By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
COOPER, Iowa, April 2, 2014 – The Iowa State Cyclones did not win their NCAA Sweet 16 basketball game against the University of Connecticut in Madison Square Garden in New York City last weekend. But Iowa State’s strong showing there surely must have pleased the spirit of John Crawford, who in 1954 came out of New York City to become the first African American to play basketball for the Cyclones.
Crawford became a star, a first-team selection on the All-Big Eight Conference team. And then he went back home to a distinguished 42-year career as a teacher, principal and then deputy superintendent of the New York City public schools.
For much of his career, he lived in Westport, Conn., commuting every day back into the city for work. Like most Connecticut residents, he became a fan of UCONN basketball. But don’t interpret that to mean he gave up any allegiance to Iowa State. Hardly! He was so devoted, and in such good shape, that on most of his trips back to Ames, he’d wear his red Iowa State letter sweater from his student years. And it still fit.
HE OPENED A DOOR. When he was inducted into the Iowa State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006, the citation noted that he was “the first African American basketball player in school history, opening the door for a slew of future Cyclone stars.” His is indeed quite a story.
I got to tell part of the Crawford story in 2008 when I was writing the book, “Gary Thompson: All-American,” the biography of the Cyclones’ two-sport All-American who went on to become a noted basketball broadcaster and a highly successful business entrepreneur. Thompson was one year ahead of Crawford at Iowa State.
In the fall of 2007, Crawford and I spent more than two hours talking one afternoon at the Gateway Hotel in Ames, and I was back in touch with him by phone a couple times subsequently. Most of our conversation was about how he viewed Thompson, his lifelong friend. Indeed, Crawford gave me what I think was the single best quote in the whole book about what Thompson had been like when they were teammates in college.
“Gary really was what every man wishes he’d been, what every boy wanted to be,” Crawford said.
It was such a good quote that we put it on the inside title page of the book.
You can imagine what that meant to Thompson, who still lives in Ames. I reminded him about it after the news broke about Crawford’s death. “His quote in the book meant more to me than any awards, and I have told him that,” Thompson told me.
I want to re-visit some of Crawford’s story, just as I wrote it in the Thompson book. And then I’ll conclude this report with an update from Crawford’s wife, Helene Crawford, from a phone chat with her last week.
AS I REPORTED IN THE BOOK: Before Gary Thompson started playing varsity basketball at Iowa State in the 1954-’55 season, it had been nearly a decade since the Cyclone teams had stirred much excitement.
Louis Menze had been the coach of some teams that were conference champions in the 1930s and ’40s, including an appearance in the NCAA semifinals in 1944 when they lost to eventual champion Utah. In 1948, after Menze had become athletics director, he turned the basketball coaching over to Clayton “Chick” Sutherland. Six consecutive losing seasons followed. But Sutherland did make a notable contribution to Iowa State basketball – he successfully recruited Gary Thompson, who had become the most popular athlete in Iowa at little Roland High School. He led the Roland Rockets to the state tournament three straight years, with multiple upsets of much larger high schools, and became known himself as “the Roland Rocket.”
The Cyclones were 6-15 in 1953-’54 when Thompson was a freshman. NCAA and conference rules then prohibited all freshmen from playing varsity sports.
When Sutherland was dismissed as coach in the spring of 1954, Menze made a move so bold that he surely must have done so with approval, if not encouragement, from Iowa State President James Hilton: He went after one of the nation’s brightest young coaching prospects, Bill Strannigan, of Colorado A&M. It was a clear signal that Iowa State wanted to start a new era in basketball.
BRINGING AN OVERNIGHT CHANGE IN THE PROGRAM. Born in Scotland but raised in Rock Springs, Wyoming, Strannigan had been a superstar athlete in basketball, football and baseball at the University of Wyoming form 1940 to ’42, including being named to the All-American basketball team of 1941, as a 5 ft. 10 in. guard. He went on to star in AAU basketball for the Denver American Legion team that won the 1942 national championship, and he was named an All-American at that level. He then joined the U.S. Navy for war-time duty.
