Billy Garrett Jr. follows family's example in fight against sickle cell

Publish date:

The integration of Big Ten basketball was, more or less, sparked by the Indiana Hoosiers failing to live up to the expectations of their fan base.

It was 1947, a year when a black player by the name of Bill Garrett won Indiana's Mr. Basketball, leading Shelbyville High to a state title while the Hoosiers finished just 12-8 in Branch McCracken's first year back from a three-year stint in the Navy. Garrett broke the state tournament scoring record that year, just one season after the record had been set by 1946 Mr. Basketball Johnny Wilson, who was also black. McCracken didn't recruit Wilson because, as written in a memo to IU president Herman B. Wells from his legal counsel in 1940 and published in the book Getting Open: The Untold Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball, "the unwritten rule subscribed to by all schools precludes colored boys from participating in basketball, swimming, and wrestling."

McCracken offered Garrett a spot as a walk-on, and it paid off. After sitting out an 8-12 season his first year -- freshmen still weren't allowed to play -- Garrett proceeded to lead the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding the next three seasons as a 6-foot-2 center. He was an All-America in 1951 and the third black player to be drafted in the NBA when the Boston Celtics scooped him up in the second round.

He's also the man credited with breaking the Big Ten's color barrier.

At the time, the Big Ten was college basketball's most important conference. It was also one of the last to allow black players. And while Garrett never played against another black player during his career, both Michigan and Michigan State had a black player on their freshmen teams when Garrett was a senior. The following season, in 1951-52, the Korean War resulted in a rule that allowed freshmen to play varsity. In total, the Big Ten had six black players at the varsity level that season.

It was Garrett who paved the way, despite playing for the largest university in a state that was home to one of the last confirmed lynchings in the North in 1930.

(Iowa's Dick Culberson was the first black to play in the Big Ten, getting limited minutes, but lettering, during the Hawkeye's 17-1 season in 1944-45. But due to Garrett's ability, Indiana's success with him on the roster, and the trend that he started, Garrett is credited with integrating major college basketball.)


Billy Garrett Jr. was bred to be an athlete. His father, also named Billy, played football at Illinois State before embarking on a career as a basketball coach that would take him from a Chicago high school all the way to a spot as an assistant on Oliver Purnell's staff at DePaul. While he shares a first name with his father, Billy was actually named after his grandfather. Following in the footsteps of his namesake, the 6-4 Garrett is a top-75 point guard in the Class of 2013. He has already committed to play for his father at DePaul.

Family matters to the Garretts, which has been tough given dad's profession. "He's never coached me before," Billy said of playing for his dad in college. "I'm a little nervous, I don't know what to expect. But I'm with him a lot. I've seen it all. I've seen him coach. I kind of know what's coming."

For the elder Garrett, the chance to coach his son is a dream come true. He never got to know his pioneering father, who died of a heart attack at the age of 45. Garrett was only nine, two decades away from having a son of his own and too young to remember much more than his father being "really big."

"Like any father, you're going to enjoy it and cherish the moments with your sons," he said. "I'm excited."

Garrett may have not had a chance to coach his son, but his job as a basketball coach afforded Billy ample opportunity to play in summer hoops camps and with high-level AAU programs. One of those camps, when Billy was in sixth grade and Garrett was coaching at the University of Iowa, provided the backdrop for a nightmarish incident that involved a trip to the hospital, a blood transfusion, and something called a splenic sequestration crisis.

"When I was in sixth grade and my dad worked at the University of Iowa, I was in basketball camp and the gym wasn't air-conditioned," Billy recalled. "I'll never forget, I was sitting in there during a lecture, and I felt this pain. I had to go straight to the hospital and I stayed for about four days. I had to have a blood transfusion because my blood wasn't flowing."

Ever scarier was this was far from an isolated incident.

"That wasn't the first time. It might be the first time that he really remembers," Garrett said. "It was right before AAU nationals. So he was worried that he wasn't going to be able to play."

You see, athleticism wasn't the only thing that was passed down through the generations in the Garrett family. Billy has the sickle cell trait, which is less serious than sickle cell anemia but can still be a deadly condition, particularly for an athlete.

"Sickle cell trait is considered a benign condition. It's certainly not a disease state. The life expectancy is a normal life expectancy," said Scott Anderson, the head athletic trainer for the Oklahoma Sooners and the co-chair of the National Athletic Trainers' Association task force for sickle cell traits. "Really, the complication [that is the most dangerous] is for an exerting athlete and particularly with sustained, intense exertion, there can be some sickling of the red blood cells."

When the red blood cells sickle, they form a C-shape, hooking onto each other and causing logjams in veins and capillaries around joints and organs. These logjams stop the blood from flowing. The result of the blockage is called a crisis that can manifest in various ways, including the painfully enlarged spleen that Billy dealt with at that camp in Iowa. "That can create some serious complications," Anderson said. "Indeed, a student-athlete with complications from sickle cell trait is the leading cause of death for [college] football players."


Billy never met his grandfather, but that doesn't mean that he hasn't heard the stories that have been passed down through the years.

"All he knows are stories. He's heard all good things," Garrett said. Billy's also heard the occasional comparison to his granddad. "My mom says he moves like him. He's graceful. He's got a demeanor like him. She thinks he's a lot more like my dad than I am. I'm more like my mom, but that's who raised me. She swears he's more like him than I was."

Those similarities extend beyond the basketball court. After years of prodding from his father, Billy is finally embracing the idea of being a role model for kids with sickle cell. "I don't want to be a poster boy for sickle cell," Billy said, "but I want to be somebody you can believe in. I feel like they see me and I help them have more confidence in themselves."

As long as the condition is managed and treated correctly, there is no reason that the sickle cell trait should keep any kid from being an athlete. Proper hydration is key, as is the moderation and mitigation of intensity. For example, if a basketball team were to run suicides at the end of a practice, a player with sickle cell trait would need more rest in between sprints or be required to participate in a fewer number of sprints.

Most important, however, is the recognition of the symptoms of a sickle cell crisis.

"Fatigue in the legs to the point of cramping, pain in the legs, spasm or pain in the low back with exertion, shortness of breath, undue fatigue," Anderson said. "Those types of things we would want the athlete to report so that we can have an assessment so that we can further modify the activity as warranted or with an understanding that a sickling crisis has occurred. It becomes a medical emergency. We would want plans and actions in place to take care of that."

The recognition of those symptoms doesn't always happen. Lance Kearse is a perfect example. The 6-6, 225-pound forward enrolled at VCU in 2007, but spent the early parts of his career battling fatigue and cramping issues. The pain was so bad after one practice that he had to be taken to the hospital. Then-VCU coach Anthony Grant even enlisted a sports psychologist to try to get through to Kearse, who he believed needed to get mentally tougher.

"They thought it was a mental issue," Kearse told The Huntsville Times in March. "They were like, 'You need to focus on playing and block that out. It's a mental wall.' I told them, 'I'm not crazy.'"

He is lucky, however. He wasn't diagnosed with sickle cell until he transferred to Eckerd College in 2009.

It's not an exaggeration to say that those crises could have cost Kearse his life.

And that's where Billy comes into play. His effort to reach out to and support kids is admirable, but where he has a chance to truly be a hero is by continuing to get the word out about sickle cell. Whether it is at the college, the professional or high school level, player safety needs to be a priority. Educating coaches, training staffs, the athletes and their families on the warning signs of a sickle cell crisis will only help keep people safe.

That's something that all three William Garretts can be proud of.

As Billy put it, "It kind of runs in the family, you know?"