HOOSIER SCOOP SAGE TAKE OF THE DAY, Nov. 13, 2012
The great Bill Garrett died of a heart condition, far too young at age 45, the very month I matriculated at Indiana University-Bloomington in August of 1974. Seems so long ago. And is.
That came to mind as I watched IU honor Garrett with a halftime ceremony Monday night at Assembly Hall.
The ceremony was all well and good, as far as it went. Members of the Garrett family were presented a framed Indiana jersey bearing Garrett’s No. 8 and a commemorative poster and drew a nice standing ovation from the crowd.
But for the man who broke the Big Ten color barrier for basketball in 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson did the same for Major League Baseball? Not enough. Too little. Far too late.
Garrett, the state’s Mr. Basketball from Shelbyville, set an exemplary example on and off the court while braving everything that came from being that sort of pioneer.
It’s an example that calls for permanent, prominent enshrinement on campus.
This perhaps isn’t the time or place to rehash in detail the embarrassing mess the university made four years ago with a miscalculated, misbegotten notion to affix Garrett’s name alongside that of Ora L. Wildermuth as the formal title for the structure long called the HPER building.
Wildermuth, who died in 1964, was a lawyer, a judge and a former president of IU’s board of trustees. He also happened to be a racist and unrepentant segregationist, as letters uncovered after his death that were written to IU colleagues clearly revealed.
Here’s a little tidbit from one of Wildermuth’s letters: “I am and shall always remain absolutely and utterly opposed to the social intermingling of the colored race with the white. I belong to the white race and shall remain loyal to it. It always has been the dominant and leading race.”
It’s little wonder that Garrett’s immediate family wanted nothing to do with the idea of combining the Garrett name with Wildermuth’s.
IU and its athletic department can take pride in the fact they desegregated their teams before many other like institutions, in part due to the enlightened leadership of then-university president Herman B Wells. Coach Bo McMillin, though a southerner, recruited black football players at IU soon after he arrived in Bloomington in 1934. And Garrett arriving to play for Branch McCracken a little over a decade later broke what had been a shameful “gentlemen’s agreement” between Big Ten basketball coaches.
Garrett was a superb player. He led IU in scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons, and the Hoosiers went 19-3 his senior year, when he was a consensus second team All-American. His teammates voted him MVP. He was the third black player ever drafted into the NBA. And he was, by all accounts, an even better person than he was a player.
So it’s time for IU to honor Garrett in some more significant and permanent way than Monday’s ceremony could conjure.
Forget the HPER building (other than stripping the Wildermuth name off it, which seems an appropriate gesture). What about that nicer, newer establishment over on Law Lane bearing the generic and ungainly moniker: “Student Recreational Sports Center.”
The William L. Garrett Sports Center has a nice ring to it.
Do it, IU. Now. Right thing to do. Well past time.