After military service, Strannigan taught and coached high school sports in Loveland, Colorado, for at least two years. Then he landed the head basketball coaching position at Colorado A&M, the college in Fort Collins that eventually would be re-named Colorado State University. In four years as the Rams’ coach, he directed his teams to a 60-56 record. In the 1953-’54 season, he attracted national attention while leading A&M to the championship of the Skyline Conference and a ranking of 13th in the U.S.
Strannigan was 36 years old when he became head coach at Iowa State. News stories then described him as “personable,” “effervescent” and “a public relations genius.” Basketball instantly became fun for the Cyclone faithful.
“There was an overnight change in the program,” said Arnie Gaarde, who was between his sophomore and junior years as a guard. “It was especially exciting for a guard because we pressed, we’d fast break – the pace of our game really picked up. The other part of it, he designed our offense around our starting guards, Gary Thompson and Larry Wetter. Chick Sutherland’s style of play had been so much more methodical – pass, pass, pass, try to get it inside. Bill Strannigan’s game was so much faster and more fun to play. It was like a light going on for us.”
Strannigan’s starting line-up in his first year, the 1954-’55 season, had Thompson, who was just a sophomore, joining four seniors – all of them from Iowa. They were Wetter, from tiny Rinard; Stan Frahm, from Manning; Chuck Duncan, from Atlantic, and Don DeKoster, from Spencer. The key reserves included juniors Gaarde, from little Armstrong; Gerald Sandbulte, from Sioux Center, and sophomore Chuck Vogt, from Clinton…
The 1956-’57 Iowa State Cyclones led by Coach Bill Strannigan and Gary Thompson in his senior year. Thompson (20) is at the left front. Crawford (40) was a junior. (Iowa State Athletics photo)
“PULLING A TEAM TOGETHER AROUND GARY.” …Duncan, one of the centers on the team, told me he’s always been proud of how “that senior year of ours, with Strannigan coaching and Gary in the line-up, was the beginning of the turn-around in Iowa State basketball. I remember speaking at a high school athletic banquet after that season and telling the kids that if Iowa State could pull a team together around Gary the next couple of years, he would become an All-American – and he did.”
Strannigan indeed set out “to pull a team together around Gary,” just as Duncan predicted. He went on a recruiting binge the likes of which Iowa State basketball had never known.
Lyle Frahm, younger brother of Cyclone starter Stan Frahm, was finishing a stellar high school career at Manning in western Iowa, and remembers the impact of Strannigan’s recruiting.
“I believe when Bill Strannigan came to Iowa State, it was just a new era,” said Lyle Frahm, now retired in Montana after a career that included coaching basketball. “I rather doubt that all of a sudden the recruiting budget grew by leaps and bounds, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Bill just spent whatever it took to get the job done. I think for many years, the program was just stuck with Iowa players, and I doubt that Chick Sutherland felt much like getting into the recruiting wars.
“So, my freshman year, the fall of 1954, was really an interesting and almost overwhelming year. We had All-State players from all over – New York, Wisconsin, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, Iowa and possibly some other states I’m not remembering. There were 30 of us freshmen who showed up for the first practice. A few were on full scholarships, some on half scholarships, some on tuition only – like me – and some were walk-ons.”
Frahm rattled off names of as many of those players as his memory provides: Don Medsker, Englewood, Colorado; Walt Bradley, also from Colorado; Al Lowery, Homewood, Illinois; Larry Swanson, Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Leroy Whiteside, Joliet, Illinois; Ron Hain, Westmont, Illinois; Terry Ecker, from Wyoming; John Crawford, New York City, and other players from Iowa, like Bud Bergman, of Grundy Center; Bill Meyer, of Davenport; Dick Farwell, of Clinton, and Dave Young, of Ottumwa.
CRAWFORD HAD BEEN THE BEST IN NEW YORK CITY. Of all those, the one who got the Cyclone fans’ immediate attention was Crawford, the school’s first African American basketball player and eventually one of its most popular students.
He had been named the “most outstanding player” in New York City’s tough high school basketball leagues during his senior year at the New York School of Printing in Manhattan, a high school with about 1,000 students. He had averaged 32 points per game that year. He stood 6 ft. 5 in., weighed 185 pounds – “same as now,” he told me proudly 50 years later. He had excellent speed and was as good a defensive player and rebounder as he was a scoring threat on offense.
