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The Winners

June 2024
4min read

From 1954 to 1957 I was a starting guard on the University of Kansas basketball squad. My career was fairly unremarkable until the fall of 1956, when a young Philadelphian named Wilt Chamberlain joined our team.

Over seven feet tall with the quickness and agility of someone a foot shorter, Wilt was easily the greatest player any of us had ever seen. He could score and rebound almost at will, and his incredible ability to dunk a basketball left everyone gaping. In his debut performance Wilt scored fifty-two points, and immediately we were picked to win the national championship.

Just two years earlier, in 1954, the Kansas forward Maurice King had become the first black starter for a Big Seven team. Fortunately Maurice had a Jackie Robinson temperament, because he was subjected to outrageous indignities on a daily basis.

Then Wilt and his brash talent came along, and racial tensions—particularly in the traditionally Southern states like Missouri and Oklahoma—escalated. It seemed everywhere we went we heard “nigger,” “nigger lover,” and worse. Officials would often ignore blatant fouls committed against black players, and opposing schools waved Confederate flags and played “Dixie.” Of course, now I know that what I saw was just the tip of the iceberg. Dick Harp, our idealistic young coach, tried to protect all of us as much as possible, and Maurice and Wilt were too proud to admit how bad things really were.

But none of us could have imagined the atmosphere awaiting the team at the 1957 Midwest Regionals, held that year for the first time in Dallas, Texas. The tournament hotel refused to accommodate blacks, so we stayed at a dingy motel miles away in Grand Prairie. No restaurant would serve us, so we took all our meals together in a private room.

Our first game was against our hosts, the fifth-ranked (and all-white) Southern Methodist University Mustangs. SMU was undefeated in its new field house, and it was easy to see why. Their crowd was brutal. We were spat upon, pelted with debris, and subjected to the vilest racial epithets imaginable. The officials did little to maintain order. There were so many uncalled fouls, each more outrageous than the last, that Maurice and Wilt risked serious injury simply by staying in the game, and, incredibly, they responded with some of the best basketball of their lives. We escaped with a 73-65 overtime win.

Naively I thought the worst of our crowd problems were over. But the next night SMU fans adopted our opponents, the all-white Oklahoma City University Chiefs. OCU’s flamboyant coach, Abe Lemons, encouraged the support, and soon emboldened OCU players were throwing themselves on the floor, trying to take blacks out of basketball—permanently. Our ordinarily mild-mannered coach had a few choice words for Lemons, and the two nearly came to blows.

Before long, however, we were winning easily, and OCU’s frustration became desperation. Wilt in particular appeared at the freethrow line over and over again. Infuriated fans hurled food, seat cushions, and coins at the court, and the field house rocked with racial slurs and threats. Someone stopped the game, and I was afraid Coach Harp was pulling us off the court for our own safety.

But the officials had finally had enough. They threatened OCU with a forfeit if fans didn’t settle down, and reluctantly SMU’s athletic director took the microphone and appealed for better behavior. The crowd howled, but eventually we were allowed to resume play. The final score was Kansas, 81-61, with Wilt named to the all-tournament team. Armed police officers escorted us off the court and all the way back to the airport.

Less than one week later, on March 22, the National Championships (now called the Final Four) began in Kansas City. Kansas had almost a home-court advantage: Three of our starters (including myself) were Kansas City natives, and the tournament site was only forty miles from campus. Our semifinal opponent, two-time defending champion San Francisco, fell easily, and the stage was set for a matchup against the undefeated and top-ranked North Carolina Tarheels.

Emotions were running high—perhaps too high. We fell behind early, and only Wilt’s incredible ability kept us from digging our own graves. We spent all of the first half (and much of the second) playing catch-up, but with two minutes to go we were ahead by five. Then inexplicably we went into a slowdown game, completely at odds with our usual run-and-gun style. The score was tied 46-46 when the buzzer sounded.

Both teams began playing nervously and cautiously; no one wanted to make a mistake that could cost a national championship. Each team scored only once in the first overtime, and in the second, neither scored at all.

By this time the crowd noise was deafening, the court was blanketed in thick cigarette smoke, and the tension was almost unbearable. The pace picked up. With six seconds left in triple overtime, we led 53-52, and Carolina’s Joe Quigg was called to the free-throw line. He sank both shots, and Carolina was up by one.

Everyone in the stands—and certainly everyone on the court—knew Kansas would try to get the ball to Wilt. The only question was how. We knew Wilt would be double- or perhaps triple-teamed. North Carolina’s best defensemen would be swarming over Gene Elstun, our number two scorer, and Maurice, our top ball handler. Coach Harp figured that would leave six-foot-six forward Ron Loneski almost unguarded. Granted, Ron was not the best passer in the world, but he was so tall that presumably he could lift the ball over our opponents’ heads and in Wilt’s general direction. Wilt had such great hands that he could take it from there.

I took the ball out of bounds at midcourt and had little trouble passing in safely. But North Carolina’s defense, playing on pure adrenaline, trapped Ron out of position. He was forced to make a shaky pass inside, and somehow, unbelievably, horribly, the ball landed in Carolina hands. The buzzer sounded, and the game was over.

What is now considered the greatest college basketball game ever played had for us deteriorated into a nightmare. Stunned, we watched Carolina celebrate, and somehow we made it through the awards ceremony dry-eyed. But as soon as we passed through the locker-room doors, we all broke down. The long bus ride back to campus was completely silent.

Now almost forty years later I look back on my college basketball career with more pride than bitterness. To this day we are ranked in the top twenty-five teams ever to play college basketball, and I know our regional title in the segregated South did more for the game than any national championship has ever done. I’m glad I had some small role in challenging the inequities of the day, and I’m honored to have been associated with some of the bravest men ever to don a basketball uniform.

I just wish we could have won.

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