How an all-black high school team starring Oscar Robertson changed Hoosier Hysteria
Crispus Attucks, returning to the Indiana state final for the first time in 58 years, won their fourth championship
Long before there was March Madness – which is now a multibillion-dollar industry – there was the more localized phenomenon known as Hoosier Hysteria: the run-up to the Indiana state high school basketball championship.
High school basketball in Indiana has long been akin to religion. When I was playing at Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks High School, Butler University Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, site of the final rounds of the tournament, was the cathedral. And the state title was and still is the holy grail.
Until 1997, all Indiana high schools, whether they had 100 students or 2,500, were in one single class and competed for the same title. No matter how poorly a school might have fared during the regular season, it got a second chance when the four rounds of the state tournament began.
Today there are four classes instead of one, ranked according to school size from 4A down to 1A. The tournament’s final rounds were moved from Butler Fieldhouse in 1971 and, since 2000, have been played in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA Indiana Pacers and WNBA Indiana Fever.
On Saturday, Crispus Attucks made it to the state finals for the first time in 58 years, competing in Class 3A this time around. I would not have missed this game for the world. And the Tigers did not disappoint, edging Twin Lakes in a 73-71 squeaker to win the school’s fourth state championship. Only three other schools have won more.
The bad, bad Tigers are back.
Breaking a 44-year drought
Before 1955, teams from smaller cities and towns, some so small they were barely on the map, routinely won the state title. No school from Indianapolis – Indiana’s largest city and the state capital – had won the championship in 44 years of organized high school basketball.
But in 1955, our Crispus Attucks Tigers had an opportunity to change all that – because we were in the state’s Final Four for the first time.
Attucks had been a source of pride for Indianapolis’ black community ever since its doors opened. Our parents, our teachers and our community had taught us pride in ourselves, inner dignity and resilience in the face of adversity. Our school was known as much for its academic excellence as its athletic achievements.
We had lost only one game all season, and we were not going to lose this game. We were comfortable playing at Butler Fieldhouse, where we played many of our “home” games anyway. (Our school gym was too small to host basketball games.) And we were eagerly looking forward to the traditional champion’s ride on the fire truck and a big celebration downtown. Or so we thought, anyway.
No Indiana farm boys here
Butler Fieldhouse was packed with 15,000 fans on that Saturday night, but it seemed eerily quiet as we took the floor against Gary Roosevelt High School, led by burly center Wilson Eison and future NBA star Dick Barnett.
Even Attucks fans, confined as always to a corner of the fieldhouse and surrounded by police, seemed more subdued than usual as they cheered for their “bad, bad Tigers.”
For the first time, two all-black schools were meeting for the state championship. Not only might Indianapolis have its first state champion – Indiana would have its first all-black state champion. That would also be a first for the entire country.
The mythological image of Indiana basketball for many years was that of the skinny farm boy shooting at a rusty hoop nailed above the barn door. But there were no skinny farm boys on the court that night. Both teams were made up of kids who had developed their games on inner-city public playgrounds.
We had changed the game. We had proven emphatically that our up-tempo style of basketball could be just as effective as the plodding, feet-on-the-floor approach many coaches still favored.
And we thought we might have also changed the culture as well. Our fan base was now spreading throughout the city. Luke Walton, the radio play-by-play announcer, was now referring to us as “Indianapolis Attucks.” Perhaps we had opened a small crack in the walls of segregation and discrimination that stood at the time.
The Klan ‘brings us together’
From the time it opened in 1927, Crispus Attucks had been a segregated school. Front organizations for the Ku Klux Klan had pressured the Indianapolis school board into moving black high school students out of the general student population into a separate school of their own. All-black high schools were built in Gary and Evansville as well.
Even in the mid-’50s, the Klan had tremendous influence in Indiana politics, business and education. At one point, an estimated 25 percent of all white men in Indiana were members. One of the Grand Dragons of the Klan was based in Indianapolis, from which he oversaw a fiefdom of 23 states.