How the heck did Strannigan find him, and then convince him to come to Iowa State?
“I believe Bill Strannigan heard about me from a former player or friend of his at Colorado A&M who was working in New York City,” said Crawford. “That guy made arrangements for me to talk to Strannigan, and we hit it off. He talked to my mother, and she liked him, too. He was very personable.”
Crawford had letters offering scholarships “from 30 or 40 schools,” he recalls. “St. John’s in New York and Temple in Philadelphia were both really after me, but you know, I just wanted to leave the city. I wanted to try somewhere else. I got an offer from UCLA, which had a good pharmacy program and I was thinking about that back then. The University of Hawaii recruited me a little. And I heard from most of the historically black colleges and universities, too.
“Strannigan told me he had a great shooting guard – he meant Gary Thompson – and that he was building a team around him. He said this guy was just a great player, but I had no idea then just how good he was.”
The thought of living in Iowa, a rural state with a very small black population, did not bother him, and it didn’t worry his mother Cleonis Crawford.
“Strannigan promised her he’d look out for me, and he always did,” John Crawford said.
CRAWFORD’S FRIEND CAME WITH HIM. And the coach also recruited another African American player to come to Iowa State at the same time.
“He was Stacey Arceneaux, who was a friend of mine who had played at a different New York City school – Taft High in the Bronx,” Crawford said. “He came to Ames with me, but I don’t think he ever actually enrolled at IowaState. When they were checking his records, they discovered that somehow he had not completed enough high school credits to enroll. So they were arranging it so he could go to Ames High School and take whatever course or courses he needed. But Stacey was also in love with a girl back in New York, and that was his excuse to go back home.”
Arceneaux, incidentally, went on to become a star player for several years in the professional Eastern Basketball League, a minor league that operated in New York and other eastern states, and he was picked up briefly by the old St. Louis Hawks of the National Basketball League.
Coming out of New York City, did the two young men feel like they were on the other side of the Moon when they got to Ames?
“Not at all,” said Crawford. “We rode out on the train, and I was already used to wide open spaces. I was born in South Carolina, and my parents moved us to New York City when I was five years old. As I grew up, I spent a lot of summers with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and other family around a little town of Ellenton, South Carolina. So I already had a little experience in small towns.”
SETTING THE STAGE. Crawford said he “had a very good freshman year. We felt as a freshman team that we could have beaten the varsity, but our coach Herb Cormack had so many of us he had to play that we couldn’t just play our best against their best.”
In that school year of 1954-’55 when Crawford and Lyle Frahm were freshmen, “the NCAA allowed universities to hold four weeks of spring practice after the regular season was over,” Frahm recalled, “and thus the coach could see what he had coming back already for the next year. Those spring drills were only allowed for one or two years, and then that was it.
“But of those 30 of us who started that school year together as freshmen basketball players, all of them pretty much hung around until spring,” he continued. “It was after that spring practice, that I received my full scholarship for the balance of my career, and a few others did, too. Then the roster narrowed down considerably by fall, as players either saw the writing on the wall or were cut by the time fall practice began.”
Of the 30, incidentally, only six were still playing at Iowa State when they were seniors – Frahm, Crawford, Medsker, Swanson, Lowery and Farwell…
…For the 1955-’56 season, Crawford, Medsker and Lyle Frahm all moved into the starting line-up as sophomores, joining juniors Thompson and Vogt… They won the Big Seven Conference holiday tournament, soared as high as No. 5 in the national rankings. They wound up the season winning seven of their last nine games, finishing 18-5, the most wins in a season ever by an Iowa State team…
Iowa State fans were relishing the start of the 1956-’57 season, Thompson’s senior year. He was one of the most talked-about players in the nation, and Iowa State’s sports information director Harry Burrell was calling the upcoming campaign the “Go With Gary!” season.
