Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball

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9780253220462: Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball

In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, Bill Garrett integrated college basketball. By joining the basketball program at Indiana University, he broke the gentleman's agreement that had barred black players from the Big Ten, college basketball's most important conference. While enduring taunts from opponents and pervasive segregation at home and on the road, Garrett became the best player Indiana had ever had, an all-American, and in 1951, the third African American drafted in the NBA. Within a year of his graduation from IU, there were six African American basketball players on Big Ten teams. Soon tens, then hundreds, and finally thousands walked through the door Garrett had opened.


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About the Author:

Tom Graham grew up in Bill Garrett's hometown and played basketball on the freshman team at Indiana University, before graduating from Harvard Law School. He practiced international law in Geneva, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Rachel Graham Cody is a graduate of Swarthmore College and Harvard Divinity School, where her focus was African American studies. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: October 15, 1943

Indian summer came late to Shelbyville, a welcome respite in hard times. The war in Europe and the Pacific was taking the lives of American soldiers at a rate of more than six thousand a month -- some of them local boys drafted straight out of high school -- and though the conflict was starting to turn in the Allies' favor, the end was not yet in sight and the outcome was still uncertain.

Fear for the boys at war hung over the small Indiana town like a gray net. Families traced their loved ones' movements with stickpins and crayons on giant maps spread across kitchen tables and tried to guess where their soldiers might be headed next. Starred flags dotted windows all over town, blue for a family member in military service, gold for a son or father who would not return. A few days earlier, a fight had broken out at Walt's Bar & Grille when a farmer had boasted of high wartime grain prices, saying, "This is the best year I've ever had," and a mechanic, with a son overseas, had responded with a right cross.

There were also wartime shortages: gasoline, coffee, sugar, and most other staples were rationed. But shortages did not bring dread of the next news bulletin, and making do with little was nothing new to a population that had just come through the Great Depression. In Shelbyville, as throughout the country, people were accustomed to low expectations and were told to be grateful for any job, eat what was put in front of them, wear what they had, and not whine or make trouble. Irving Berlin had captured the prevailing mood in song: "This is the army, Mr. Jones! No private rooms or telephones!"

On this warm day almost two years into the war, in the shops and offices on Shelbyville's public square, men too old to be soldiers rolled up the sleeves of their white dress shirts and loosened their short, broad ties. Everywhere radios played low in the background, the surface calm belying ears and nerves alert for news. In neat frame houses along side streets women dusted and ironed to the click and rattle of electric fans, hurrying to finish and freshen up before their men came home to have their supper, listen to Gabriel Heatter deliver the day's news with feeling ("There's good neeeews tonight!"), and sit on the porch swing to read the Shelbyville Democrat.

In other times and other states people might call a sunny fall day like this a football afternoon, but in Indiana's high schools it was the first day of basketball tryouts, and war or no war, few high school boys across the state could think of anything else.

At Shelbyville High School, a three-story redbrick rectangle in the town's south end, 560 boys and girls fidgeted in their homerooms waiting for the 3:20 bell. In one of those rooms five boys, the school's entire contingent of black freshmen, sat across the back now. Nearest the window Bill Garrett leaned back, stretched his arms, brought his hands together, right thumb against open left palm, and squeezed off an imaginary one-hander, his right wrist flopping forward on the follow-through. On the cusp of being handsome, three months shy of his fifteenth birthday, copper-skinned and wiry with a long rectangle of a face, Garrett had hands that belied his impassive expression: he couldn't wait to get onto the court. Turning his head right, he held his pose and arched his eyebrows at his friend, Emerson Johnson, as if to say, "It's almost time."

If Emmie was excited about the start of basketball season, he didn't show it. Johnson had a sly wit, but he spoke rarely and almost never smiled. To his right Marshall Murray was struggling to keep open his wide, saucer eyes, which had earned him the nickname "Goo Goo," after the song about a cartoon character: "Barney Google (With the Goo Goo Googly Eyes)." As the bell rang, Garrett and Johnson surrounded Murray and lifted him up, Garrett with one hand, Johnson with two. "Come on," Bill said, "let's play ball."

The three paused on the high school's wide front steps as students swirled around them, some rushing away to farm chores or after-school jobs, others stopping to flirt or gossip. Freshman tryouts wouldn't start for a few hours, and they had time to kill, but Garrett and his two friends knew they were not welcome at a lot of places uptown. On Bill's nod, they made their way through the crowd, turned their backs on Shelbyville High, and started walking east toward their old school.

