A great basketball story that changed many lives at Vanderbilt & beyond

By CHUCK OFFENBURGER

COOPER, Iowa, Jan. 13, 2015 – If you were a college student in the mid to late 1960s, especially in the South like I was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, you had a front row seat to observe some of the biggest changes in American history. But if you had any heart at all, you left the sitting and observing to the old fuds and instead you got up, got involved, raised hell and became part of it. And as if there needed to be one more interesting element to hold my attention, right in front of me happened one of the most interesting – sometimes most dangerous – basketball stories you can possibly imagine.

Perry Wallace, the African American who came to Vanderbilt the year after I did and became the athlete who “broke the color line” in the Southeastern Conference, was and is strong inside. He has always had to be.

You’ll understand that if you take time to read his story, “Strong Inside – Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South,” by Andrew Maraniss. The 467-page book came out just before Christmas from Vanderbilt University Press (and is available from Amazon and the other major vendors).

That title sounds like it could be a text book for a college class, doesn’t it? And it indeed should be.

It is really a story about the transformation of America, especially in the late ’60s when that transformation hit its peak speed. That came with the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Bobby Kennedy, both in 1968; the escalating protests of the Vietnam War; new militancy in the Civil Rights movement; the rise of hippies, God love ’em, and youthful challenges of nearly all the old rules of morality and behavior.

In this book, that story gets told from a very different perspective.

Perry Wallace, by the spring of 1966, was the most famous high school kid in Tennessee.

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Perry Wallace, early in his Vanderbilt basketball career, 1966 or 1967.

He was certainly one of the best basketball players, having used his 6 ft. 4 in. size, his speed and his incredible leaping ability to lead Nashville’s all-black Pearl High School team to the state championship and a 31-0 record. (It was the first time that Tennessee’s black schools and white schools played in the same basketball tournament.) He certainly was one of the smartest high school kids in the state, too – valedictorian at Pearl, where academics and discipline were stressed. He was morally strong, having been raised in the very strict Church of Christ. He was very well-rounded, as devoted to music and science as he was to sports.

I well remember that Pearl High Tiger team. As a Vandy freshman interested in journalism, I was working part-time in the sports department at the Nashville Tennessean. The prep sportswriters of the era – Jimmy Davy, Bob Baldridge, Jim Andrews – told us part-timers that we really needed to see Pearl play. Besides their string of dominating victories in that ’65-’66 year, they had become famous for their “woomp show,” as book writer Maraniss says their pre-game warm-up routine was called. Let me quote a few paragraphs of this:

Here came the Pearl High cagers in their satin warm-up suits, red and white pinstripes and Tigers ablaze. The gym was already packed and, and it was only halftime of the JV game when the varsity came running out on the court for their early warm-ups, accompanied by the bones and whistles of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Balls bouncing, sneakers squeaking, girls shrieking.

First some layups. Tiger after Tiger rolling to the hoop and laying the ball off the glass.

The repetition was hypnotic. Tiger after Tiger, but then there was a wink, and “woooomp!” – there it was, Willie Fisher flew through the air and dunked the ball. And then another guard, Joe Herbert, dunked it, and then came Theodore ‘Hound’ McClain, and the crowd yelled, “wooomp!” – another dunk. And then came Walter Fisher and the rest of the big sticks, the forwards and centers, and the dunks got more powerful and the woooomps! got louder. Wooomp! Wooomp! Woooomp!

And then to finish it all off, to make the walls shake and the gym cave in, came the high-flyingest dunker of them all, the kid who idolized Wilt Chamberlain and ‘Big Daddy D’ David Lattin: here came Perry Wallace with a swish-swash reverse slam or a tomahawk or a rock-the-cradle or a one-handed windmill to top it all off, and the gym erupted with one final woooomp!

The dunk was Perry’s “freedom song” and his connection to his classmates, and it was also the end – before the game had even begun, before the JV game was even complete – for more than a few Pearl opponents, who stood on the other end of the court, slack-jawed, watching an entire team slam dunk the ball in warm-ups. Woooomp! Game over.

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 Pearl’s regional tournament games in March of 1966, as well as the subsequent state tournament games, were all played at Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium. I remember finding out that, by volunteering to sell the printed game programs outside the gym, we Vandy students could get in free. And if there’d been any doubt in the Vanderbilt student body about Perry Wallace before then, it was all erased during that state tournament – we all wanted him to become one of us at Vandy. Or at least that sub-group of us cheering at the basketball games sure did!

Racial integration of the student body at Vanderbilt had started a few years earlier – with the first black student enrolling in the Divinity School, then other graduate schools. The first black undergraduate students were admitted in about 1964. But there had been no black athletes.

And in that fall of 1966, Wallace and Godfrey Dillard, a basketball player from Detroit, became the first blacks to receive athletic scholarships – not just at Vanderbilt but in the whole SEC. They both played on the freshman team in 1966-’67 (first-year students were not eligible for varsity competition back then). Before their sophomore season, Dillard was injured, and he never got back on the varsity squad. He left Vanderbilt in the middle of his junior year, as I explain in another story here at Offenburger.com. Dillard back then beat up a white student sportswriter in a horrible incident that remained a secret from the public for the next 45 years. You can read about it by clicking here.

Wallace went on to a fantastic basketball career at Vanderbilt, an all-SEC selection his last two seasons.

He then had a brief experience in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers. He was too smart to squander much time in pro basketball’s minor leagues, so he soon followed another dream and went to law school at Columbia University in New York City. He has spent the rest of his career either practicing law, or teaching it, and is now a professor at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, D.C.

