Black History Month
When I graduated from a Kentucky high school in 1967, playing SEC basketball wasn't an option.
It was a problem I shared with many of the very best senior players around the Southeast that year.
My obstacle was mediocrity. Theirs was being black.
In 2009, about 80 percent of the scholarship men's basketball players on current SEC rosters are African-American. Nobody thinks twice about it any more.
Every February when Black History Month rolls around, I'm immersed in college basketball. For someone in or near my age bracket, it's a time to reflect on the changes that have transpired before our very eyes in the game we love.
This isn't ancient history, folks. We're not talking Abraham Lincoln, or even Jackie Robinson. I was a freshman in college when Perry Wallace of Vanderbilt made history by playing in an SEC basketball game on Dec. 4, 1967.
I had graduated from college before Larry Robinson broke the color barrier in a varsity game for Tennessee in December 1971.
The integration of SEC basketball was a gradual process. When Wallace, an outstanding player and student from Nashville, enrolled at Vandy in the fall of 1966, it was a sign that at least one SEC school was at last ready to address the issue of losing top Southern players to the other leagues.
The Big Ten Conference was nearly 20 years ahead of the SEC in breaking the color line. Jackie Robinson, celebrated as Major League Baseball's pioneer in 1947, had played basketball and football at UCLA in 1939.
In 1950, a City College of New York team with several black players won the NCAA tournament.
Even as the 1960s arrived, blacks from the South were still going north. Wade Houston left Alcoa High School to help integrate Louisville's program in 1962.
It was a time when black players from Tennessee figured in two schools winning national titles.
Paul Hogue of Knoxville was a standout for Cincinnati's 1961 and '62 championship teams.
The Bearcats were denied a three-peat in 1963 when Loyola of Chicago beat them in the title game. Two Loyola starters, Les Hunter and Vic Rouse, were from Nashville.
Loyola beat segregated teams from Tennessee Tech, Mississippi State and Duke on the way to the championship. This quote I found from Hunter in an old Sports Illustrated article gives insight into the mindset of a black player from the South in the early 1960s.
"We weren't just beating players,'' Hunter said. "We were beating a student body, a system, the Klan. We weren't just playing a team; we were playing an ideology.''
By the mid-'60s, mid-major Southern schools like Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee State started signing black players. At long last, Vanderbilt accepted Wallace. He signed about two months after Texas-El Paso's five black starters had famously beaten all-white Kentucky in the NCAA championship game.
Wallace was the lone black in the league until his senior year, 1969-70, when Henry Harris debuted at Auburn.
For the 1970-71 season, Alabama, Georgia and Kentucky each introduced a black player. Kentucky's Tom Payne was first-team All-SEC in his only season.
In 1971-72, Tennessee, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss broke the barrier. In 1972-73, Mississippi State was the last to come on board.
The distinction of being the first black player to suit up in a Tennessee basketball uniform actually goes not to Robinson but to the late Wilbert Cherry.
A walk-on from Karns High, Cherry played 18 games for the freshman team in 1970-71. He also appeared in four varsity games with Robinson the following year.
Coach Ray Mears had tried to integrate his program prior to Robinson, with no luck.
In the spring of 1967, UT signed Spencer Haywood from Detroit. A phenomenal talent and future NBA star, Haywood couldn't get admitted academically and went to a junior college. (Had he gotten in school, he would have been classmates with Lester McClain, who would become UT's first black football player in 1968.)
In 1970, Knoxvillian Rupert Breedlove had transferred back home from the University of Cincinnati. He's pictured in the preseason media guide but never played a game.
Robinson was a transfer from Ferrum Junior College in Virginia. A solid student and citizen, he had two good seasons at UT, averaging 10.9 points and 8.8 rebounds. He was a captain his senior year.
Mears signed two more black players for the 1973-74 season: Mike Jackson and David Moss. Jackson would become a star, while Moss's career was cut short by cancer.
When Bernard King arrived in 1974, freshmen had become eligible and he scored 42 points in his collegiate debut. Like King's impact at Tennessee, the contributions of the early black athletes around the SEC were immediate and profound.
By 1975-76 - a mere three years after the final SEC school integrated - eight of the 10 players on the Coaches' All-SEC team were African-American.
Alabama trailblazer Wendell Hudson shared SEC player of the year honors in 1973. When Tennessee's King was player of the year in 1976, it was a watershed event. Of the 35 players who have won or shared that title since, only five were white.
Predictably, the demographics of the work force have not been reflected in management.
UT made Houston the first black head coach in the league in 1989. Twenty years later, he's one of only nine. And that's counting Tubby Smith twice, at Georgia and Kentucky.
This season, 19 of 36 SEC assistant coaches are black.
Georgia and Alabama are in the market for a new coach. If one or both hire black candidates it won't be a big deal any more. After all, the President of the United States is African-American.
More importantly, the days are long over when a worthy recruit from Knoxville or Birmingham has to go play at Loyola of Chicago.
If I were a high school senior today, my dream would still be thwarted by mediocrity. Fortunately, being black is no longer an obstacle.
Mike Strange may be reached at 865-342-6276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.