The Armory, the big drafty ROTC hall where Iowa State played its home games, was given a complete renovation. The playing floor in the building was shifted from north-south to east-west. That, plus a new “crow’s nest” balcony, allowed room for 2,500 more seats, expanding the capacity to 7,500 for games…
The Cyclones’ starting line-up was generally the same as in the preceding season, with Thompson, Vogt, Lyle Frahm, Crawford and Medsker. As the season went on, John Krocheski, a 6 ft. 7 in. sophomore from Ames, became more of a factor and an occasional starter.
They opened the season with consecutive victories over Michigan State, Houston (Thompson scored 35), Brigham Young University, Texas Tech and Tulsa, before losing to top-ranked Kansas in the first round of the Big Seven holiday tournament, 58-57. That was the first time Iowa State had played against Kansas’ 7-ft.-tall Kansas phenom, Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, a sophomore.
John Crawford (40) and the other Cyclones guarding Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas in the historic upset in January, 1957. (Iowa State Athletics photo)
RUNNING INTO RACISM ON THE ROAD. “One thing I’ve never forgotten about that trip in December ’56 to play Texas Tech and Tulsa was that it was one of those times when we ran into some real racial discrimination against John Crawford,” said Thompson. “On that trip, we first went into Dallas, where we were going to work out and then check in at a hotel around 6 p.m. We had reservations at the hotel, but when we got there, the clerk looked at our group, saw Crawford and said to Bill Strannigan, ‘Is he with you?’ When Strannigan said that, yes, John was one of our players, the clerk said, ‘Well, he can’t stay here.’
“Strannigan came right back at him and said, ‘Well, if he doesn’t say here, none of us do!’ The clerk kind of backed off, and probably saw a whole lot of business about ready to go out the door. Then he said, ‘Well, if he will stay in a ground-floor room and doesn’t use the elevator, he can stay.’ That was ridiculous, but John said it was O.K., so that’s what we did. But that wasn’t all he had to put up with.
“When we went to Texas Tech to play, he was whistled for three fouls in the first six minutes of the game, and had to sit out. When we went to Tulsa and played, same thing—they called a bunch of quick cheap fouls on John.”
Finding a place where Crawford would be allowed to eat on that trip was also difficult.
“We were only getting about $2 apiece to eat a meal on then, and we generally couldn’t afford to eat at the hotels,” Thompson said. “So a small group of us, including John, walked down the street to find a restaurant. I’d go to the manager and say, ‘We’re the Iowa State basketball team, and we’ve got a player who is Negro—that’s what we called blacks then—and we’d like to eat here.’
“We went to five or six restaurants, and it was awful what most of the managers were saying back to me. But two of them said they did have a back seating area in their restaurants, and we could eat there if we wanted to. So I picked one of those, and I just told the guys that’s where we’d go. I didn’t say much to them about what really happened because I didn’t want it to hurt John, but I’ll tell you, I was really mad about it myself.”
…The season moved on to mid-January, 1957, when Iowa State beat Drake 97-71 in the first college game ever played in the then-still-new Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Des Moines. Three days later in Ames, the Cyclones upset top-ranked Kansas 39-37 in one of the biggest moments of Iowa State basketball history – a game so epic I gave it a whole chapter in the Thompson book.
The team ended with a 16-7 record, and Thompson was named one of the five players on the Associated Press All-American first team with Chamberlain of Kansas, Lennie Rosenbluth of North Carolina, Chet Forte of Columbia and Rod “Hot Rod” Hundley of West Virginia.
AS CRAWFORD FINISHED UP AT IOWA STATE. In the 1957-’58 season, which was John Crawford’s senior year, the Cyclones went 16-7 again, including another win over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain in Ames, this one by six points. That year, Crawford averaged about 19 points and 10 rebounds per game. He wound up as the second leading scorer in the history of Iowa State, behind only Thompson, and he was also the No. 1 rebounder of all-time. He was drafted by the St. Louis Spirits of the old American Basketball Association, but pro basketball did not offer much job security in that era, and Crawford decided to go home to New York City and start his teaching career. But first he was selected on a team of graduated senior All-Stars from across the nation to be coached by DePaul’s Ray Meyer and play a series of 10 games around the U.S. against the Harlem Globetrotters.
