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My Two Cents: Honoring Bill Garrett Should Have Been Done Long Ago

Bill Garrett broke the color barrier for Big Ten basketball in the 1940s, and he's a legend in the state of Indiana for all that he accomplished in a short time. This latest honor is much deserved.
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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Don't think for a minute that Indiana's decision to rename The Intramural Center after former Indiana basketball great Bill Garrett is just some random decision made during trying times. 

It's a well-deserved honor for a man who has one of the most important resumes in Indiana basketball history, and not just at IU. Young Indiana fans and current IU students should make it a point to know all they can about the great Bill Garrett.

The decision to rename the iconic "HPER Building'' after Garrett — it's now the William Leon Garrett Fieldhouse. — should have been done years ago. The home to Indiana basketball from 1929 to 1960 was Garrett's home too from 1948 to 1951. He was the first African American player in the Big Ten, breaking the color barrier in the conference at the same time that Jackie Robinson was doing the same in major-league baseball.

What Garrett did locally was just as big. For the longest time, the Big Ten remained lily white on the basketball floor, with something of an unwritten agreement between the league's coaches that no school would recruit black players. This was the late 1940s, and it was certainly a different time in America.

The Big Ten already had black athletes in other sports. Jesse Owens was a track star at Ohio State before that, and even at Indiana, George Taliaferro was the star of the Hoosiers' 1945 Big Ten champion football team.

But basketball had remained off limits to blacks in the Big Ten. The finest black players in the Midwest — including the state of Indiana — weren't welcome into the league. In 1946, Johnny Wilson from Anderson, Indiana's Mr. Basketball, desperately wanted to play at Indiana but he wasn't allowed.

It was an atrocity.

The same thing happened the next year. Bill Garrett grew up in Shelbyville and went to segregated grade schools. Shelbyville High School was integrated and he was one of a few black students there, but he helped Shelbyville win its only state championship in 1947 and he won Mr. Basketball, too.

At the time, Indiana University president Herman B Wells was a proponent of better integrating the campus and Bloomington. And when several influential  black leaders from Indianapolis drove to Bloomington to meet with Wells on Garrett's behalf, he got it done. Wells talked with Indiana coach Branch McCracken, and it was done. 

Garrett broke the color barrier, and the rest was history. Within the next few years, practically all Big Ten teams had black players.

Garrett left Indiana as the school's all-time leading scorer. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics — just the third black man to be drafted by an NBA team — but he was drafted during the Korean War and several two years in the military. When he returned, he played for the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s, — which was a huge deal then — before returning to Indianapolis. 

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A few years later, he replaced the legendary Ray Crowe at Crispus Attucks High School and won the 1959 state championship as a coach, the only person to win a state title as a player and a coach in Indiana history. 

Garrett died suddenly of a heart attack at just 45 years old. 

The trustee's vote on Friday was part of several moves by president Michael A. McRobbie and the trustees to improve diversity and inclusion on campus, all moves that are certainly needed as race relations remain tense around the country. And this is certainly a great gesture naming this building after Garrett, but it could have been done long ago.

Especially considering its history.

McCracken, the great Indiana coach, was also a star player at Indiana, and he scored the first points in the building. Indiana's national championship teams in 1940 and 1953 called the building home. The final game, in 1960, was a win over Ohio State, the eventual national champion that year. Ohio State had a young guard on that team named Bob Knight.

The name of the building is much better now because for years it had been called the Wildermuth Center after Ora Wildermuth, a former Indiana trustee who had opposed racial integration of the campus back in the 1940s. He was a racist, and a segregationist, and his name was properly removed from the building in early 2019. Ironically, he would have greatly opposed Garrett's entrance into the university. 

Garrett's name with be added to signage soon.

"Appropriate signage will be placed on the building to honor this great alumnus of Indiana University and one of its true courageous leaders in the integration and acceptance of African Americans in basketball at both the collegiate and professional level," McRobbie said following the trustee's vote.

Indiana has honored Garrett before. There is a statue of him and McCracken together in the south lobby of Assembly Hall, and it 2017, a plaque making the fieldhouse a historical landmark before of Garrett's role in breaking the color barrier was erected.

Thousands of IU students through the years have used the facility to train, play and work out, and now it's great that Garrett's name will be attached.

It's much deserved. This is no token gesture made under duress. It's an honor for a great man who's earned the right to have his name on that iconic building.

Everyone should agree with that.