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NASHVILLE, Tenn.— In the 1950s, friends in basketball circles began inviting Charlie Anderson to Tennessee State University each March.
You have to come over and see this, they told him.
But Anderson had already been to the gym known as Kean’s Little Garden, where TSU and the National High School Athletic Association played host to the National High School Basketball Tournament.
The event matching up the best black teams from as many as 17 states — a number that gradually dwindled as states integrated — was something to behold for a basketball aficionado like Anderson.
”It was one of the showpieces in town,” said Anderson, the longtime coach at Aquinas College who is now the coach at Nashville Christian. ”It was a big-time atmosphere, everybody came to see the excitement. There was great ball handling, great shooting, and you’d see big scores.”
TSU played host to the tournament, which qualified as the pinnacle for black high school players from across the South and into the Midwest, from 1945-64.
Les Hunter, who played for Nashville’s Pearl High, said at the tournament’s peak raucous crowds banged drums and rang cowbells and a player stepping out of bounds would bump into fans lining the court.
The setting was a savvy recruiter’s paradise, first for traditionally black colleges and Northern schools, later for teams looking to integrate their rosters.
Elston Howard, who went on to a Baseball Hall of Fame career as a catcher and was the first black New York Yankee, played for Vashon High of St. Louis in the 1948 tournament.
Sam Jones, the Pro Basketball Hall of Famer who won 10 championships in 12 years with the Boston Celtics, played in the tournament for Laurinburg Institute of North Carolina in 1951.
”Jones and Howard, in the vanguard of groundbreaking Black athletes, later fixtures on championship teams, got their first taste of national competition at the (tournament),” Nelson George wrote in his 1999 book, Elevating the Game, Black Men & Basketball.
UCLA Coach John Wooden honed in on Ronnie Lawson from Pearl, and Loyola-Chicago Coach George Ireland recruited two other Pearl players, Hunter and Vic Rouse, who helped the Ramblers win the 1963 NCAA championship.
Eddie Miles was known as ”The Man with the Golden Arm” when he starred for the Detroit Pistons. His first basketball on a national stage was in Nashville, where he scored 45 points for Scipio Jones High School of North Little Rock, Ark., in the 1959 tournament final, a 76-72 loss to Pearl.
Sammy Moore played for Louisville’s Central High, which won the first of its three tournament titles in 1952. Moore went back to TSU for college and later played for the Harlem Globetrotters. Jackie Fitzpatrick, who played in the 1954 tournament for Dunbar High of Somerset, Ky., also went on to the Globetrotters.
”It certainly was a venue for showcasing the best of the very best,” said LM Ellis, who played for the Burt High School team from Clarksville that won the tournament in 1961, a surprising run by a small school that he said he considers a black version of Hoosiers.
When Pearl won the tournament three times in a row from 1958-60, Hunter said the games ”stopped the whole black neighborhood.”
Said longtime Tennessean sports writer Jimmy Davy: ”It was extraordinary basketball.”
In 1980, Charles Herbert Thompson completed a detailed research project, submitting The History of the National Basketball Tournaments for Black High Schools as his dissertation at LSU. A 1963 graduate of Pearl, Thompson went to Fisk, where his father was the basketball coach, and got a master’s degree from TSU.
The tournament history he reconstructed served as major source material for this story.
Source of pride, unity
The tournament was the brainchild of TSU President Walter Davis and Athletics Director Henry Arthur Kean, and it was a revival.
Initial versions were held at Hampton Institute in Virginia and then at high schools in Indiana, Virginia and North Carolina, and eventually competed with a similar tournament at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Both disappeared by 1942 primarily because of World War II.
According to George’s book, the TSU administrators ”used basketball as a tool for uplifting the race — and the school’s reputation” and they held ”the best run and most stable Black schoolboy competition to date” when they resurrected the tournament.
Chicago’s St. Elizabeth High School was a barnstorming black school that won the tournament in 1949 and 1950. The school was stripped of its 1951 title after it was discovered it used an ineligible player.
That didn’t stop Davis and Kean from hiring St. Elizabeth Coach Clarence Cash to take over the TSU program.
