Unfair all-star vote a lesson in racism 60 years later

Sometimes we feel that the past is past, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But sometimes there are lessons waiting for us back there. 

Recently, I’ve been putting some thought into the 1962-63 basketball team from South Bend Central High School. I had started listening to Central’s basketball games on the radio when I was 8 years old. It was my first favorite team.

The players’ names still sound like magic to me. Curt Crittendon, Mike Otolski and John McCollum. Mike Warren and Jimmy Ward. 

My favorite player was DeWitt Menyard, the 6-foot-9 center. I had never heard the name like DeWitt, and I was in awe that anyone that tall could be living in my city.

The Bears ended up with a 26-3 record – losing at Michigan City, a notoriously difficult place to play in that era; against South Bend Washington in the holiday tournament on Washington’s home court; and in the state final game against Muncie Central, 65-61.

Ward and Warren, two junior guards, starred on that team. Warren led with 461 points and Ward was second with 319. In my mind, they were inseparable – Ward and Warren, Warren and Ward.

Their paths diverged in a way that was unfortunate but common for the Sixties. Warren, recruited by Wooden to attend UCLA, became an all-American guard on UCLA’s NCAA basketball champions in 1967 and 1968. He had offers to play in the pros, but he stayed in Los Angeles and was successful as a TV actor.

Ward didn’t have the grades or temperament for college. While Warren was playing at UCLA, Ward was still in South Bend, playing in the city recreation league with the West Washington Street Senators. He didn’t have Warren as a teammate or a coach like Wooden to guide him. On Oct. 12, 1967, Ward was running from a burglary scene when he was shot and killed by a South Bend police officer.

That was 55 years ago. I once thought about writing a book about this because it seems like the same choices often are being made by young Black men now. A few thrive. Others die. 

I’m not writing that book. I don’t want to be another white author commenting on Black issues. In part, that’s because I’m still coming to terms with quiet racism and my own role in it.

One of my readings lately was from a May 11, 1963, copy of the weekly Indianapolis Recorder, which served Black readers statewide. The story was about the 1963 Indiana high school basketball all-star team, our best graduating seniors, picked to play a charity game against Kentucky’s top players. 

All 10 Indiana players were white.

South Bend Central’s Crittendon, who is Black, was named an alternate to that team. He had scored 313 points for the Bears that season and was named to several honorary all-state teams, as were Menyard, Warren and Ward. 

In an interview with the Recorder, he expressed appreciation for being named an alternate but added, “I never thought I’d see the year when a Negro player was not good enough to make the all-star team.” 

If not him, Menyard should have been picked. “DeWitt did a real good job for us all season long,” Crittendon said. “He should have made the team. I guess maybe they were looking for the flashy players this year.”

A week later, the Recorder carried an angry response from Fred L. Corts, the game director. Race had nothing to do with this, Corts said. The team was selected fairly by a vote of 100-plus sportswriters and radio sportscasters from throughout the state.

This snub wasn’t a fluke. The next year, Ward and Warren, as graduating seniors, were eligible. But again, 10 white players were chosen for the 1964 team. No Black players.

Here’s how the deck was stacked. Like Corts explained, the all-star team was selected by sportswriters and radio sportscasters in the state’s 92 counties. 

St. Joseph County – with a racially diverse population of 238,000 or so – had a vote, either from the Tribune or from WSBT radio. Blackford County, with a population of maybe 15,000, likely had one, too, as did media outlets from its neighboring counties. 

I worked in Blackford County for a year and met only one Black resident. He was 3 years old and didn’t play basketball.

The demographics are pretty much the same way now, if you think about it. Of Indiana’s counties, 87 have minority populations of 10 percent of less. In 56 counties, the percentage is less than 1. In 37, it’s less than half a percent.

So, in 1963 and 1964, white basketball fans may have heard of Black players like Crittendon, Ward or Warren, but they were spending their Friday and Saturday nights watching white kids from Columbus, Tipton or Loogootee.

When votes were counted in 1963, the white sports experts in all these white counties ended up electing two white players from Muncie and one each from East Chicago, Columbus, Evansville Rex Mundi, Southport, Broad Ripple, Southwood and Loogootee.

In 1964, it was two each from Lafayette, Huntington and Columbus, and one apiece from Anderson, Tipton, New Castle and Fort Wayne Concordia.

Woody Miller, the South Bend Tribune’s basketball writer, was among those who howled in protest about this apparent racism in 1964. The response from the Indianapolis Star, the game’s sponsor, was that such accusations were besmirching the reputations of the 100 other sports experts statewide. 

If you have access to newspapers.com, it is well worth your time to read Star sports editor Jep Cadou Jr.’s defense of the vote in its May 3, 1964, edition.

A year later, finally, the 1965 team had three Black players. These days – thanks in part to years of protests and an increase in awareness – a voting system would instantly lose credibility if it resulted in an all-white all-star basketball team.

On that level, it sounds like this racism problem was solved in 1965. But it makes me wonder what we are doing today that favors the equivalent of all-white teams in some areas of business, schools and government. 

For example, our state has never had a U.S. senator or a governor who was Black. No woman has been elected either. As far as I remember, no Black person or woman has ever received a Democrat and Republican nomination for those spots. It’s hard to get elected when you aren’t nominated.

The newspaper where I worked for 31 years never had a Black managing editor or a Black sports editor. I asked about that once and was told that those are positions that require many years of commitment and that Black journalists typically used the Tribune as a steppingstone. They weren’t sticking around long enough to advance to these coveted spots.

At the time, it had a sound of legitimacy. Look at it again. We create a job description that implies a lifelong commitment, and our prophecy is fulfilled when Black candidates see no chance for  advancements ahead so they move elsewhere.

I’m not one to see racism in every human transaction. Sometimes the person who succeeds did so because of talent and hard work. I just need to remember that the other guys, like Curt Crittendon, had talent and worked hard too.

A good rule of thumb might be, be suspicious if only white guys are winning. The game might be fixed.