By James Polston
INDIANAPOLIS—The Jackie Robinson of college basketball fought back against the racial slurs lobbed at him on the court from spectators and opponents the best way he knew how.
“He’d just smile, turn around and score a couple more points,” said Don Chambers of William “Bill” Garrett as he reflected on the career of his friend and teammate from Shelbyville when he played at Indiana University in the 1940s.
And score he did. The 6-foot-2-inch center graduated as Indiana University’s all-time leading scorer in 1951.
Bill Garrett attended Indiana University, becoming the first African-American to regulary play college basketball in the Big Ten. Photo by James Polston, TheStatehouseFile.com
As Robinson was breaking down racial barriers in major league baseball, Garrett was doing the same thing in big-time college basketball.
Yet today, the man who had such a large impact on basketball never got the accolades that other athletes of his caliber attained nor did he get the kind of recognition that others who broke barriers in sports received.
“He was the right guy to integrate college basketball,” Chambers said.
Garrett was born in Shelbyville in 1929, learning the game on an elementary school court and at a local gym before becoming a star player on his high school team. He led Shelbyville’s team, the Golden Bears, to a state championship in 1947 and his performance won him the title of Indiana Mr. Basketball.
For most outstanding basketball players, Indiana University would have been an obvious next step. But this was segregated Indiana in the 1940s and the schools in the Big Ten Conference at the time did not recruit African-American players.
Some African-American leaders in the community urged IU to recruit Garrett and after meetings with then-IU President Herman B Wells, the young man from Shelbyville became the first African-American to play for a Big Ten school.
Bill Garrett was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1974. Photo by James Polston, TheStatehouseFile.com
Today, Garrett’s story is not well known but James Madison, emeritus professor of history at Indiana University, said it should be.
“We are woefully ignorant of our past,” Madison said. “And we are particularly ignorant of our past that centers on stories that make us uncomfortable and no stories, no stories make us less comfortable than stories of race.”
Bob Hammel, retired sports editor for the Bloomington Herald-Times, said that acknowledging that segregation was an issue is part of the reason why Garrett’s story is not well known.
“By talking about breaking a barrier, they also confess to having the barrier and supported it,” Hammel said.
Garrett’s story should be celebrated, Madison said.
“There’s good reason to congratulate ourselves that Indiana University had Bill Garrett before most basketball teams even though about it,” he said. “That Indiana University pioneered here in the Big Ten, in college basketball, and yet behind that celebration there are all kinds of very, very unhappy stories.”
During the 1940s, Madison said Indiana was neither a southern state nor quite a northern one on segregation.
“Indiana was a little bit more on the unhappy end, on the unfortunate end, of liberty, justice and equality for all,” Madison said.
Madison described Indiana University in one word during Garrett’s time on campus—segregated.
“Into the 40s, it was difficult for an African-American student to buy food in the Union building, prohibited from swimming in the I.U. swimming pool, not belonging to the fraternities and sororities,” Madison said.
“They lived off-campus in boarding houses or private homes, they struggled to find any barber in Bloomington that would cut their hair. It was really, really tough to be an a black student at I.U. in the late 1940s.”
During Garrett’s time at Indiana University, he never play with or against an African-American in the Big Ten, but a year after graduating, there were six African-Americans playing in the league.
“Can you imagine how lonely, for example, that was for four years for not another black teammate around him and to be under the microscope the way he was,” Hammel said.
Hammel said Garrett did everything right during his time at Indiana and mentioned that if he would not have graduated or got in trouble for something, it would not have been good.
Shelbyville High School retired Bill Garrett’s jersey on Nov. 22, 2017. Photo by James Polston, TheStatehouseFile.com
Madison said that was the only way for Garrett to handle it.
“That was really the only safe and practical way to confront the depths of discrimination at that time, challenging it head on was suicide, practically speaking at least, you’d get nowhere because of the extend of it,” Madison said.
The way he stood up to the discrimination speaks to his character, he said.
“That he could play so well and be such a role model and hold his temper, as he had to do in every game, I’m certain, and everyday he was on campus,” Madison said. “That to me makes him a great American.”
Garrett played three years of varsity basketball at Indiana and at the time, graduated as the program’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder.
Following his career at Indiana University, Garrett was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1951 National Basketball Association draft, becoming the third ever African-American to get drafted into the league.
But a career in pro basketball wasn’t to be. A few months after being drafted by the Celtics, Garrett was drafted again, this time by the United States Army.
After two years of military service and being honorably discharged, Garrett returned to the states with the expectation of picking up his life where he had left off. But he learned the Celtics released him.
The Celtics were concerned that Garrett’s height, six foot-two inches, was not tall enough to play center in the NBA and uncertain about his ability to switch to playing a guard or forward position.
Also at the time, the NBA had quotas for African-American players and the Celtics already had two on their roster, according to “Everybody’s All-American,” an article about Garrett by Rachel Graham Cody. Cody and her father, Tom Graham, wrote a book about Garrett, “Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball.”
Garrett then went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters for two years before taking a job as a factory worker in Toledo, Ohio.
This was not the end of Garrett’s story.
The Shelbyville native returned to the state and was hired as the head basketball coach at Crispus Attucks in Indianapolis. He shined in that role, leading the team to the 1959 state championship, becoming the first Indiana Mr. Basketball to win a state championship as a player and a coach.
Garrett served as coach for 10 years before stepping down to become the athletic director at the school.
After that, he moved to Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana to become the director of continuing education. He was in that position for two years before becoming the assistant dean for student services at Indiana University-Purdue University of Indianapolis in 1973.
Garrett wasn’t in the new job very long when on Aug. 7, 1974, he suffered a sudden heart attack and died. He was 45.
Later that year, he was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame and the Shelbyville High School’s gymnasium was renamed the William L. Garrett Memorial Gymnasium.
In April 2017, the Indiana Historical Bureau dedicated a state historical marker on the Indiana University campus to commemorate Garrett and the integration of Big Ten basketball. The marker is installed outside the intermural center, which is the fieldhouse where Garrett once played.
Led by Bill Garrett, Shelbyville High School won the state championship in 1947. Photo by James Polston, TheStatehouseFile.com
In November 2017, during the basketball season’s opening ceremonies at Shelbyville High School, the district retired Garrett’s number nine jersey.
But that’s still not enough credit for all Garrett accomplished, Cody said.
“He’s not in the National Basketball Hall of Fame, he’s not broadly known,”
Others, like the 1966 Texas Western basketball team, are lauded for breaking down racial barriers in college basketball. That team, which started five African-Americans, and their coach, Don Haskins, are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
But Garrett was first and should be in the hall of fame, say Cody, Madison and Hammel.
“The primary goal of telling this story and of spreading this story to make the story is known to Hoosiers, certainly, but to all Americans,” Madison said. ”It’s a great American story.”
James Polston is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.