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Professor Perry Wallace outside the law school where he teaches now in Washington. D.C. (Nashville Tennessean photograph, used in the book “Strong Inside”)

In many ways, the Perry Wallace story is thrilling and inspiring, as you are probably guessing from what I’ve told you here. Plus, as an alumnus of Vanderbilt, I to this day am so proud of the university’s decision to recruit, enroll and play Wallace. Those decisions were ultimately made by Chancellor Alexander Heard, one of the greatest educators in the history of the South, and he made them despite tremendous public and donor opposition.

In many other ways, the Wallace story is terrifying and haunting. It made my heart hurt reading about how much he had to endure during games, especially those at Mississippi State and Old Miss – hatred, racial taunting, being spit upon, and even being intentionally injured.

Maybe even worse is now reading and learning how isolated, even “ignored,” Wallace and the other early black students felt when they were among us at Vanderbilt back then. Let me assure you – my closest white friends back then thought we were doing better with our new black friends. We thought we were looking out for them, and standing up for them when we should.

The truth we know now, after all these years, is that what we did back then wasn’t nearly enough.

Perry Wallace, at the end of his playing career, did candid interviews with the Nashville Tennessean and with our very strong student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler, in which he concluded that if he had it to do all over again, he wouldn’t have enrolled at Vanderbilt. The ordeal and terror of being a “pioneer,” as he was, just wasn’t worth it.

He told Maraniss for the book that the racial divide – even on the Vanderbilt campus – was such that he and the black students were mostly denied social lives, except with each other.

He also feels that we all missed some important opportunities to learn from each other. The Vanderbilt student body back then was filled with students who’d been valedictorians, salutatorians, class presidents, good athletes and more – blacks and whites.

“Just think about the stories we had to tell,” Wallace told Maraniss. “The students on campus who rejected us, who ignored us, who isolated us – we brought the opportunity for them to ‘practice being equal.’ The irony is that we were just who they needed to know. We brought with us insights into the world that they lived in that they did not have because segregation had set people apart. We had the other half of the story about race. And we were articulate messengers.”

When Wallace left Vanderbilt after graduation in 1970, he sadly did not come back to campus for decades.

You know, if I’d been aware of that, I would not have stood for it. I don’t know what I would have done about it, but I would have raised some kind of hell. Remember, I learned how to do that back in the ’60s.

Hmmm. Sad, isn’t it, how many times you find yourself saying later in your life, “If I’d been aware of that…”? There’s a real lesson right there.

As the book points out, in the last decade or so, the university has invited him back several times – to induct him into the athletic hall of fame, to formally retire his jersey, and to talk to some student and alumni groups. Hopefully those visits will continue, and Wallace will eventually have some of the great satisfaction I have with my own Vanderbilt experience.

Andrew Maraniss, the author of “Strong Inside,” has certainly done his part in providing us a book of lessons about what happened back then that was good, bad and ugly. He also is good on the parts of the Wallace story that are transforming and inspirational.

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The author Andrew Maraniss.

He is a 1992 Vandy grad who served as sports editor of the Hustler as undergraduate, and who won the university’s top journalism prize as a senior. He then worked five years in Vandy’s athletic department media relations, focusing on men’s basketball. He spent a year doing media for the Tampa Bay Rays in professional baseball, and then joined the Nashville public relations firm of McNeely Pigott & Fox, where he continues to work today. You can read more about him and the book at his website www.andrewmaraniss.com.  

Andrew is the son of David Maraniss, associate editor of the Washington Post, a Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting, and author of best-selling books about President Bill Clinton, Vince Lombardi, Roberto Clemente and President Barack Obama, as well as an acclaimed book on the Vietnam War era. David Maraniss is spending this spring semester at Vanderbilt, teaching two classes. When that was announced, Andrew Maraniss had a one-word response on Twitter: “Babysitter!”

Andrew Maraniss spent eight years, off and on, interviewing, reporting and writing on “Strong Inside.” His interest in the Perry Wallace story began in Maraniss’ sophomore year at Vanderbilt in1989, when he was taking a black history course. He interviewed Wallace for the first time then, and, of course, dozens of times after that as he completed the current book.

I couldn’t put it down. And when I was done, I emailed Maraniss that I am now looking at the book in four different ways:

–As an old pro journalist, I’ll say the book is about the finest reporting job I’ve read on any topic in years.  What I especially appreciate is how well he sets the context of all the different vignettes and incidents.  They happened so long ago, that context is essential for the book to be meaningful to the general reader – and indeed it will be.

–As someone who appears in the book, and who lived part of the story, I can attest that Maraniss’ accuracy is exceptional.

–As a Vandy grad, and one who is so grateful to and proud of my alma mater, I think this is probably the most important thing ever written about our university. And yes, I say again, it should be a text book for a college class.

–I now have renewed appreciation and better-than-ever understanding of Perry Wallace, and how difficult the challenges were that he accepted, faced and overcame. I intend to tell him how much I value knowing his whole story – the deep roots of his family, the experiences in his elementary & high school years, his whole Vandy experience and the fascinating career he has put together subsequently.

Confession time: When I first started into the book, I thought to myself, “Why the heck did I not think of doing this one myself?”  I now know why it was so much better for Maraniss to dig in and write it.  I think the proper telling of this story – to really explain the significance of it – required someone like him who 1) had an interest but 2) was not part of the story.

Powerful story. Woooomp! Strong inside, for sure.

You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.

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