HUTTON: 1955 final didn’t seem historic to players at the time
By Mike Hutton 613-0141 or email@example.com November 30, 2013 11:26PM
Dr. Dick Barnett (left) and Oscar "Big O" Robertson shake hands during the Lakeshore Classic at The Genesis Center on November 30, 2013. | Jim Karczewski\Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 2, 2014 6:48AM
GARY — Oscar Robertson made the six-hour ride from Cincinnati to Gary in a black Lexus with his brother on the day after Thanksgiving. He was the driver.
Saturday’s ceremony at the Genesis Center, a daylong festivity of games, with a rematch of the 1955 state title game between Crispus Attucks and Roosevelt, was about remembering the first state championship game between two black high schools anywhere.
He came because he was a team guy — the only NBA player ever to average a triple double in a season.
He came because he cares about basketball.
He came because he cares about history.
He came because the Big O is still very much in charge of the Tigers’ legacy.
He came because he knows now what that game meant to a whole generation of players, black and white, not just from Indiana but from all over the country.
He came because it was worth coming, worth remembering even though it was a hassle. Thanksgiving weekend isn’t an optimum travel time.
“I don’t like them taking advantage of my team,” Robertson said. “Mr. (Chuck) Hughes asked me to come up and my wife was very agreeable to it. I wanted the team here. They played alongside me. I wasn’t there by myself.”
The game itself was largely forgettable — at least for anyone that wasn’t vested in either team.
Attucks won 97-74.
It became significant over time because they were two all-black schools playing for the state title in Indiana, one of the centers for the Ku Klux Klan.
It’s worth remembering that it was just a game for those players. They had no idea that they’d be meeting 58 years after it was over, talking about historical context, segregation and racial relations.
It was basketball. This was Indiana. They were kids. It was important. Always has been.
“We were just having fun and playing ball,” said Dick Barnett, who played for Roosevelt and later with the Knicks.
In terms of details, what happened that day is hazy.
The game was played at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Some players don’t remember staying in a hotel downtown, a place where black people weren’t welcome. Wilson “Jake” Eison, the center for the Panthers, said they did stay downtown.
Barnett remembers the crowd as being “raucous” and vibrant.
“We were naïve,” Barnett said. “We didn’t understand the implications of institutional racism.”
Jake Morgan, a reserve center, said the Panthers were down by 10 points minutes into the game. It was over quickly. Robertson was unstoppable, scoring 31.
Robertson didn’t know much about Roosevelt at the time.
“There didn’t seem to be a lot of fanfare,” he said.
Over time, the historical significance of the evening morphed into something way beyond basketball.
Robertson first started to realize the significance of the championship years later, when the media blew it up.
The context of being a different (black) state champion hit home when he realized that the parade route for Attucks was different than when other Indianapolis schools won the title.
The Tigers didn’t get to go downtown. That was for white people only.
“We didn’t have the same route,” he said. “They didn’t want black people down there. That’s all I could think of.”
They tore down Attucks’ gym, a historic landmark. That made Robertson furious.
It was impossible to conceptualize then what this game would mean to these players and a generation of ballers from Indiana.
These men are old now. Some of them hobbled to center court to receive their pins, to acknowledge the official proclamation from Indianapolis and Gary and to put their hands on the championship trophy. One of them, Stanford Patton, an Attucks player, still goes to the playground and shoots baskets because he still can.
The race stuff is still complicated, seemingly impossible at times to figure out.
None of them can be untangled from that past, but the game, at its very core, is not about race. It’s about brotherhood and teamwork and never forgetting where you came from, no matter what color you are.