Our school was named for a man of color – part African-American, part Native American – who was the first casualty of the Boston Massacre in 1770 and by extension, the American Revolution. According to legend, the Klan marched past our school in a victory parade when the school opened.
But the move to segregate us backfired spectacularly at that time.
Attucks was overcrowded, and its facilities substandard compared with other schools. But most Attucks teachers had advanced degrees, and some had doctorates. Excluded from teaching at white schools, these dedicated men and women were determined to create a superior academic environment within the confines of a segregated school system.
Academics shaped everyone at Attucks
The impetus for academic excellence came from Russell A. Lane, Attucks’ principal from 1930 to 1957. He had a law degree and a doctorate in education, and believed that Attucks should set the standard for secondary school education. He expanded the curriculum accordingly, with college prep courses included.
Lane also emphasized cultural pride, discipline and respect. Athletes were students first and foremost, and enjoyed no special privileges. They were also reminded that any time they stepped on a court or an athletic field, they were representing not just Attucks, but the entire black community.
And while we may not have been aware of it at the time, our quest for a breakthrough on behalf of all-black schools was part of the larger social context of the mid-’50s.
The Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education had legally put an end to school segregation in 1954, although it would take years for the law to be fully implemented.
Earlier in 1955, Marian Anderson – denied the right to sing in Washington’s Constitution Hall 16 years previously – had become the first black artist to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
Later that year, Emmett Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi, and his killers were never brought to justice. Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus and set off the Montgomery bus boycott that accelerated the civil rights movement.
Ray Crowe speeds up the game
On that evening in Butler Fieldhouse, however, all we were thinking about was winning a state championship. Attucks had come close once previously, reaching the final four in 1951 in Ray Crowe’s very first year as head coach.
For its first six years, Attucks was not allowed to play against member schools in the Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA), and it took 15 years to gain admittance to IHSAA membership and the “Hoosier Hysteria” that was state tournament competition.
Before 1951, Attucks had been focused more on “legitimacy,” on gaining acceptance in the larger community. Its basketball teams played a technically sound but passive, nonconfrontational game so as not to upset anyone.
All that changed when Crowe, a math and physical education teacher, was promoted from assistant coach into the head coach position and, against all odds, launched Attucks’ period of greatest athletic success.
Crowe was totally on board with the Attucks philosophy of academic excellence above all else. That did not mean he was comfortable with the status quo when it came to basketball. He noted that “Some of the older teachers still thought we needed to avoid being too aggressive and confrontational. I needed to make them understand that the worst disgrace we could bring to the school was to lose when we had a chance to win.”
Crowe installed the more up-tempo style of play that his players were already playing on the playgrounds. It was faster, louder, more stop-and-go, more improvised – a style that, like jazz, allowed for individual excellence within a team context.
You had to be in great shape to play for Crowe. You ran on offense, pressed on defense. I think he had probably learned from the visionary coach John McClendon that you could play an all-out running game and score a lot of points while minimizing turnovers and maintaining discipline, good fundamentals and strong defense.
How the ‘Dust Bowl’ shaped our teams
My family – dad, mom, older brothers Bailey and Henry, and me – had moved to Indianapolis from the farms of central Tennessee in 1942, when I was 4 years old. Indianapolis was hostile territory if you were black. I was naïve about the depths of segregation in Indianapolis and in the world.
We kids being black, poor, and unwelcome outside our own neighborhood, our activities were pretty much limited to school, church, and sports. And basketball was the king of all sports. Guys played from sunrise to sundown.
There was a vacant lot near our house, and someone put up a backboard and a hoop. Our games would kick up clouds of dust, so the lot became known as the Dust Bowl. Even when we started playing on asphalt courts at the nearby Lockefield Gardens housing project, “the Dust Bowl” became the generic name for anywhere we played outdoors.
Players from Attucks dominated at both the Dust Bowl and the Senate Avenue YMCA, where indoor pickup games were played. The older players didn’t want to play with us younger kids, so we had to keep challenging them until we were competitive enough to stay on the court.
