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Billy Reed: Happy to debate facts vs facts with anyone, but to be clear — Adolph Rupp was not racist

Naively, I now realize, I thought I would never again have to write the column about whether Adolph Rupp was a racist. The facts simply do not support the notion that he was. Period. Yet once again, 43 years after his death, the legendary University of Kentucky basketball coach is being attacked by some opportunists who refuse to let the facts get in the way of their prejudices and perceptions.

Inspired by the recent national uproar ignited by police brutality toward African Americans, a group of UK professors has petitioned the Board of Trustees for several changes, one of which is removing Rupp’s name from the civic arena where UK plays its home basketball games.

Adolph Rupp

On at least this one point, the Board should not give in. Obviously, the perception of Rupp as a racist lingers despite good work by media folks whose only agenda was finding the truth. I must single out Dick Gabriel of WKYT in Lexington, who spent months interviewing all sorts of people, including some who didn’t particularly like Rupp.

His documentary was journalism at its best, and his conclusion was pretty much the same as the one I had reached earlier. And I can promise you this: Had the facts shown that Rupp was a racist, I would have been leading the charge against honoring Rupp. I am humbly proud of my record for standing up on behalf of African-American coaches and athletes.

When I became the high school beat writer for the afternoon Leader in 1962, all-black Dunbar High had the best team in town. So whenever they were playing a big game at home, I would go to Dunbar and cover it. Later I was told that I was the first white reporter to cover Dunbar in person instead of doing it by telephone.

I don’t know if that’s true or not, and I didn’t think about it at the time. Others did, however. I remember a time when I covered a Dunbar game against all-black Louisville Central. Afterward, I went to the office to type my story for the next afternoon’s Leader. Unfortunately, I ran into the city editor of The Herald.

“What game did you cover tonight?” he asked.

“Central and Dunbar,” I replied.

“What are you? Some kind of n—– lover?”

“No, sir,” I said. “It was just the best game in town, that’s all.”

Attention of a different kind came from the Dunbar players.

“You probably didn’t notice,” former Dunbar star Joe Hamilton once told me, “but we always checked to see if you were at the press table. We knew you would give us a fair shake.”

I’m humbly proud that I stood up for African-American players and coaches. And I was happy in 1963 when Gov. Ned Breathitt and UK president John Oswald announced that the university’s coaches, including Rupp and football coach Charlie Bradshaw, were free to recruit African-American athletes.

The most important thing to remember about Rupp was his obsession for winning. When UCLA’s John Wooden won back-to-back national titles in 1962 and ’63 with teams led by African-American guard Walt Hazzard, Rupp realized that his record of four NCAA titles was in jeopardy. So in 1964, he offered a scholarship to Westley Unseld, a burly 6-6 African-American who had led Louisville Seneca High to back-to-back state championships.

Unseld’s mother asked Rupp if he would be able to guarantee her son’s safety when UK played in the Deep South. Rupp honestly answered her that he could not. In 1964, remember, the Ku Klux Klan still was quite active in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Only a year earlier, Alabama governor George Wallace had stood on the front steps of Foster Auditorium, where the Crimson Tide played basketball, and pledged the state would have “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.”

The next year, Rupp was confident he was going to sign Butch Beard, the African-American star who had led Breckinridge County to the state title. In fact, it seemed like so much a “done deal” that Sports Illustrated sent young writer Frank Deford to Lexington to do a story about it.

At the last minute, however, Beard reversed his field and joined Unseld at the University of Louisville. Many years later, Beard told me he jilted UK because one day after school, he came home and found a white man sitting on his porch. The guy had a shotgun and told Beard he would kill him if he went to UK.

Had Unseld come to UK, he would have been the sophomore center on the 1965-’66 team, known as “Rupp’s Runts” because no starter was taller than 6-foot-5, instead of Thad Jaracz. Even as it was, UK was ranked No. 1 most of the season. SI sent Deford back to Lexington to do a cover story on how the team had revived Rupp’s career, and Rupp loved it.

I’ve often said that the worst thing ever to happen to Rupp was UK’s victory over an all-white Duke team in the NCAA Tournament semifinals. Had UK lost, it would have been the Blue Devils, not the Wildcats, who played Texas Western for the title, and Rupp would have been spared a lot of stereotyping.

Although Texas Western coach Don Haskins had frequently played a white player in his starting lineup during the season, he played the race card in the championship game, starting five African-Americans against all-white UK. Then as now, it was a historic contrast that could not be ignored, even though many publications did so. In those days, race was the province of the news department, not the sports department.

