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Remembering Perry Wallace, A College Basketball Pioneer

Dec 25, 2017
Originally published on December 25, 2017 8:42 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This week, we're remembering some of the notable people who died in 2017 and Perry Wallace is one of them.

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PERRY WALLACE: I wasn't interested in being a pioneer or making history or doing any of that.

SIEGEL: Wallace had been a professor at American University, a Justice Department lawyer and even a history maker. Fifty years ago, Perry Wallace became the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. He played for Vanderbilt University. To say that wasn't easy on him is putting it mildly. His biographer, Andrew Maraniss, has told that story in the book "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace And The Collision Of Race And Sports In The South." Both men were on this program three years ago with my co-host, Audie Cornish.

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AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: I think that we're all used to sort of feel-good sports movies about integration where the music swells because someone makes some sort of very sweet gesture. But have you sat through some sports integration movies and thought, I wish that's what had happened?

WALLACE: Well, I think you put it so very, very well. There's often so much fluff. And it's just kind of nice music and it swells up and so on and so forth. But it's gritty, dirty, ugly business. And most people are not up for it, including the people who lead and govern the institutions. That was true back then as it is now on various issues, whether it has to do with violence against women or any number of other challenges - which are the same challenges that they faced back then, by the way. And they are around for the celebration but not around for the hard part.

CORNISH: What was the hard part? Away games. That's where the integration effort at Vanderbilt collided with the reality of Southern segregationists support. Remember, nationally, pro-league basketball and baseball were already integrated. But at the college level, most Deep South schools were holdouts, refusing even to share the court with black players. Wallace's biographer, Andrew Maraniss, says that's the atmosphere Perry Wallace walked into when Vanderbilt traveled to play the University of Mississippi in 1968.

ANDREW MARANISS: Perry travels down to Oxford, Miss. And Perry told me in general as approaching these trips down to the Deep South that he looked at them with the deepest sense of dread.

WALLACE: What happened was that, in my own mind and for weeks before and sometimes months before, I'm thinking about that game and wondering what's going to happen because this is the unknown. And the anxiety level rises on the bus going to the plane, on the plane, flying down. There's no problem there.

CORNISH: People aren't meeting you at the tarmac - right? - like at the bus or anything like that?

WALLACE: No, they saved it all for the game.

MARANISS: A lot of these were tiny little band boxes of arenas, tiny little places with crowds that were small enough where you could actually hear what people were saying. So you would have people back in Nashville listening to the games on the radio, including Perry's mother laying in a hospital bed, who could hear what was being directed at Perry.

WALLACE: We're going to kill you. We're going to castrate you, the N-word, coon, jigaboo. People are going to spit on you. They're going to tell you that they're going to lynch you. And there's one scene that stands out forever in my mind and it is that of what looked like three generations of a family, and all of them were spitting, screaming, calling me names and threatening me. This was just great sport for them.

MARANISS: And so what happens in this game? The first half, Perry is hit with an elbow in the face, is bleeding and is temporarily blinded in his eye. And the referees don't call a foul. They don't even call a stop to the game. And so it's not until the next time the ball rolls out of bounds that the trainer and the manager come out to see Perry, walk him across the court as these people are rising and cheering that Perry has been injured, back to the Vanderbilt locker room to be treated. And he remains there at halftime. And as he comes back out, he knows what's about to happen.

WALLACE: See, I'm coming back and having to walk all the way across the court from one end of the court to the other. That period, it might not have lasted any more than 10 or 15 seconds, but it was a lifetime. It's like the comedian Dick Gregory said, yeah, I spent four years in Mississippi one night. And I did too in that particular night. And in that particular moment, it seemed like a lifetime because they just focused on me. And they rained down on me. And that's what the hatred was like.

CORNISH: Once we've heard stories of civil rights pioneers or people who were at the forefront of integration, we don't hear what happens after. We don't even hear what happens in the time shortly after and what kind of emotional toll that it takes. And was there a time in the year or two after when you realized, like, I'm really struggling?

WALLACE: Oh, absolutely so. And I think unless one wants to be naive, necessarily so because I wouldn't be sitting here today. I would have committed suicide like Henry Harris, the second black athlete who played in the SEC who ran and jumped off a building a few years later, like Nate Northington, who was the first athlete - period - who just left after about a year or so. But there's no question about it. If you don't think you have to heal after getting beat up, you don't know the basics. And I understood that. But I did understand that I needed to give myself time to heal.

CORNISH: Wallace didn't really get support from his teammates. Those games, those experiences, he survived on his own. After graduation, he went up north. He needed a break, he said. Law school and work with the Justice Department followed before he settled here in Washington. But his storied season with Vanderbilt and the SEC? Glance around his office and you'd never know it. Perry Wallace doesn't display a single memento from that time - no trophies, framed jerseys or even newspaper clippings. Andrew Maraniss says it's not the formula story that you might expect.

MARANISS: You know, and there was a formulaic ending that was possible. In Perry's last game, which is against Mississippi State in Nashville, his last basket of his college career is a slam dunk, which was illegal at the time. And it was a game that Perry dedicated to his mother, who had just passed away about a year earlier. And Perry saved the best for last, in many ways, in this game.

WALLACE: Yeah, that's what I wanted, to make a statement. And I had made a promise to my mother. And I kept it best that last game. So I scored - what was it? - 28 points and 27 rebounds. Nobody's ever heard of that. And the piece de la resistance was the dunk at the end.

CORNISH: The illegal dunk.

WALLACE: The illegal dunk. And that basically said, well, you know, these segregation laws were illegal laws. They were the law but they weren't just. And so this is what I think of all those unjust, illegal rules. There it is - slam dunk.

SIEGEL: That's Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the SEC and his biographer, Andrew Maraniss, talking with my co-host Audie Cornish in 2014. Wallace died from cancer earlier this month. He was 69.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIRISWAD'S "INSPIRATIONAL FRIENDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.