UK Men's Basketball

UK basketball notebook: Book about SEC's first black player covers issues still relevant today

Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace (25) reeled in a rebound after Kentucky's Dan Issel (44) missed a shot. Wallace, the SEC's first black basketball player, is the subject of a new book, Strong Inside.
Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace (25) reeled in a rebound after Kentucky's Dan Issel (44) missed a shot. Wallace, the SEC's first black basketball player, is the subject of a new book, Strong Inside. AP

The outlines of the Perry Wallace story are well known. In 1967, he became the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. He endured despite naked racism and genuine fear for his life. The SEC transformed itself, albeit slowly and however motivated by self interest, into a league that welcomed the best players and coaches, regardless of race.

This kind of watershed dwarfs the trivial pursuit of victories or records or even a national championship.

Andrew Maraniss, a former publicist for Vanderbilt basketball, has written a book about Wallace. Strong Inside, a title with multiple meanings, is a biography of Wallace before, during and after his time as a power player around the goal for Vanderbilt and, more importantly, a basketball pioneer. It also provides insight into a history of the SEC, Vanderbilt athletics, Vanderbilt's administration, race relations in Nashville and the Civil Rights movement.

Maraniss humanizes the major figures in this story, most importantly, Wallace, whose inner strength enabled him to persevere.

His story helps the reader understand how far we've come. In arguing against Mississippi State playing in the 1963 NCAA Tournament, The Jackson (Miss.) Daily News said that the "Southern way of life" was more important than athletic glory, a national championship not worth "subjecting young Mississippians to the switchblade society that integration inevitably spawns."

But with racial division as fresh as today's headlines, Wallace's story makes the reader wonder how much further we still must go. Maraniss hopes that's the case.

The book "might help people look at what's happening today in a different way," he said last week. "A sports book might be an accessible way for people to come at the subject who might not otherwise be inclined to do so."

The University of Kentucky and Kentuckians figure repeatedly in the story.

Playing at UK was something of a respite from the racially charged atmospheres at other SEC sites, particularly those in Mississippi and Alabama. Wallace came to believe that UK fans cared first and foremost about winning and watching good basketball.

UK assistant coaches Harry Lancaster and Joe B. Hall recruited Wallace, who grew up in Nashville. "They were just great," Wallace says. "I really liked them."

But Adolph Rupp remained a distant figure. He did not meet with Wallace during the recruiting process, which influenced Wallace's college choice.

"He was going into dangerous territory," Maraniss said of Wallace becoming the SEC's first black player. "He wanted to know who he was going to be with. Not to meet Rupp was discouraging."

Wallace eventually played for Rupp in a college all-star game after his senior season for Vandy. "He was extremely welcoming and gracious," Wallace said.

Maraniss said Wallace likened Rupp to his father and his high school coach. "A tough-love figure," the author said.

Another Kentuckian, Paducah native Roy Skinner, recruited Wallace to play for Vandy. Something seemingly inconsequential — referring to the player's parents as "Mr. and Mrs. Wallace" — made an impression.

Like Rupp, Skinner was encouraged by his administration to integrate the basketball program. He also recruited a second black player, Godfrey Dillard, a guard from Detroit.

"He wasn't big on social movements or anything," Maraniss said of Skinner. "Perry said he was the type of coach he needed. Not a Bobby Knight-type screamer (which would) add even extra pressure. But he wasn't a Branch Rickey type who really understood what he was doing and the challenges Perry had."

Dillard, who suffered a knee injury as a freshman which may or may not have been the reason for a demotion to the "B" team as a sophomore, returned to Detroit before ever dressing with the varsity.

This left Wallace as the lone pioneer. As a freshman, Wallace was told not to return to Vandy's University Church of Christ.

When his college career ended — a final-second dunk against Mississippi State the last of his 1,010 points — Wallace described himself as a "very lonely person" in an interview with The Tennessean. He told the Vandy student newspaper that he would not travel the same path if he had to do it over again.

This candor made Wallace an outcast at Vandy. He was not welcomed back until yet another person with Kentucky connections, C.M. Newton, invited him to speak to the team and a booster club in 1989.

Wallace was in Nashville last month to help the book. Maraniss said that people waited as long as two hours to speak with Wallace.

"With tears in their eyes," Maraniss said. "Either to say he was an inspiration or to apologize for not doing more to help him. That was really touching."

Upwardly mobile

With the start of SEC play this week, associate commissioner Mark Whitworth noted the league's improving profile. The SEC had the third-best conference RPI as of last week, he said. At a similar time last year, the SEC ranked seventh in RPI.

