The day I was elected captain of the Columbia University basketball team, I went home and ate a mustard sandwich for dinner. That's all we could afford." This is George Gregory talking. In 1931 he became the first Negro All-America basketball player in the history of the game. Gregory, a tall, distinguished 51-year-old who is now a Commissioner of Civil Service in New York City, was discussing the rise of the Negro in intercollegiate sport, a rise which is nowhere more dramatically demonstrated than on this year's college basketball scene. As the various All-America selections for 1958 are made, it is increasingly evident that the five best college players in the country are all Negroes—Guy Rodgers of Temple, Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati, Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas, Elgin Baylor of Seattle and Bob Boozer of Kansas State. And a second All-America five, all Negro, could just as easily be John Green of Michigan State, Tom Hawkins of Notre Dame, Gene Brown of San Francisco, Jay Norman of Temple and Wayne Embry of Miami (Ohio).
It is George Gregory's conviction that one of the big reasons for this phenomenon is the fact that the average Negro family is no longer living on mustard sandwiches.
There are, of course, other reasons and the chief of these is that basketball itself is only now achieving status as a first-rank sport on campus. Today most major colleges offer full scholarships to young men who, in addition to qualifying academically, are good basketball players. Only a few years ago competition for athletes was limited to football men but as schools have begun to appreciate the prestige (and, yes, the money-making potential) that comes with winning basketball, the bidding for good shooters has become as hectic as the scramble for halfbacks. This increased opportunity for a free education has been an incentive for all athletes—white and Negro—but for the Negro it came at almost the precise time when he was being welcomed in ever-greater numbers anyway by the larger universities. At the average state college 20 full scholarships are now available to the basketball coach. And at those schools where there are no racial bars the Negro is getting his share of the scholarships.
It is also true that basketball has always been popular among those who cannot afford the equipment for football, baseball, tennis and other sports. Even in Gregory's day when, as he puts it, "we had to play on cold, dark basement courts where you had to dribble around a furnace to take a shot," there were excellent Negro amateur and professional teams. The old Renaissance squads of the 1920s and '30s, whose games with the Original Celtics were classics of competition, were perhaps the finest all-Negro teams the game has ever known. And today, in integrated schools, playgrounds, settlement houses and YMCAs, good courts and expert coaching are available to the young Negro athlete.
There remains, finally, the seldom-expressed yet inescapable fact which conceivably dominates all others. Basketball is a team game—a symbol to the Negro, when he plays it, of his approach to full American citizenship. Says George Gregory: "The Negro enjoys a deep psychological thrill from playing in a mixed group. He has a sense of belonging, of being wanted and needed and of making a contribution."
Paving the way for racial amity may not be the least of sport's own contributions.