The Dust Bowl was the crucible in which my game was forged. I learned the importance of playing against people who were better than you, so you can learn from them and improve your own game.
Every moment we weren’t on the court, I was off to the side, working on my game. I started developing a side-step, fadeaway jump shot, releasing it above my head so it wouldn’t be blocked by taller players. I would even shoot at night by moonlight until the neighbors would tell me to go home.
Tom Sleet – coach, mentor, inspiration
I could practice all day and night, but I still needed someone to give me direction and structure. That person was Tom Sleet, who coached my seventh- and eighth-grade teams at Public School No. 17 and freshman basketball at Attucks. He taught us the critical importance of the fundamentals – that athleticism and gamesmanship, aka basketball intelligence – don’t mean anything unless you can execute consistently.
We learned how to pivot, how to box out under the boards, how to set a pick, how to pass and cut, how to move without the ball. Basically, we were running what is now known as the triangle offense in the seventh grade. Coach Sleet also emphasized the importance of defense and taught us how to play a tough, intense man-to-man game.
More importantly, he showed us how to become good citizens, and gave us self-confidence, a winning attitude and the encouragement to believe that we could succeed on the court and in other facets of life.
My first experience facing white players on the same court came when I was in the seventh grade at P.S. No. 17. In the eighth grade, we won the city’s first junior high school tournament.
People started taking notice, including Attucks coaches who were in the stands. Some of the older players at the Dust Bowl, seeing how serious I was about my game, started taking me under their wings and giving me helpful tips.
Following our tournament win, we got even more good news in our household: my oldest brother Bailey, better known as “Flap,” was chosen for Crowe’s first varsity squad at Attucks.
Flap was always a better shooter than I was. And where I was quiet and reserved, keeping my true feelings internalized, he was always vocal in speaking up for himself, which often put him at odds with his coach. He went on to star at Indiana Central University, setting an Indiana collegiate scoring record that stood for many years. Then he played for the Globetrotters and briefly for the NBA’s Syracuse Nationals and Cincinnati Royals, but I felt he never got the shot at the pro game that he truly deserved. He died much too young, in 1996.
Flap puts Attucks on the map
But Flap made a lasting contribution to the lore of Indiana high school basketball. His last-second shot capped a 10-point comeback against perennial powerhouse Anderson in the 1951 semi-state finals and put Attucks in the Final Four for the first time.
Even though the team lost in the semifinals and would not make it to the Final Four again for four years, this win was a turning point for Attucks basketball.
Attucks teams brought a new flair to the game, which horrified basketball purists. Having played pickup games at the Dust Bowl for years, they could play “positionless basketball” long before that term was in vogue. They had been further schooled by Sleet and Albert Spurlock, who taught industrial arts and coached track, cross-country and junior varsity basketball. All Crowe had to do was apply the finishing touches.
Crowe ran very few set plays, but his teams still played with discipline – focusing on team success, sharing the ball, working for good shots, deferring to the better shooters, playing within themselves without showboating.
And he emphasized that whatever the fans, your opponents, or the officials threw at you, you were to maintain your poise and composure. Keep your cool. He was not going to lose a game on a technical foul, and his players were not either.
Starting in 1951, Crowe’s teams were burned by bad calls in the state tournament three years in a row. He became determined that referees not be allowed to influence the outcome of a game. (This was a tall order, since there were no black officials in the Indiana Officials Association.) He stressed the need to build an early lead and keep it. His mantra was, “The first 10 points are for the refs … the rest are for us.”
He also allowed his tallest players to dunk the ball during warm-ups, alternating right and left hands, giving opponents a little preview of what they were up against before the game even began.
Attucks’ visually exciting style of play coincided with the emergence of television, and tournament games were now shown live statewide on TV.
I had seen very few varsity games up to this point. But when I watched Attucks beat Anderson on TV, I got a vision of what I could achieve.
