Just a little less than 57 years have passed since that December night in Madison Square Garden, but George Wilson can hear the echoes of his place in history after all this time.
“And, starting for Cincinnati: guard Tony Yates … guard Tom Thacker … forward Ron Bonham … center Paul Hogue … and forward George Wilson,” he said, mimicking a PA-announcer voice. “Did you hear what I said?”
What was so remarkable about that group of five basketball players? Well, certainly they all were terrific. Bonham, Hogue, Thacker, Wilson and Yates were named All-American at some point in their college careers; Wilson later won a gold medal for the United States in the Olympic Games. Four played professionally in the NBA. Three had appeared the prior spring in Cincinnati’s shocking NCAA title game victory over undefeated Ohio State.
MORE: Sporting News preseason All-Americans
However, the element that separated the 1961-62 Cincinnati Bearcats from pretty much every top team at the time – and what eventually would separate them from every NCAA basketball champion to that point – was that four of the five in the starting lineup were African-American: Hogue, Thacker, Wilson, Yates.
A few months after coach Ed Jucker first decided to play these five men together, they defeated favored Ohio State for the second consecutive time in the 1962 NCAA championship game. No champion before them had fielded a lineup with four African-American players.
Their achievement is relevant now because the Buckeyes and Bearcats will meet Wednesday evening at the University of Cincinnati’s rejuvenated Shoemaker Center, only the third time since that 1962 NCAA title game that the two schools have met in men’s basketball.
The banner commemorating the team’s NCAA championship, which shall evermore be obvious in the Shoe, assures those 1962 Bearcats will never be forgotten entirely. They ought to be remembered, though, and that appears to be an issue.
“Everybody kind of looks past this team and what they were,” Hall of Fame basketball writer and historian Dick “Hoops” Weiss told Sporting News. “That was a hell of a team.”
In the story of college basketball’s too-slow advance toward racial equality, nearly every other major milestone is reasonably prominent: the first African-American player drafted by the NBA (Duquesne’s Chuck Cooper), the first to play at North Carolina (Charlie Scott), and, thanks to author Andrew Maraniss, the first African-American player in the SEC (Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace).
We obviously know, and we should, about the first team to start five black players in the NCAA title game: Texas Western, now UTEP, in 1966 against an all-white five representing the Kentucky Wildcats. We know that Thomas Payne not long afterward became the first African-American to play at Kentucky.
If you search for information about the 1961-62 Bearcats’ place in history, though, you will find it strangely usurped by the 1962-63 Loyola Ramblers, who also started four African-American players and won the national championship. It became apparent during Loyola’s stirring run to the 2018 Final Four that many have misinterpreted the 1963 Ramblers’ achievement as being the first of its kind, which is doubly cruel to the Bearcats — because they were the team Loyola beat to win that season’s championship.
An announcer broadcasting a tournament game proclaimed last March that Loyola had been the first ever to win the title with such a lineup. That error also was presented on Twitter by an ESPN reporter who called Loyola’s achievement “unheard of at the time,” even though the Bearcats had done the same one year earlier. The New York Times spoke of Loyola breaking an “unwritten rule” with their lineup; Time made the same point and declared the Ramblers’ victory “helped erase such racial restrictions.” Which it did, certainly.
It just didn’t start the process.
You can do the basic research yourself, with a Twitter search or with Google, and see how many are getting it wrong.
Here’s how little attention Cincinnati’s distinction has received: When Jucker died in 2002 at age 85, his career achievements that included two NCAA championships warranted a New York Times obituary. However, the courage he demonstrated in starting four black players, at a time when many coaches declined to recruit even one, did not merit a mention in that article. When UTEP’s Don Haskins died six years later, the Times (rightfully) mentioned his decision to start five black players in the championship game in the lead.
The ascent of Cincinnati basketball toward a dynasty that included five consecutive Final Fours, three consecutive NCAA title games and the 1961 and 1962 championships began with the recruitment of the great Oscar Robertson in 1956.
He had led all-black Crispus Attucks High of Indianapolis to state championships as a junior and senior in Indiana, the team compiling a 62-1 record in those two seasons. No all-black school, anywhere, had ever had won a state basketball championship before. Those victories were celebrated with parades, but Robertson and his teammates never forgot that, whereas the predominantly white teams that won the Indiana title were invited to stop in Monument Circle and pose for pictures, the Attucks players were forced to remain on their vehicles as they rolled through the city center and kept riding back to their neighborhoods. City officials at the time feared what might happen if African-American fans were permitted to celebrate in the streets.