Later, when Crawford reflected back on his time in Ames, he told me he “had a very enjoyable four years at Iowa State. People were wonderful.” He became close with the family of Ralph Olsen, of Ellsworth, an Iowa State alumnus who was a major supporter of Iowa State athletics, the namesake of the Olsen Building just north of Jack Trice Stadium. Olsen’s daughter Patty and her husband Bruce Yungclas named their son Gary John Yungclas after Gary Thompson and John Crawford. The Olsen and Yungclas families remained friends with the Crawfords through the decades.
“I also had a nice relationship with President Hilton,” Crawford said. “If we’d see each other on campus, he always seemed to go out of his way to stop and say hello, and ask how I was doing. He’d always say, ‘John, stop by my office and visit whenever you want to.’ Well, I never did that, but since he was so nice to me, when I finally was getting ready to graduate, I sent the president an invitation – even though he was already going to be there, of course. He wrote me a note back and said, ‘O.K., now you have to stop by my office for a visit, or I’m not going to give you your diploma!’ So then I stopped to see him. That was quite a day. I remember Coach Strannigan and Ralph Olsen drove my mother and me to the ceremony.”
Crawford had majored in health and physical education at Iowa State, and he taught seventh grade phys ed, math and science from 1958 to ’68. He was doing a little coaching in community centers, and he also started taking graduate school courses at Hunter College and Columbia University. He wound up with two master’s degrees – one in guidance and the other in school administration.
He became an assistant principal, then a principal of an intermediate school.
A TOUGH TIME IN THE SCHOOLS. Helene Crawford first met John in the mid 1970s “when I came into the school as a new teacher” and he was a relatively new administrator. “The school was out of control,” she said. “Gangs had come into the school, and there was a lot of trouble. John settled it all down. He sat down and met with the gangs.”
The longest stretch of his career, John Crawford was principal at Paul Robeson Magnet School for Medical Careers & Health Professions, which he said was “the first magnet school in the district.” He was so popular with students there that some of them even now are continuing a Facebook group page where they can share memories of their principal and their Robeson School experiences.
In 1995, he became deputy superintendent of the New York City public schools, and then retired in October of 1999.
Crawford continued playing basketball for about 10 years after his Iowa State career ended. He played in the old Eastern Professional League and had stints with teams from Scranton, Willkes-Barre and Williamsport, all in Pennsylvania. “That was a weekend-league with a lot of the guys who had played in the NBA,” he told me. “It was pretty good basketball. I averaged a little over 16 points per game and got to play on one league championship team with Wilkes-Barre.”
As the years went by, he became an avid tennis player, as mentioned earlier, and an avid fisherman.
In a photo taken about four years ago, Helene and John Crawford (center and right) are shown with Helene’s sister Joan.
A WHOLE LOT OF FRIENDS – INCLUDING WILT! Basketball gave him many life-long friendships, among them all his old Iowa State teammates but also the old foe Wilt Chamberlain, Willis Reed of the New York Knickerbockers, and other pro stars he met along life’s way.
In 2009, Crawford was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, which includes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Nate Archibald, Lenny Wilkins, Jim Valvano and other legends of the game who grew up playing in the city.
John Crawford’s first marriage ended in divorce, and he eventually started dating Helene and then in about 1990 they were married. She had taught English and reading, then learning disabilities, before she became an assistant principal and then principal.
“I retired in 2001 – two years after John – because I could see he was having too much fun,” she told me.
They had a nice life together, continuing to live in Westport, Conn., with winter trips to Sarasota, Fla.
In John’s first marriage, he had an adopted son, who was killed in an auto accident in June, 1998, in Indiana, where the young man was living with his family. Three grandchildren survive, including Jennifer Walker-Crawford, who just completed her first year as a scholarship basketball player in a strong program at Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro. She had just completed a spring break vacation with John and Helene when he died.
With his health problems of the last four years, “life was a challenge for John,” Helene said. But he died peacefully, and he must have been content with all he did in his life.
“John was the first African-American to play basketball at Iowa State, but we never saw it that way. He was just one of us,” Gary Thompson said in a news release issued by Iowa State after Crawford’s death. “He was a tremendous teammate and a great player. I stayed in contact with John throughout the years. I will miss him dearly.”
Certainly neither of them will ever be forgotten at Iowa State University.
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