There is much of different worlds in Tuscaloosa, Ala., the best and the worst of the Old and the New South, the drowsy weariness of a rural town gone to decay resisting change and the ebullience of an academic community excited by progress. The polarization is captured in essence along University Boulevard, one of the city's main streets, running between the downtown area and the University of Alabama, a black-topped conduit from crumbling decrepitude to the Age of Aquarius.
On the intercity section of the boulevard, near the dime store, across from City Hall and right up from the Chamber of Commerce, there is a rusting link to the past, a nagging reminder by the name of Robert Shelton, Imperial Wizard of the United Klans of America, which is an organization of a bunch of Klux. Shelton runs a printing shop in downtown Tuscaloosa.
Not far from his colorful window display of flags—the Klan's, the South's and America's—is the University of Alabama, where George Wallace once stood on the doorsteps stemming the tide of integration. Since then we've polluted the moon, dressed men in high heels and put a mustache on Dick Tracy. The university has done the unexpected, too. Last Saturday night it started four blacks in a basketball game on archrival Auburn's home court, an occurrence that left Shelton feeling as glum as if he had just seen his bookkeeper driving a Cadillac.
Alabama beat Auburn 76-64, augmenting its hold on first place in the Southeastern Conference and running its overall record to 10-1. The team has beaten Florida State and Southern California, and its lone defeat came against Wake Forest in the second game of the season before it had jelled or established a starting lineup.
When Alabama reorganized its basketball program five years ago it sent to Transylvania not for a vampire but for a coach named C. M. Newton who had labored for 12 seasons at Transylvania College in Lexington, Ky. In his first year at 'Bama the school captured four victories and Wendell Hudson. Getting Hudson, the school's first black scholarship player, turned that into a winning season. As a junior in '71-'72, Hudson was SEC player of the year in two polls, and Alabama finished 18-8 after challenging for the conference title.
"Before this season a lot of people wondered if coach would play four blacks," says Hudson, now the SEC's leading scorer. "The best answer he gave them was that he was going to put the best five men out there. It just happened that four of them are black. I liked it here from the start, although I got some trouble from both sides, white and black. But I could tell that the coaches really wanted to have a winning basketball program, and it didn't matter what color you were."
Newton played basketball for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky. An avuncular man who smokes a pipe, he goes down smoothly with his players. During practice he adopts a jocular tone, correcting mistakes more by intimation than by direct advice. And he has handled a delicate situation well. "I told him when I first came here that the one thing I liked most was that I wasn't treated any different than any of the other players," says Hudson. "He jumped on me just like the others."
"People back home don't talk much about it," says senior Glenn Garrett, who is from outside Selma, Ala. and the only white in the starting lineup. "We're winning. And the four blacks we've got, they're quality people. I guess it was good to start out with somebody like Hudson because he fits in with everybody."
Hudson helped recruit the other black players on the team: reserve Ernie Odom and starters Charles Cleveland, Ray Odums and the newest and most impressive of all, freshman Leon Douglas, a 6'9" pivot built along the lines of the Empire State Building. Douglas can hold his own with most any big man in the country, especially on defense, where he has a proclivity for blocking shots. "We had a good team last year but the thing we lacked was a center who could reject some shots," says Hudson. "Now nobody is driving."
Alabama fretted that Douglas would not be ready for the internecine meeting with Auburn. He spent Wednesday and Thursday in the infirmary, battling the flu. On Friday he looked at his wasted body and claimed the flu had won. "I can see my ribs," he said.
Meanwhile a wayward tourist might have assumed the town of Auburn had adopted "17-16" as its motto. This and other graffiti alluding to Auburn's football victory over Alabama last season were plastered all over the city. Alabama faithful countered by telling Auburn jokes to all who would listen. Sample: "An Auburn man with a frog on his head walked into a doctor's office. Said the frog: 'Doc, can you take this wart off me?' "
As it was, Auburn was looking at Douglas' ribs for most of the night. He blocked 12 shots, and the Crimson Tide broke open the game in the second half. "I quit coaching so much and let them play," kidded Newton, who had worried at halftime because his team held a slim five-point lead. "I thought our coaching sort of handicapped them in the first half. We kept quiet in the second."
Hudson finished with 10 points. Cleveland, only a sophomore, scored 15 and played both guard and forward, and Odums finished with 20 and seven assists. Nicknamed Flash, Odums played defense as if he were a store detective after a woman wearing a hat with a dangling price tag.
The first seven players on the team are from Alabama, a state which once had the reputation of producing basketball players who had the reliability of a motel soft-drink machine. Now Newton reaps the best of a good crop, although he rues two prize dishes that got away, Allen Murphy to Louisville and Clarence Jones to Memphis State. Right now the talk around Tuscaloosa is that Alabama has a good chance to recruit T. R. Dunn, a Birmingham high school player said to be the best in the state. C. M. plus T. R. might mean the NCAA.
As a recruiter Newton has some provocative lures. The team plays in the Memorial Coliseum, which seats 15,043 people, and lives in Paul Bryant Hall, the luxurious athletic dormitory featuring a fountain and flaming torches at its entrance. At the training table the gladiators eat steak. "Once in awhile we have lobster or stuffed flounder," says sixth man Paul Ellis. "But the neat things are the bathrooms; they have heated tiles so your feet don't get cold in the morning."
Now that Alabama has eliminated its cold feet, all of its worlds are closer together. Nicely. Even law and order is a winner. Last week someone broke into the Alabama equipment room and stole a basketball. He got the only ball in the room with a leaky valve, leaving the thief as disappointed as Robert Shelton. The Wizard says he'll never go to another game—but those white sheets aren't in anymore in Alabama, anyway.