While only No. 1 Kentucky is ranked in The Associated Press top 25, 10 SEC teams are in the top 104, six in the top 53 and four (UK, Georgia, LSU and Arkansas) in the top 28 of the RPI, Whitworth said.

Number crunchers Jerry Palm and Ken Pomeroy supported the contention of an upwardly mobile SEC.

Palm, who works for CBSSports.com, said he ranked the SEC as the nation's third-best conference. On the downside, his mock NCAA Tournament bracket early last week had only three SEC teams getting bids: UK, Arkansas and LSU.

Pomeroy had the SEC as fifth-best league, up from sixth last season and seventh in 2012-13.

Flopping/faking

ESPN announcers in the KFC Yum Center last weekend and at least some Kentucky fans saw injustice when Louisville's Chris Jones faked getting hit in the face against UK. After falling to the floor, he carried the ruse to the point of flexing his jaw as if to get the feeling back. Television replays showed no contact with UK big man Dakari Johnson. Yet there was no penalty assessed.

A caller to John Calipari's radio show Monday complained about Jones' deception. Special assistant Tony Barbee, who substituted for Calipari, and host Tom Leach noted that the NBA fines players who flop or fake.

College referees have the power to take action. They can call a technical foul for flopping or faking. But Jake Bell, the coordinator of men's basketball officials in the SEC, acknowledged that this action is seldom taken.

"I have not seen it called in (several-second pause) ever," Bell said Tuesday. "I don't remember the last time."

Bell cited Rule 10, Section 3, Article 1 of the college rules. A technical can be assessed when a player commits "an unsportsmanlike act." Nine examples are listed, none of which directly relate to flopping and faking.

Bell said it would be "a stretch" to call a technical foul for flopping or faking. That could change if the NCAA Division I Rules Committee chooses to address such deceptions, he said.

During the telecast of the Kentucky-Louisville game, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said that college basketball should crack down on flopping.

Maybe technical fouls should be called to inhibit faking or flopping. But law-and-order folks should keep in mind that the rules also say a technical foul can be assessed if a coach does not — within 20 seconds — replace a player who just fouled out or was injured.

"When have you see that called?" Bell said.

'All business'

A photo of former UK All-American Anthony Davis dominated the front page of the Chicago Tribune's sports section on Christmas Eve. His feet are near the bottom of the page as he reaches into the masthead for a rebound.

A graphic noted that Davis had a Player Efficiency Rating this season that belongs with the NBA's all-time greats. It's 33.4, which puts him on pace to shatter the record of 31.82 by Wilt Chamberlain in 1962-63. That was the year Chamberlain averaged 44.8 points. Chamberlain also has the second-best PER: 31.74 in 1961-62 (the year he averaged 50.4 points).

The fine print showed that the NBA did not keep stats on blocks and steals prior to the 1973-74 season.

But numbers aside, K.C. Johnson's On the NBA column saluted Davis for his work ethic.

"He was all business," said Bulls Coach Thom Thibodeau, an assistant with USA Basketball last summer. "That's what stood out the most. He'd get there early, work on his game, practice hard, get in the weight room. You can tell he's hungry."

Kyle Korver, one of the final cuts from Team USA, also saluted Davis' work ethic. "When you see him day to day from the inside and how he works, you also see how much better he's going to be," Korver said.

As if to validate the kind words, Davis played well at Chicago last weekend. He scored 29 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked six shots.

Rivalries

Daniel L. Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State, studies rivalries. He said rivalries are increasingly popular among college administrators. Rivalries sell tickets and T-shirts while enhancing TV ratings.

"Schools are more likely to go ahead and jump on the yes-this-is-a-rivalry bandwagon," he said. "Because they figure they can make a buck off it."

UK's widespread popularity in the state impacts Murray State games. Wann also noted how there are gripes about how fans show up at Murray State games wearing UK paraphernalia. In response, "they had a change-that-shirt promotion," he said.

10th and 11th

While pondering Kentucky's depth, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale wondered who was the Cats' 10th and 11th men.

When told those players are Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis, Vitale blurted out, "Oh my god. How many schools would love those kids?"

Happy birthday

To Tyler Ulis. He turns 19 on Monday. ... To Randolph Morris. He turned 29 on Friday. ... To Bobby Perry. He turns 30 on Wednesday. ... To Aminu Timberlake. He turned 42 on New Year's Day. ... To Irving Thomas. He turned 49 on Friday. ... To Larry Stamper. He turns 65 on Tuesday.

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