 5 HS recruits that year.

His brother George had picked Kansas a few years earlier, so the Jayhawks were a strong contender for his services. Seneca teammate Dave Cosby attended Cincinnati so UC tried hard to land Unseld. But UK also sought Unseld with a scholarship offer and home visits from UK coaches and players. UK was among the very first SEC (or ACC) schools to offer a basketball scholarship to a black player with their offer to Unseld. But hometown school Louisville had integrated its program by signing Wade Houston and Eddie Whitehead to basketball scholarships in 1962. The Cardinals won out for Unseld's services and signed him to a scholarship in the spring of 1964.

The year 1965 brought changes to the UK coaching staff. Longtime assistant Neil Reed moved on and was replaced by Joe Hall, who played for Rupp at UK in the late 1940's. Hall quickly implemented changes to a UK recruiting system that had been floundering for a few years. And Hall had been signing black players at previous coaching stops such as Regis College in Denver.

Butch Beard was a Parade HS All-American and Mr. Basketball in Kentucky in 1965. His HS team (Breckenridge County) won the state championship. And (best of all for UK) he had reportedly grown up as a big fan of Kentucky basketball. Signs pointed to Beard as becoming the first black player at UK. There are stories that he verbally committed to UK or may have even signed a UK scholarship at one point.

But Beard ultimately signed a binding intra-conference (national) letter-of-intent to attend Louisville before any possible commitment to UK, so Louisville won out for his services. And he became an All-American for the Cardinals. His loss was a tough one for UK to swallow. UK recruiting in 1965 yielded only Phil Argento as a varsity player.

UK continued to recruit black players in 1966. Joe Hall worked his recruiting magic that spring by signing 12 players to UK scholarships. (Yes, 12 -- there were no limits back then) None of the 12 was black. UK tried to sign Parade A-A forward Perry Wallace of Nashville in 1966 but he opted to attend hometown Vanderbilt instead. Wallace was the first black (varsity) basketball player in the SEC in the 1967-68 season.

Now comes 1967 and one of the greatest HS classes ever in the state of Kentucky. 7- footer Jim McDaniels of Allen County was a Parade 1st team HS All-American and perhaps the #1 player in the nation that year. His HS team won the state championship and he dominated play in the Dapper Dan (HS All-Star game) Classic in Pittsburgh that spring. UK invited McDaniels for an official visit to Lexington and he came up for the visit. But for a variety of reasons, he opted to attend Western Kentucky instead.

Fellow Kentuckian Jim Rose of Hazard was also a Parade HS All-American in 1967. And Hazard was "Wildcat country" for certain. UK recruited him and reportedly even coaxed a verbal commitment from him. But he had signed with Houston and ultimately wound up at Western Kentucky with McDaniels.

UK also recruited All-State swingman Jerome Perry of Louisville in 1967 but he chose Western Kentucky as well. The Wildcats tried hard to land high scoring forward Felix Thruston of Owensboro in the spring of 67. And Owensboro was definitely "Wildcat country" even more so than Hazard. Thruston visited the UK campus and reportedly even signed a grant-in-aid (scholarship) with UK but not the (binding) national letter-of-intent. He wound up elsewhere. Close but no cigar for UK.

UK targeted at least one more black player in its 1967 recruiting efforts. He was Parade HS All-American forward Howard Porter of Sarasota FL. UK coaches were interviewed by Reds radio announcer Claude Sullivan (former UK basketball announcer) during a Reds exhibition game in Florida that spring. They glowingly praised Porter (that was legal in those days) and declared their hopes of signing him. Sullivan told them it was too late, for he was headed to Villanova. Sullivan proved right in his prediction on Porter.

Hall continued to recruit black players as part of his UK recruiting efforts. One of his top targets in 1968 was 6-8 big man Joby Wright of Savannah GA. Wright was yet another Parade 1st team HS All-American and visited the UK campus that spring. But Wright wound up at Indiana where he ultimately played for legendary IU coach Bobby Knight.

Finally 1969 rolled around. Black players continued to dominate the landscape in Kentucky HS basketball. Once again two KY players were chosen Parade HS All- Americans that spring. They were 7 footer Tom Payne of Louisville Shawnee and "shooting star" Ron King of Louisville Central (1969 Kentucky HS champions). Both players visited the UK campus later that spring.

King opted for Florida State following in the footsteps of Kentuckian Dave Cowens to play for Hugh Durham. Payne was highly recruited by major schools across the country and narrowed his choices to UK and UCLA. He also played in the Dapper Dan Classic (like McDaniels) and waited until June before finally making his college choice. And it was Kentucky!!!

Finally the Wildcat basketball program would be integrated. The 1960's were dominated by black stars like Lew Alcindor and Cazzie Russell. And teams like Loyola of Illinois and Texas Western had mostly black players in their starting lineups. But Payne would prove to be ineligible to play as a freshman at UK or even earn a scholarship due to some academic shortcomings. His parents paid his way to attend UK as a freshman and he played on an AAU team in Lexington that year.

Payne got his grades in order and became a star on the UK varsity in the 1971 season. He earned All-SEC honors and wound up declaring himself eligible for the NBA Hardship Draft of underclassman in 1971. He was picked second by the Atlanta Hawks behind Nate Williams of Utah State, who was chosen by the Cincinnati Royals. Payne was the second "One and Done" player ever at UK after LeRoy Edwards, who left UK in 1935 to play pro basketball after his sophomore season.

Payne got into considerable legal trouble in his NBA days and has stayed in trouble most of the time since then. That's a story for another day and time. But history will forever record Tom Payne as the man who integrated the UK basketball program in the 1971 season. Payne had enormous talent and basketball skills that were never fully realized.

UK also signed football stars Darryl Bishop of Louisville Seneca and Elmore Stephens of Louisville Thomas Jefferson to football scholarships in 1969. Bishop actually became the first black player to wear the UK basketball uniform by starting at guard for the Wildkittens (UK frosh team) in December of 1969 and was a varsity walk-on in 1972, as was Stephens. Both were All-State basketball players in 1969.

UK signed no black recruits in either 1970 or 71. Adolph Rupp retired in 1972 and Joe Hall was named UK head coach. Hall would proceed to sign many black basketball stars with Kentucky roots. Reggie Warford was an All-State guard at Drakesboro in 1972. Larry Johnson of Union County and Merion Haskins (Clem's younger brother) of Taylor County were signed in 1973. Lexington stars Jack Givens (Parade HS All- American) and James Lee chose UK in 1974. Those 5 were the first black players to make a Final Four appearance for UK in 1975.

Union County guard Dwane Casey picked UK in 1975 as did Toledo OH guard Truman Claytor (who was a native of the Ashland KY area). Stars like Dwight Anderson of Dayton OH and Sam Bowie of Lebanon PA plus Derrick Hord of Bristol TN would follow later in the 1970's. Joe Hall probably deserves a lot of the credit for successfully integrating the UK basketball program beginning in 1969 and throughout the 1970's. But it was the unlikely duo of Tom Payne and Adolph Rupp who are recorded by historians as integrating the Kentucky basketball program.

FortyYearCatFan (Since Rupps Runts In 1966

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Thanks to FortyYearCatFan for permission to reprint this excellent and informative article about the history of UK basketball, and once again take the opportunity to remember the history of our great program.

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