Saturday, January 25, 2014

Current MAAC Members Fought Prejudice Years Ago

While reading the recently published, very well-written, well-done book "John Wooden, A Coach's Life," your blogger came across some notable basketball history.

It's from the 1947-47 season, long before there was a MAAC, but it involves two current conference members. And, it involves some exceptional, insightful decisions by the two programs.

Back then a national tournament called the NAIB was established, in part, by sport inventor Dr. James Naismith. The National Association for Intercollegiate Basketball event actually came into being in 1937 as a forum for small colleges and universities to determine a national championship.

Current available written historical recollections of the event indicate that, in 1948, it became the first national organization to open an intercollegiate postseason event to black student-athletes.

But, it did so begrudgingly. And it did so, in no small part, due to decisions made back then by administrators at current MAAC members Manhattan and Siena colleges.

A little background. In the previous year, 1947, Wooden was coaching at Indiana State and his team was invited to the event. Wooden's team had an African American on the roster, Clarence Walker.

When NAIB officials told Wooden that Walker was not welcome at its event, played in Kansas City, Missouri, where segreation was the norm back then. Wooden did not accept the invitation to play.

The following year, though, the tournament once again invited Indiana State and, this time, Wooden agreed to bring his team to the event even if it had to leave Walker behind.

We'll pick up the narrative from the Wooden book from that point.

"Fortunately for Walker, there were some influential people on the East coast who were willing to fight for him in a way that Wooden was not," writes Seth Davis, in the Wooden book.

"When Manhattan College's athletic director learned of the NAIB's rule prohibiting Negros from competing in the tournament, he requested that it be changed, even though Manhattan did not have any blacks on its roster.

"After two days of exchanging telegrams, the NAIB informed Manhattan that it was goo late to repeal the rule for that year's tournament, so Manhattan withdrew and the athletic director publicly stated the reason.

"The NAIB then offered its spot to Siena College, but that school also turned down the invitation because of the racial ban. Long Island University did the same."

The decisions by those schools, it seems brought the issue to light. Soon the U.S. Olympic basketball committee became involved. One of the reasons the NAIB event was so prestigious was that its champion was invited to compete at the U.S. Olympic trials in New York, shortly after the tournament.

As detailed in the Wooden book ...

"After reading about the protests made by the New York schools Henshel (Harry Henshell, a member of the Olympic basketball committee) sent a telegram to the Olympic committee's chairman recommending that the NAIB champion be dropped from the Olympic trials unless the ban was rescinded.

"Suddenly, the members of the NAIB's executive committee had a change of heart ... two days before the tournament was due to tip off, they announced that the prohibition had been removed."

The rule change did not come in time for Manhattan, Siena or Long Island University to participate that year. But, their stand on the race issue brought about change and Wooden's Indiana State team was allowed to bring its lone African American player to play in the tournament.

Remarkable stuff from nearly 66 years ago, and enlightened decisions from two future members of a league that continues to carry on a tradition of doing things the right way.

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