Following in my brother’s footsteps
In 1953, Bailey graduated and went on to Indiana Central University. And, thanks to puberty and another summer of work on the farm, I grew from 5-8 to 6-3 and packed on some muscle. As a sophomore, I joined the junior varsity group lined up for tryouts. But Bill Mason, a senior guard I knew well from the Dust Bowl, kept beckoning to me. “Come on over here, Oscar,” he said. “This is where you belong.”
I was the last person chosen for the varsity, and assigned my brother’s old number, 43. Even if you were among the chosen, Crowe made it clear that your first priority was academics. All players from grades nine to 12 met in his homeroom first thing every morning. He called the roll and talked us through our homework assignments. If grades had been issued, he posted them for all to see. And then we were off to the other courses on our schedules. The day was interrupted by a second roll call at midday. The city fathers wanted to make sure we were all “in our place” and not out wreaking havoc.
I enjoyed school – the process of learning, the wisdom our teachers passed on, the personal attention and encouragement they gave us. I was naturally shy and did not raise my hand to volunteer answers, but I was ready if called upon. And bit by bit, I came out of my shell and learned to interact with people in settings other than the basketball court.
Stars Hallie Bryant and Willie Gardner had graduated along with my brother, and we were considered an unknown quantity for 1953-54. I was assigned to play forward and, sometimes the pivot as well. I came off the bench to score 15 points in our opener and started after that.
My game wasn’t yet as consistent as I wanted it to be, but we were winning – despite season-ending injuries to Willie Merriweather, Winford O’Neal and Sheddrick Mitchell, our three tallest and most talented players. By this point, I was assuming more of a leadership role, and coach moved me to guard so I could bring the ball up and create more movement on offense.
Even without our star threesome, we were still competitive till the very end of the season. In the semi-state finals, however, we lost 65-52 to tiny Milan High School, which was en route to a 32-30 championship win over perennial powerhouse Muncie Central, thanks to “the shot” by Bobby Plump.
And we took at least one small step on the culture side. As we advanced through the tournament, superintendent of schools H. L. Shibler arranged for cheerleaders from all the Indianapolis schools to join forces with our cheerleaders for the first time. That became a tradition from that point on.
As Attucks’ popularity grew, our “team without a gym” cut down on the road trips and began playing more Indianapolis schools – sometimes at the Arsenal Tech gym on the east side of town, and more and more often at Butler Fieldhouse. We could draw up to 11,000 people for our games, and were supposedly the best-drawing high school team in the country. The money went right back into improving conditions at our school.
Going into the 1954-55 season, our expectations were high. O’Neal had graduated, but Merriweather and Mitchell were back from their injuries. We had a solid, deep squad and another year’s experience playing together.
We finished the regular season 20-1, losing only at Connersville, where we had fallen too far behind to mount a comeback on their wet, slippery court and came up one point short. Then it was on to the sectionals, the regionals, and the semi-state, where we faced basically the same Muncie Central team that had lost to Milan the previous year.
Central and Attucks had traded No. 1 rankings all season long, and some of the media were calling this “the game of the century.” And it was a close, hard-fought battle. After numerous lead changes, Central had the ball for a last shot with 10 seconds left, but I deliberately played well behind my man and then leapt forward to steal the pass and seal a 71-70 win.
In the first afternoon game of the finals, New Albany put up a good fight, but we pulled away at the end and won 79-67. In the second game, Gary Roosevelt had its hands full with Fort Wayne North before winning 68-66.
Between the afternoon and evening games, neither Attucks nor Roosevelt teams were permitted to rest in Butler University’s dorms during the break, although white teams had always done so during previous tournament weekends. The Roosevelt players stayed with families in town, while our team was crowded into a downtown hotel room.
We figured Roosevelt would be tired in the second game, and we were right. We pressed them from the beginning, jumped off to an early lead and never looked back. We were up 21 at the half, and the only suspense was about whether we’d score 100 points. Final score: Attucks 97, Roosevelt 74.
