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Attucks' win helped race relations

Here's what they knew: They won.

Oh, they knew it meant something, too. The cheer in Butler Fieldhouse told them. So did the fire-truck ride through the streets of Indianapolis, all the way down to Monument Circle and then back up to Northwestern Park for a bonfire that brought pretty much the whole North Side and even some of the West Side out to celebrate. And the fact they could eat in a downtown restaurant -- that one really let the Crispus Attucks High School basketball team know its feat was nothing small.

But exactly what the Tigers did on March 19, 1955 -- they became the first all-black basketball team to win a state-sanctioned championship, anywhere, in any state -- were the players even aware of it?

"Actually, to be honest," Oscar Robertson said, "I didn't realize that had happened. I don't think anybody did."

Many people still don't. The players do, of course, now. Basketball enthusiasts and historians know about Attucks, at least some of them. Students currently attending the school, which reopened in 2006 after nearly 20 years as a junior high, still hear the stories, and an on-site museum still boasts many of the memories.

But consider this: In 1954, just one year before Attucks' triumph, a team from the little town of Milan, Ind., shocked the state and, ultimately, the nation by beating big, bad Muncie Central for the championship. They made a movie about it in 1986: "Hoosiers." The Milan Miracle still is known as one of the greatest achievements in all of sports.

Meanwhile, the school Milan beat in the 1954 quarterfinals -- that would be Attucks -- faded mostly into popular-culture footnote, despite its eventual accomplishment. The Tigers returned the following season, hungrier. Better. Dominant. They finished with just one loss, and pounded Gary Roosevelt -- another all-black team -- in the championship game 97-74. In doing so, Attucks not only became the first all-black U.S. team to win a title, it became the first team from the city of Indianapolis to win the Indiana High School Athletics Association's top basketball trophy, in 45 years of competition.

The story isn't completely hidden; it was told by filmmaker Betsy Blankenbaker in the 2007 documentary "Something to Cheer About," and is related on the pages of several basketball books, including Phillip M. Hoose's "Hoosiers: The Fabulous Basketball Life of Indiana." But still Attucks falls mostly outside the sports pop-culture lexicon, despite the presence of star power (Robertson, who went on to be one of the NBA's greats), race relations (good and bad, before and after), the improvement of a community and a city, and the allure of many "firsts" (including the following year's Attucks team, which went 31-0 -- the first in Indiana to finish a season undefeated).

Even Bobby Plump -- the man who hit Milan's winning shot in 1954, and the model for the "Hoosiers" character Jimmy Chitwood -- doesn't dispute how much Attucks' achievement meant.

"When you break a barrier, that's significant," Plump said. "There was a lot more historical significance, I think, to what they did than what we did."

Even instantly, the Attucks achievement was enormous.

Importance

The players themselves mostly just wanted to win. On the court, they were basketball players. On the court, they were competitors.

"It meant a lot to you as an athlete," Robertson said.

The people around the players, though, saw more than just W's and L's and hometown or home-school pride.

Take Clifford Robinson, a 1953 Attucks alumnus who served as the team's student manager during his high school years before attending St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind. (about 100 miles northwest of Indianapolis). Robinson was an Indianapolis native who "grew up in the shadow of the school" and during a time of intense racial tension in the city and the country. So yes, he saw the victory's scope.

"It may be a stretch," Robinson said, "but for those of us in Indianapolis -- and I would assume for many blacks throughout the state -- it was, on a smaller scale, or maybe on the same scale at that time, as [President Barack] Obama's election. I mean, it was just that thrilling."

Hallie Bryant -- another 1953 Attucks graduate who won Indiana's Mr. Basketball that year and played at Indiana University before becoming a Harlem Globetrotter, author and motivational speaker -- also felt it. Just as in most time periods and with most people, Bryant said, the black community in the 1950s had icons -- people or organizations with whom it identified.

"During that era," Bryant said, "it was Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, the Harlem Globetrotters and Crispus Attucks."

There was even more to it. In ways, Attucks' title actually was an issue of black and white -- as in, both blacks and whites rallied around the team. No, it didn't come instantly. And no, it wasn't all-encompassing. But because the Tigers were so talented, so entertaining, so high-scoring (their point total still is an Indiana championship-game record), and yet so disciplined ("Not only were they great players," Plump said, "they were a class act") -- because of that, the gyms always were packed, according to players, home and away and with people of all colors. When they won, Indianapolis as a whole seemed to swell with pride in the city's first championship in its darling sport.

"We started to bring the white community along with us," Attucks player Sam Milton said.

"It really helped race relations in the city of Indianapolis," Robertson said. "No doubt about it."

Of course, it didn't fix them. One could argue that they're still not fixed, not anywhere. But some players, looking back on their achievement, see the growing sense of togetherness.

So why no widespread popularity for Attucks' win? Perhaps there was another factor …

Dominance

"It's different," Plump said of Milan versus Attucks. "Because everybody likes an underdog, and we were an underdog. We were a small school. So we got a lot of play because of the underdog [factor]. … We never thought we were an underdog, but everybody else did."

The same couldn't be said of Attucks. The Tigers did lose once in 1954-55 -- to Connersville High School, by one point, in a slowed-down game played on a slippery court that sat above a swimming pool ("We were sliding all over the place," Milton said) -- but player John Gipson said they took that as a "wake-up call," and another close game (71-70 against Muncie Central in the state quarterfinals) went Attucks' way.

The rest of the time, the Tigers usually blew out opponents with their fast-but-under-control style and their seemingly endless array of talent (the majority of the team's members went on to play in college): Bill Brown, Johnny Mack Brown, Willie Burnley, John Clemons, Gipson, Bill Hampton, Willie Merriweather, Milton, Sheddrick Mitchell, Stanford Patton, Robertson and Bill Scott.