Booker T. Washington Elementary School sat by itself off Harrison, Shelbyville's four-lane main street, a half-mile south of the public square on an island of land in the crook where Harrison bent sharply east, crossed the railroad track, and headed south out of town. Built in 1870, to separate black grade-schoolers from white, the building had been condemned by the State Board of Health in 1914.* In 1930, the editors of the Indianapolis Recorder, Indiana's largest-circulation black newspaper, had demanded improvements, calling Booker T. "that old, ugly, dilapidated building where our children have to be housed." A subsequent WPA project had stuccoed and whitewashed the walls, which were now a light gray, but little else had changed. For six grades and thirty children, Booker T. had two classrooms, two teachers, no lunchroom, and, alone among Shelbyville's schools, no gym. Every recess, regardless of weather, was spent outdoors.

One thing Booker T. had was an outdoor basketball court, one of the few in town, a patch of dusty ground with two usually netless goals near the railroad track behind the school. Bill Garrett had grown up playing there, his life tuned to the thud and ping of a dog-eared basketball bouncing on packed dirt. He played basketball all summer and after school, shoveling snow off the court in winter, often taking on older boys and grown men, some of them semipros on teams that barnstormed around central Indiana, who played rough and gave him no breaks. As he did, Garrett did not pretend to be the local high school star of the moment or imagine the hometown crowd cheering his name. Raised on Shelbyville's sidelines, he played basketball because he loved it and because there was nothing else for him to do.

Approaching Booker T., Garrett, Johnson, and Murray could see Tom Sadler and Carl "Jelly" Brown, home on leave from the Navy, playing one-on-one. Four years earlier, in the fall of 1939, Sadler and Brown had been the first black students to play varsity sports at Shelbyville High School, Sadler in football, Brown in basketball. The boys watched from the sidelines until Sadler, with a wave of his hand, said, "I got Bill," and Brown responded, "I got Goo Goo." Johnson, still small enough to be mistaken for a grade-schooler, picked up the extra ball and headed off to shoot by himself, as Sadler tossed Garrett a bounce pass and said with a chuckle, "OK, little man, show Jelly what you got."

Garrett was posted up, with his back to Brown, who stood between him and the basket. Sadler was still chuckling as Garrett feinted to his right with the ball, Brown went with the fake, and in one smooth motion Garrett swung his left foot backward and pivoted 180 degrees -- leaving Brown off-balance and behind him. With one dribble Garrett was directly under the basket. Leaping off his right foot, he reached out to the far side of the basket with his left hand and softly laid the ball backhand against the backboard so that it fell through the rim: a perfect spin move and reverse layup.

"Damn!" Sadler whistled.

Two possessions later Brown waited under the basket for a rebound, using his larger body to block Garrett out, keeping Bill behind him and away from the basket. This time Garrett leaped from behind Brown, reached over him, and gracefully picked off the ball as it left the rim.

"Damn!" Sadler said a little louder.

Brown raised his eyebrows and said softly, "Guess we been away a while, Tom."

By the time Loren Hemingway got to Shelbyville High School's Paul Cross Gym, the narrow basement dressing room assigned to freshmen was packed with ninth-grade boys horsing around, snapping jockstraps and towels. Hank, as friends had called him back in Franklin, didn't know any of them beyond a nod. A few months earlier his family had moved to Shelbyville from Franklin, a smaller town fourteen miles east. His father had taken a job managing Shelbyville's first supermarket, and even if the family could have afforded a car for the commute, wartime gasoline rationing would have made it impossible. Polite and shy, Hemingway had spent the summer exploring the new town with his younger brother, carrying his mother to Saint Joseph Catholic Church on the handlebars of the boys' shared bicycle, and waiting for basketball season.

Big-boned, still awkward, and barefoot, Hemingway edged around the clumps of boys in the dressing room and headed upstairs holding his worn sneakers in one hand. The shoes had been a parting gift from Tim Campbell, Franklin's head basketball coach. Twenty years earlier, when he had a swagger and a black mustache, Campbell had been Shelbyville's first real basketball coach, but now he was on the downside of his career. Campbell had found his rising ninth-grade basketball star sitting on the steps of Franklin's gym distraught over his family's impending move. For a long moment coach and young player had sat silently, until Campbell rose and slipped inside the gym without a word, returning with an old shoe box. Kneeling to face Hemingway, Campbell set the box beside him and said gently, "It'll be OK, son, once you get to Shelbyville and go out for basketball."

After almost three hours of tryouts by sixty-plus boys, the gym was as humid as an Indiana July, and it smelled of fresh sweat. The playing floor was a few feet shy of the maximum regulation length, with a small dead spot under one basket where the ball refused to bounce, but in other ways it was one of the better gyms in the state, and to Hank Hemingway it looked bigger and the court more brightly polished than any he had seen before. The goals at each end had black rims and...

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