Eison, who went on to be named Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball,” had 32 points and set a three-game tournament scoring record. I had 30 with a bit of time left, but when I saw a little-used senior forward named Willie Burnley open near the basket, I felt it was more important for him to get into the championship game scoring column than it was for me to tie the record.
A celebration denied
When the final horn sounded, we could not contain our jubilation as we raced onto the court. There’s a picture of me on a ladder, cutting down the net with a mile-wide smile on my face. But our win came with a bittersweet aftertaste.
As we climbed aboard a fire truck for the traditional ride downtown, followed by a caravan of our fans cheering for their “bad, bad Tigers,” we had a strange feeling about the trip.
And when we got to Monument Circle, we didn’t stop and get off and join our fans in celebration. There would be no downtown celebration. Instead, Mayor Alex Clark read a brief tribute, we took another lap around the circle, and then our parade was redirected to Northwestern Park in the black section near Attucks, where 25,000 people celebrated around a huge bonfire.
That’s when it hit me. It seemed like it was OK for us to win for the city, and bring pride to the general population, but we were still considered second-class citizens. I hung around for a while, but I wasn’t really in much of a mood to celebrate, so I went home.
Soon enough, we learned that city officials had called Lane before the finals and informed him that there would be no celebrating downtown. Merchants and city officials were concerned that if our “colored” fans were permitted to celebrate at Monument Circle, they would riot, loot and destroy businesses, shoot out the streetlights, and engage in all other sorts of unspeakable mischief.
Can’t bring back the thrill
Once we learned what the city fathers had done to us, I was furious. To this day, I cannot forget the pain of being rejected in my own hometown. Our Attucks championship teams have since been celebrated many times, but there’s no way to bring back the innocent excitement our group of deserving black teenagers – who had earned the traditional celebration – was looking forward to at that point in time.
The following year, when we won our second consecutive state championship, capping off an undefeated season and a record 45-game winning streak, I refused to take part in another bogus, second-class celebration, and just went home after the game.
It was obvious that if basketball’s popularity discouraged racial discrimination, the public at large still had not gotten the memo. Athletic excellence might change attitudes on a personal and cultural level, but it could not by itself end institutionalized segregation and discrimination.
Fortunately for history, Bob Collins, a sports reporter for the Indianapolis Star, accurately chronicled all Indiana high school athletic teams – including Crispus Attucks basketball – despite enduring continued harassment from whites.
And that first Indiana state championship remains one of the highlights of my playing career, along with the gold medal won by our undefeated 1960 U.S. Olympic basketball team and the Milwaukee Bucks’ first and only NBA title in 1971. Against all odds, we had accomplished something that could never be taken away.
The ‘bad, bad Tigers’ are back
Attucks’ success had unintended consequences. Middle-class blacks began enrolling their kids in schools other than Attucks, and those schools also snapped up the black student athletes who lived in their districts.
Despite his 179-20 record over seven years, and three consecutive trips to the state finals, Coach Crowe was never named Indiana Coach of the Year. Bill Garrett, a former “Mr. Basketball” who had been the first black player at Indiana University, succeeded Crowe as coach in 1957 and led Attucks to its third state title of the decade in 1959. Crowe had been promoted to athletic director when a new principal replaced Lane.
The traditional fire truck ride downtown was discontinued more than 45 years ago, when the state finals were moved from Butler Fieldhouse to Indiana University’s Assembly Hall.
Lockefield Gardens and the Dust Bowl no longer exist, having given way long ago to the campus of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and IU Health University Hospital.
Attucks was spared the wrecking ball but was downgraded to a junior high school in 1986. In 2006 it became a high school once again, a medical magnet school serving the hospital. But it seemed that its days of basketball dominance would remain a distant memory.
Just in the last couple of years, however, the program has been rejuvenated, and I’m betting that Saturday’s visit to the state finals and its championship win will not be its last. I’m proud to say that the “bad, bad Tigers” are back.