Robertson’s decision to enroll at Cincinnati and play for coach George Smith changed the course of the school’s athletics program. More black players began to join the Bearcats, including Hogue and Thacker. The Missouri Valley Conference had integrated more rapidly than some of the other top conferences, notably the teams at Bradley and Wichita State, where coach Ralph Miller demonstrated his opposition to the sport’s “unwritten rules.”
“They were probably among the first major conferences to recruit the black player,” Weiss said.
“That whole league was different than about anybody else that we played against,” Lanny Van Eman, then a high-scoring guard for the Shockers and later a coach at major colleges and in the NBA, told SN.
There were several southern outposts in the Valley, however, and the African-American Bearcats players often were housed separately from their teammates before road games at places such as North Texas.
“Oscar used to tell us when they went down to Denton, Texas, how he and Johnny Bryant couldn’t eat with the team and the team stayed in one part of the motel and Oscar and Johnny stayed in the little cottages in the back,” Wilson told SN. “When Bonham and I came up, all of the players told Jucker at the time if we can’t stay together, we don’t play together. So we go down to Texas in my sophomore year and guess what? We all stayed up in the big place at the hotel, and we all ate. And we went down to Tulsa and the same thing.
“And, of course, we kept winning and winning and winning.”
Wilson had grown up in Chicago, but was introduced to segregation during his own high school career, when his team from Marshall High went “downstate” to play for the Illinois state championship. Wilson said his team’s bus stopped front of the hotel the school administration had booked in the Champagne area. The owner was waiting out front as the Marshall athletic director stepped down.
They had a conversation, and Wilson said it started to appear animated. When it ended, the AD stepped back on the bus and said to the driver, “I don’t know what is wrong with me. Can you tell me where this motel is?’ So he gave a piece of paper to the bus driver, and we drove probably 8-10 miles to a brand-new motel. So that’s where we stayed,” Wilson said.
“He told us 25 years later, that owner looked on the bus and saw all those black faces and said, ‘Those blankety-blanks are not going to sleep in the beds that my customers sleep in.’ And he refused. Sometimes bad things happen to you, and you can either be mad and let it get to you or you can turn it around and make the best. And that’s what happened to us. We won the state.”
Because the conversation called for it, George Wilson mentioned the name of his former coach several times during an hour of reminiscing about his career with the Cincinnati Bearcats.
Wilson did not refer to Ed Jucker by his first name. He did not call him “Coach.” It simply was “Jucker”. OK, it wasn’t that simple. Because each time Wilson felt it necessary to mention Jucker, he prefaced it with, “God rest his soul.” Not once — every time. This is how Jucker is revered by those who played for him.
“He was one wonderful man,” Wilson told SN. “He would talk to you like a father. That’s why we played so hard.
“He sort of told me one day how much hell he caught when I started. Before that, I might go in and Paul might come out, and it was never more than three. We kept winning, and then we went to the Holiday Festival in New York City, Madison Square Garden. Well, the climate up there was different. God rest his soul, Jucker was smart enough to start us in the city of New York. And we won the tournament.
“Jucker got so many hate letters and postcards. ‘Blank-blank-blank, why you starting the blank-blank blacks?’ He caught holy H when we started four. He got nasty letters after he beat Ohio State the year before with the three, and then when I started that was four — Oh, man. We just had to go through that part of history, and so we made it through.”
When the Bearcats experienced their first loss of the 1961-62 season, in a road game at Wichita State, they still had not made the lineup change that ultimately would help carry them to the Final Four and beyond.
“That was a special team,” Van Eman, said. “My senior year, they had been national champions the year before, and then on a last-second shot that I happened to make, we beat them and broke their … winning streak.
“Cincinnati was just so well-coached. Jucker was a little bit innovative in the offense he used to take advantage of Ron Bonham’s shooting and also Thacker’s play. He was a very difficult matchup. He was probably their most valuable player. They had been a fastbreak team with Oscar, but Jucker went to more of a control game.”
The Wichita loss was one of only two all season the Bearcats would experience, the other coming on the road against Bradley. However, those two Missouri Valley Conference defeats meant Cincinnati and Bradley tied for the regular-season conference championship with 10-2 records. To decide which team would receive the automatic — and, remember, only — Valley bid to the NCAA Tournament, Cincinnati and Bradley played a one-game playoff in Evansville 11 days after the season’s final game.
The Bearcats won by 15. Wilson did a defensive number on Bradley star Chet Walker, now enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, holding him to 7-of-19 shooting. For the Bearcats, Bonham was 9 of 13 from the floor and scored 18.
“If we had lost that game,” Wilson said, “you wouldn’t be making this phone call.”