The tone of the game was set early on, when Miners’ guard Bobby Joe Hill stole the ball from both Louie Dampier and Tommy Kron, the UK guards. The Miners proved to be quicker and strong, especial with UK forward Larry Conley suffering from the flu. The final score – Texas Western 72, UK 66 – was celebrated in black communities throughout the country. It was called an upset, but it really wasn’t. Texas Western was the best team in the country, but didn’t get much attention because El Paso isn’t exactly a hotbed of college basketball.

A rumor after the game had it that Rupp had let SI’s Deford into the UK locker room at halftime and that Frank had overheard Rupp making some racist remarks. But none of the UK players could remember Deford being in the locker room. When I asked Frank about it years later, he neither denied nor confirmed it, which was unlike Frank. But it was clear he didn’t want to talk about it.

The morning after the game, I was at Lexington’s Blue Grass Field to meet UK’s chartered flight. The players were loaded up in a bus and taken to UK’s Memorial Coliseum, where thousands of fans had gathered to thank perhaps the most popular team in Wildcat history.

I rode in a police car with Rupp in the front seat. Throughout the 20-minute ride, he never talked about race. He talked about Texas Western’s quickness and Conley’s sickness, but not once about race. He had no reason to hold back, either, because I was about the same age as his players and just as intimidated by him as they were. Plus, I worked for his good friend Fred Wachs, publisher of The Lexington Herald-Leader, and he had to know I wasn’t about to write anything that would make Mr. Wachs unhappy.

After the Beard disappointment, Rupp didn’t quit trying. He and his supporters pointed out that he had coached an African-American on his team at Freeport, IL, High, his last job before coming to UK in 1930; that he had been an assistant coach on the 1948 U.S. Olympic team that included African-American Don Barksdale of UCLA; and that when St. John’s or somebody outside the South brought a black player to Lexington, Rupp always asked the fans to treat him with respect. Usually, his vehicle for the last was sports editor Ed Ashford’s column in The Herald.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award three times. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades and is perhaps one of the most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby. His book “Last of a BReed” is available on Amazon.

However, UK didn’t break the color barrier in basketball until 1969, when Rupp signed 7-1 Tom Payne out of Louisville Shawnee High. If Rupp was hoping Payne would do for UK what Alcindor did for UCLA – three consecutive NCAA titles – he was badly mistaken. In Payne’s sophomore season of 1970-’71, he averaged 16.9 points for a 22-6 UK team that was eliminated in the NCAA Mideast Regional, one game short of the Final Four.

After that season, Payne took advantage of the NBA’s “hardship” rule and signed with the Atlanta Hawks. But he was convicted of multiple rapes in and around that city, and was sent to prison in the mid-1970s.

The first African-American to play in the Southeastern Conference was Vanderbilt’s Perry Wallace, a sophomore the year after “Rupp’s Runts.” I had done a long interview with him when Vandy’s freshman team came to Lexington, and he later told me It was the most sympathetic piece that had been done about him to that point. The next year, he told me he enjoyed playing in Lexington because it was maybe the only place in the SEC where he wasn’t subjected to abusive remarks from the stands.

The media let Rupp, who died in 1977, rest in peace until 1991, when another of my former colleagues at SI, Curry Kirkpatrick, did a story about the UK-Texas Western game to observe its 25th anniversary. Among SI’s fact-checkers, Curry had a reputation for sometimes playing fast and loose with the facts. He certainly did in this piece, and it cemented the idea that Rupp was a racist into the minds of younger readers.

The Gabriel documentary should have settled the issue forever. Obviously, it didn’t, and that’s a shame not only for Rupp, but for UK. Any university or college is supposed to be a bastion of truth, places where facts rule supreme. But the professors who requested the removal of Rupp’s name from the arena must think it’s better to assassinate a person’s character in order to be politically correct than to make the truth sacred.

I would love to debate the professors based entirely on facts, not opinions or perceptions. I would bring my facts and they could bring theirs. I would be agreeable to letting the head of the history department be the moderator.

But they won’t accept this challenge because they couldn’t win. Let me say again, for the umpteenth time, that the facts do not support the perception that Adolph Rupp was a racist.

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One Comment

  1. Paul Borden says:

    Good column. Billy. This and Dick Gabriel’s work should settle the issue, but I fear it will not. They’ve already made up their minds. One small correction. Wooden’s first two titles were 1964 and ’65. Cincy won in 1962 and Loyola (a great story in itself with 4 Black starters) won the ’63 title.

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