"They were dominating," Plump said. "I'm glad we played them in '54, and not in '55 or '56."

Of course, it all started with Robertson, aka "The Big O," who was named Indiana's Mr. Basketball the following year before starring at the University of Cincinnati and then in the NBA.

"He was the man," Milton said of the man who scored 30 points in the title game.

On the court, maybe. But on the sidelines, there was someone else.

Leadership

"He meant a lot to all the guys on the team," Robertson said.

"He gave respect and he demanded respect," Bryant said. "And you wanted to go to bat for him. You didn't want to let him down like you don't want to let your parents down."

"He was fair, he was tough-minded," Robinson said. "He was Attucks."

He was Ray Crowe. A graduate of the mostly white Whiteland (Ind.) High School, located a few miles south of Indianapolis, Crowe started as a junior high teacher at Indianapolis Public School 17. There, he made his mark immediately.

"Here was a guy," Robinson said, "young, athletic, well-dressed, intelligent -- all the things that you wanted to see that you had admired in an individual."

He took over as Attucks coach before the 1950-51 season, inheriting a program that hadn't won a sectional basketball title in its history. The Tigers went to the state final four that year.

Four seasons later, Crowe, assistant Al Spurlock and the Tigers were on top, and in more ways than one. And Crowe did more than just coach -- he made sure his players went to school and, in some cases, had lunch money if they needed it.

"He was just a helpful, nice guy," Milton said of the late Crowe (he died in 2003), who coached just seven seasons but amassed a record of 179-20, "and a hell of a coach."

… and a hell of a man, who quit in 1957 to become Attucks' athletic director and later was elected to the state legislature.

… and a hell of a disciplinarian -- but not just in terms of keeping his players out of trouble. Another key to Crowe's success was keeping his players under control on the court, helping them block out all that went on around them.

Adversity

Some towns were kind to the visiting Tigers. Some teams, Milton said, "just played ball," with no names or bad words from players or fans. And often, Attucks athletic director Alonzo Watford -- another key school leader -- would travel to these burgs weeks in advance, making sure his team would have access to food and a semi-friendly environment, shielding the players from any potential incident.

But many of the team's road trips still featured bad calls ("We always said we were playing seven men," Milton said, "five ballplayers, two referees") and sack dinners on the bus rides home, no restaurants -- just like back in Indianapolis.

That Attucks even played so many out-of-town games in distant little villages was an issue itself. Long unsanctioned by the IHSAA, Attucks often was snubbed by the white city schools, leaving Catholic schools and the ones in little towns as its only opponents, even after the association allowed the city schools to schedule Attucks. The Tigers also didn't have a home gym, although they played a number of "home games" at Butler Fieldhouse (now Hinkle Fieldhouse) and filled the place on many nights. There, despite their popularity, Gipson recalls how he and teammates were forced to stay in the locker room at the Fieldhouse while white teams warmed up on an auxiliary court.

Even after the team won the title, not everyone raised their arms in celebration. That parade route -- the one that took the Tigers around the Circle and then out to Northwestern Park -- that wasn't typical. Usually teams stayed downtown and celebrated. Not Attucks.

"[Officials] thought the blacks were going to tear the town up," Robertson said, "and they thought the whites wouldn't like it."

The players said they didn't know it at the time. Part of that was because they were insulated, by Watford and Crowe and other administrators. But even the adversity they faced up close, Crowe kept insisting his players rise above it -- on the court, and off it.

Achievement

Years after leaving Attucks and later watching his alma mater win its historic title, Bryant serves as an "edu-tainer." One of his messages: Look at things differently, and not always through a bitter, negative lens. So, remembering his time at Attucks, Bryant is quick to point out: "A lot of good stuff happened, too."

Like Attucks itself.

Started in 1927, during segregation (and named for Crispus Attucks, a black man who was killed in the 1770 Boston Massacre), the school quickly became a beacon for the black community -- an institution filled with a highly educated, all-black staff, and one that not only stressed academics, but "taught you how to manage yourself and get along with all people," Bryant said.

Even after Indiana passed a desegregation law in 1949, students who lived in other districts and who could have gone to those public schools instead stuck with Attucks. The school often is credited with creating educational opportunities for all its students, not just the basketball players who earned athletic scholarships.

Gradually, though, things changed. Enrollment declined. The school integrated in the early 1970s. Then, in 1986, in what was considered to be a cost-cutting move, Attucks became a junior high -- amid much community dissent. But in 2006, it reopened its doors to high schoolers in 2006 as a medical magnet school -- to much celebration.

Today

In 2008, Attucks began varsity athletic competition again, with athletic director/head basketball coach Greg Orr inviting former players and cheerleaders back for the Tigers' opening game in early December. Some shared stories with players, shaking hands and passing on history. Even ones unable to attend said they're happy to bring back basketball to a place with such history (Attucks won 45 games in a row during the 1954-55 and 1955-56 seasons, and also claimed the 1959 state title).

In 2009, that history was honored even further. After renovation, the school's museum celebrated its grand reopening on Feb. 2. On Feb. 19, Robertson and Bryant were among five players whose jerseys were retired during a ceremony at Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the Indiana Pacers.

And in 2010, Crispus Attucks High School will graduate its first class in its new incarnation. Will the basketball team be a winner by then? Possibly. Will it return to its past glory? Probably not.

But that glory still is there, even if it's a little hidden. And even if, at the time, the players couldn't quite comprehend its meaning.

They do now.

"It was a majestic accomplishment," Gipson said. "It was something else. I can't even put it into words."

Patrick Dorsey is a high school sports reporter for The Indianapolis Star.