The breadth of Cincinnati’s dynasty is not widely acknowledged or celebrated as an important element of college basketball’s history. From Robertson’s staggering greatness to the achievement of reaching five consecutive Final Fours to standing as one of only six programs to win back-to-back championships, “You would think that alone would put them in the top class,” Weiss said.
Although Jucker’s teams at Cincinnati eventually won 92 percent of their NCAA Tournament games and lost only seven games overall in his first three seasons, he was not an immediate sensation.
In Robertson’s last season, the Bearcats went 28-2 while averaging 86.7 points per game. They topped the 100-point mark four times. Robertson was good for 33.7 points per night himself.
With Robertson gone, however, and Smith accepting the athletic director position and putting Jucker in charge of the basketball team, it maybe didn’t make as much sense to play such a fast-paced style. At least, that’s how Jucker saw it. His patient approach led to the Bearcats scoring nearly 12 fewer points per game. And they lost three of their first seven. Fans were angry.
They got over it when the Bearcats finished the season on a 22-game winning streak, including the overtime upset of Ohio State in the championship game. The Buckeyes, featuring superstar Jerry Lucas and future pros Larry Siegfried, John Havlicek and Mel Nowell, had beaten Saint Joseph’s in the semifinals by 26 points and were expected to cruise past the Bearcats as well. But the two teams fought their way to overtime, and Cincinnati prevailed behind double-figure scoring from Bob Wiesenhahn, Carl Bouldin, Thacker and Yates.
The opportunity for Buckeyes revenge came a year later, with OSU still the favored team even though Cincinnati was riding its winning streak and carrying the banner of reigning champions. Lucas was that great as a college player, and his teammates were outstanding, as well.
The Cincinnati lineup that placed the 6-8 Wilson adjacent to 6-9 Hogue was more challenging in some ways, though, than the one the Buckeyes had taken to overtime the year before.
Lucas had hurt his knee in OSU’s semifinal win over Wake Forest. “He tried to play and wasn’t the same player,” Weiss said. He scored only 11 points on 5-of-17 shooting, though he did grab 16 rebounds. Hogue scored 22 points and grabbed 19 rebounds for the Bearcats and Thacker contributed 21. Wilson added 11 rebounds for the Bearcats.
“All I can tell you is they were stronger in rebounding, experience, confidence and had a bigger front line than ’61,” Nowell told SN. “Lucas got hurt in the semifinal and couldn’t finish the game when it was still in doubt.”
The Bearcats and Buckeyes have played men’s basketball against each other only twice since that night: As part of a doubleheader in 2006 on a neutral court in Indianapolis, and then in the Sweet 16 of the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
It might seem an oddity that two such accomplished programs from the same state that are separated by just 90 miles of interstate highway have so rarely met on the court, but Cincinnati always has been somewhat sequestered from the rest of Ohio. It is a city with tastes and concerns largely its own. Paul Daugherty, for decades a columnist for the Cincinnati Enquirer, calls it the “Republic of Cincinnati” for that reason.
DECOURCY: The (still) cursed live of a Cincinnati sports fan
When the Bearcats needed a showcase opener for their renovated home, however, second-year Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann agreed to make the short trip. “Games like this are good for college basketball,” he told SN. It will be the first OSU visit to Cincinnati’s campus in 98 years.
Wilson plans to be at the game. He remains a popular sports figure in the city, a legend for those who at least grasp what it meant to Cincinnati to win back-to-back NCAA titles.
He has seen amazing racial progress in his lifetime, from the episodic segregation of his teens to his participation on a college champion comprising primarily African-Americans to the election of an African-American president when Wilson was in his 60s. He still is reminded, sometimes harshly, of the ground that remains to be covered.
“I was racially profiled when I went into a store,” Wilson said.
He was shopping for some electronics components, picked up a flyer at the entrance to the store and began to walk down the side aisle. “Now, when you go into a big department store the last six, seven, eight years, how often do you see anybody to help you? So as I walk around I see this one woman looking at me. I kept walking and I turned in this one aisle, and she was there, and the manager was standing there. ‘Can I help you?’ I said, ‘Nah, if I need anything, I’ll let you know.’ So I kept going and as I was walking around, she was still following me, basically.
“After I left, it dawned on me: They had racially profiled me. There were no blacks in the store except me. I thought about it, and a week later I called back to the store to speak to the manager and said I wanted to have a meeting. I went over, told them what happened. They knew what happened. That stuff happens every day.
“It’s changed. It’s a different book, but it’s the same cover, right?”
Source: Read Full Article