Coming into the 2020-21 college basketball season, there was a growing debate as to if Adolph Rupp should have his name removed from Rupp Arena, which you can read more about here.
Even one of Kentucky’s current players — Keion Brooks Jr. — said he believed Rupp’s name should come off the home of UK men’s basketball.
That debate has died down since the season began, but it’s now being awakened with a revealing story on who really helped UK basketball begin to integrate in the 1960s and 70s.
In an article posted by the Courier-Journal, reporter Jon Hale spoke with George Hill, an African-American postdoctoral fellow in UK’s department of biochemistry during Rupp’s coaching career at UK. Hill was also a vocal Civil Rights activist during a critical point in American history when it came to integration, which UK was starting to embrace at the time having already signed football star Nate Northington as the department’s first Black athlete just two years prior.
But in the many years that have since passed following Rupp’s Hall of Fame career, there’s been intense debate as to how much he did to help his own program integrate.
Here is Hill’s account of how his conversation with Rupp on integration went:
What better way to advance racial equality in the city than tackle one of its most visible examples of a white-dominated institution? So, Hill fired off a letter to Rupp about the lack of Black players on his team. Rupp responded with an invitation to discuss the issue further in person.
“When I walked in, it was obvious he was surprised,” Hill said in a recent interview with the Courier Journal. “… We had a conversation, but (Rupp) was shocked. It never occurred to him that the person who was writing the letters was a Black person. Never.”
But while Hill didn’t believe he was getting the support needed from Rupp, there was an assistant coach on Rupp’s staff who wanted to help: Joe B. Hall.
The conversation with Rupp quickly stalled, but Hill found a sympathetic ear in someone else at the meeting — then-UK assistant coach Joe B. Hall.
As Rupp’s top assistant, Hall spearheaded many of the team’s recruiting efforts.
“It was clear that Adolph … was just an old, crusty white man,” Hill said. “It was. He was very negative. It was also clear that Joe B. Hall, his assistant, really wanted to do something.”
Hall and Hill developed a plan to help integrate the team where Hill would accompany UK coaches on trips to visit Black recruits.
UK would eventually sign Tom Payne in June of 1969 as the men’s basketball team’s first Black player. However, Payne would not suit up for UK until 1970, and he lasted just one season before departing. Rupp did not sign another Black player before he was forced to retire in 1972 after he turned 70, the mandatory retirement age for all UK employees.
Hale also spoke with Derrick White, a professor in UK’s African American and Africana Studies program whose research focuses on race and sports. White believes it was Hall who was truly the driving force behind UK’s desegregation.
“It’s Joe B. Hall who really desegregates the UK basketball team,” said White, “Tom Payne literally plays one season, and it was a disaster. You can point to the ‘78 national champions with James Lee and Jack Givens, who would have never stepped foot on this campus if Rupp had still been coaching, and it’s all because of the groundwork that Joe B. Hall did.”
I would highly suggest reading the rest of the article, which goes into great detail of Hill’s and Hall’s efforts to help UK basketball integrate, Rupp’s hesitation to do so, and the lack of a stronger African-American presence at UK even to this day (the article reports that as of 2019-20, Black students made up 6.5% of the student body at UK compared to 11.6% at the University of Louisville),
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