Breaking barriers

The 1946 IU head basketball coach Branch McCracken pondered a question as the crowd held its breath. McCracken was publicly asked about “Jumpin’ Johnny” Wilson, a black man from Anderson who was named Mr. Basketball later that year. Wilson wanted to play for IU, but McCracken, in accordance with the Big Ten gentlemen’s agreement, had never recruited a black basketball player. That night in the Anderson YMCA, a man stood up and confronted the coach with that question.

“Coach,” the stranger asked, according to “Getting Open” by Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody, “Can Wilson play for IU?”

McCracken waited a moment – which could have been his greatest – to declare his intentions to not recruit one of Indiana’s greatest centers.

He broke the still silence.

McCracken looked up and stated, “I don’t think he could make my team.”

Once the word “team” was uttered, an individual named Johnny Wilson was washed away in the tide of segregation.

Though McCracken’s intentions were blurry, the imagery was clear: the gentlemen’s agreement, soaked in irony, blackballed blacks from playing Big Ten basketball. But a local activist named Faburn DeFrantz refused to see that same tide that swept up Wilson and Bill Garrett, who had just led the Shelbyville Golden Bears to a state championship. DeFrantz had to convince both then-IU President Herman B Wells and McCracken to let him play. Wells agreed if Garrett could make the grades. McCracken agreed if Garrett could make the team – giving Indiana’s 1947 Mr. Basketball the opportunity that Wilson never had.

Once McCracken nodded, DeFrantz jumped out of his seat and exclaimed, “God bless you, Branch McCracken! They’re going to remember you for this, Coach!”

McCracken responded, “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Five months after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball, Garrett broke it in Big Ten basketball. He arrived in Bloomington as a black boy trapped in a whirlwind of white.

Throughout his collegiate career, Garrett kept his composure despite being blasted daily by hate. He never lost his temper on the court, and he never let the racial tension turn him to tears when he was off the court. From his sophomore to his senior season the 6-foot-2-inch center was the Hoosiers’ leading scorer and rebounder, despite battling opposing white players nearly a foot taller. In his last season Garrett was a consensus second team All-American, recognized among the country’s three best college centers. His teammates voted him IU’s most valuable player, and Big Ten coaches and sportswriters voted him onto the All-Big Ten first team. It appeared that Garrett had soared above expectations and risen over the tide of segregation.

Or had he?

In the final game of Garrett’s career with the “Hurryin’ Hoosiers,” a crowd of 10,000 stood in the IU Fieldhouse (now the Ora Wildemuth Intramural Center) to say goodbye to their seniors. As the clock counted down, reserve center Don Luft tore off his warm-ups and hopped onto the hardwood to replace Garrett. The stadium shook in support for Garrett, a man who had silenced segregationists with his jump shot.

Garrett never lost his composure.

Two days later, Garrett was in the backseat of Phil Buck’s 1939 Chevy. The two teammates, along with friend Gene Ring, were heading back to Bloomington from Indianapolis. They pulled into a diner off of State Road 37. The diner’s marquee read “Hurryin’ Hoosiers’ Fans Welcome.” As they settled into a corner booth, the lone waiter working came towards the men. Before they could say the word “burger,” the waiter bellowed, “I can feed the two of you,” pointing to Buck and Ring, “but not him.” Buck and Ring went pale, as Garrett slid out of his seat and slowly walked back to the car.

As they continued down 37, Garrett apologized to his friends. He was sitting in the backseat of the ’39 Chevy when Garrett finally lost his composure.

He cried uncontrollably, tears streaming from his eyes.

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