Inspiration is timeless. In that regard, it doesn’t matter that two years after its initial release and 52 years after the fact, the story of the Crispus Attucks Tigers and their amazing coach, Ray Crowe, is finally being shared with the nation.
On April 27, “Something To Cheer About,” the documentary that chronicles the triumphs and travails of the Attucks teams of the 1950s, opened in nine markets: New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Detroit; Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; Minneapolis; Dallas; and, of course, Indianapolis.
It’s playing here at the Keystone Art Cinema.
Consider it required viewing for anyone who would dare to call himself or herself an Indiana basketball fan.
“Something” is written, directed and coproduced by Indianapolis’ own Betsy Blankenbaker, who was inspired by the longtime friendship her father, Richard, shared with Crowe, who left coaching in 1957 and later found his way into the Indiana House of Representatives.
The documentary actually debuted at the Heartland Film Festival two years ago and has been screened at other film festivals since. But getting a national release required a partnership of folks in the rights/distribution business to make it happen.
“It just takes time to get to the right people,” said the incomparable Attucks star, Oscar Robertson, last week from Los Angeles. “Finally, the timing was right.”
The same could be said for the series of events in the early 1950s that led to the racial-barrier-breaking Attucks teams. Finally, the timing was right for Indianapolis-and, to a larger extent, Indiana-to escape from the shadow of prejudice that had been carried forward from the days when the Ku Klux Klan had powerful influence.
Part of that influence manifested itself in the decision to build blacks-only schools. In Indianapolis, Attucks was that school.
Attucks “turned out to be a monument to the community.” That’s because education was paramount. In the Attucks culture, it didn’t matter how skilled you were as an athlete. There was one simple, yet ironclad, rule among administrators, teachers and coaches: no school, no play.
“Our teachers never mentioned anything about basketball,” Robertson recalled. “All they talked about was education.”
Being forced to live largely among themselves on the city’s northwest side, with Indiana Avenue serving as the blacks’ Main Street, paid a dividend the Klan of 30 years before didn’t envision: a pool of basketball talent unlike any ever seen in Indiana, many of whom honed their skills in nonstop pickup games at the famous “Dust Bowl” court.
Among the youngsters who gathered there: Oscar Robertson, who quickly learned, “If you didn’t play to win, you didn’t play.”
As players such as Bailey Robertson (Oscar’s older brother), Willie Gardner (who, if it had not been for a heart ailment, would have been Julius Erving before there was a Julius Erving), Hallie Bryant, Robert Jewell, Willie Merriweather, Stan Patton, Cleve Harp, John Gipson, Albert Maxey, Bill Brown and so many, many others started coming down the Attucks pipeline, a no-nonsense disciplinarian named Ray Crowe became their coach.
“Something” is as much about Crowe’s influence as it is Attucks’ success. It’s clear the two went hand-in-hand. Crowe demanded that his charges play through bigotry, referees, hostile crowds … you name it.
“He gave us no alternative: ‘This is what you’re going to do and this is how you will do it,'” Robertson said of Crowe.
The Crowe way helped the Attucks team of 1955 become the first all-black team to win a state championship in America. The team of 1956 became the first unbeaten allblack team to win a state championship. Under Crowe’s guidance, both their exceptional play and their exceptional demeanor began to crumble the walls of prejudice.
They didn’t understand the social significance at the time.
“We were just trying to build something better for ourselves,” Robertson said. “We had no money, no niceties. But we were able to accomplish great things because we were good citizens.”
“We were just playing ball, having fun, going to school and hoping to do well,” added Gipson, who has co-written a book (with former teammate Stan Patton) about the Attucks teams titled, simply, “Winners.”
Virtually to a man, they did very well. And anyone who sees “Something To Cheer About” will quickly realize that, indeed, there is still plenty to cheer about in that group of men.
Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly.To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.