According to Homer Wheaton, a TSU freshman in 1944 who’s still working for the school at age 77, Davis knew playing host to the high school tournament would help make the school a college powerhouse.
”He set out to build an athletic program that people would write about, because all papers have a sports section,” said Wheaton, TSU’s interim vice president for development. ”He initiated that tournament to bring in the top teams mainly so his coach could pick the best athletes in the country.
”One year, three of TSU’s starting basketball players in the fall had played in the high school tournament that spring. He set the table so his coaches could look at the best and recruit them.”
The tournament was divided between facilities at TSU and Pearl, but in 1953 it moved to the new, 4,000-seat gym that came to be known as Kean’s Little Garden.
TSU did grow into a major power there, earning an invitation to its first NAIA tournament in 1954 and then winning it in 1957, ’58 and ’59. It was the first black college to win a national championship.
John McLendon, who was a student of basketball inventor James Naismith at Kansas, coached the Tigers to a 144-23 record from 1955-59.
”The tournament was wide open and it gave a lot of black players a place to showcase their talents. Young boys got their scholarships,” Moore said. ”Basically, it was the biggest thing I ever played in.
”I loved it, I loved the school, I loved everything surrounding it. … I still have my old clippings from back in the day on my wall.”
Event appealed to all races
The tournament may have started as a black event, but it became known in all circles as a must-see basketball event.
Hickman Duncan, 90, who coached Nashville’s North High, a white school, said he remembers periodically taking his players to watch the tournament. He said coaches at other area white schools also organized such trips.
”That tournament was far superior to the state tournament we had in enthusiasm, in drawing people, and I think the caliber of basketball was better,” Duncan said. ”That’s one reason I took my kids out to see it. (The teams) were so skilled.”
Former Metro Police Chief Joe Casey, who played for Duncan, said going to the tournament made him wish North could test itself against the teams he watched, but he knew it wasn’t going to happen.
”I didn’t understand it, I didn’t see the reason why we all couldn’t play,” Casey said. ”But that was life in those days, and I wasn’t in position to do much about it.”
Dick Barnett, who starred at TSU and went on to play for two NBA championship teams with the New York Knicks, didn’t play in the national black high school tournament but regularly watched the games while he was in college.
”Kean’s Little Garden was the place to play, the Mecca of what we were doing,” Barnett said. ”For scouts and coaches as they looked forward and saw desegregation and the changing college atmosphere, I would imagine it was a haven.”
Hunter said Loyola-Chicago’s Ireland, who was white, was more interested in preserving his job than in being a civil rights pioneer, but still credits him for coming to Nashville to scout.
While reports of how many white faces were in the crowds at TSU vary, Ireland’s thoughts on the subject were widely reported.
”I was the only coach in the stands at the tournament … in Nashville when Hunter and Rouse were seniors in high school,” he said. ”The year after we won the NCAA championship, there were so many coaches here you couldn’t get tickets.”
Turning point for tournament
In 1954 the tournament began to gradually shrink.
The Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision ruled that separate educational facilities were inherently unequal and therefore unconstitutional. In 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued an executive order ending segregation at Central High in Little Rock, Ark. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act became law.
As states began uniting their black and white school programs, there were fewer black state champions to play each other for a national championship.
The tournament TSU had played host to for 20 years moved to Alabama State College in Montgomery in 1964. By 1968 only two states were still eligible — Virginia and Mississippi — and the event was canceled.
According to Thompson’s dissertation, the three versions of the national tournament that stretched over 39 years included more than 5,000 players from 239 high schools, with 25 different winners.
Ellis, now 61, still looks back at his experience at TSU with Burt High in 1961 as a seminal time, and not just in his basketball life.
”It was about going beyond the state, getting exposure, testing yourself against the schools that were the very best in the country,” said Ellis, who went to Drake then became the first black player to sign with Austin Peay. ”It was unbelievable for all of us. …
”Thomas Gary was our leading scorer and we are still as close as brothers. We had 36 scholarship offers between us. It was kind of unheard of to have schools after black athletes like that.”