The next morning, about nine o'clock, I call Bob again. he still sounded angry with me, but he told me that I had until the following Monday- it was then Thursday- to come to the Indiana University campus and sign my scholarship acceptance papers. As I hung up the telephone, I felt relieved. Bob, who had also grown up in Mishawaka, had save the day for me. Although he had every reason to be annoyed with me, he had intervened on my behalf, and convinced Coach McCraken, and even now in my 69th year of life, I still thank Bob for the assistance the confused, poorly informed young man I was in 1957. And the Saturday following my Thursday morning telephone conversation with Bob Stebbins, January.
I can still recall the expression on Coach McCraken's face when I met him in his office, the following Monday. He was a tall, broad shouldered, white hair-, middle aged man; and he had a penetrating stare that could freeze you in your tracks and cause you to wonder what you had done wrong. I had talked with him in January at the Hoosier Relays. After I had broken the Indiana University high jump record, he approached me and asked mewould I like to play basketball at IU. Of course I was proud and happy that one of America's leading basketball coaches wanted to recruit me. After all, I, an eighteen year old high school senior who, a few minutes earlier, had jumped higher than any Indiana University athlete had ever done was on cloud nine. But I told him that I wanted to visit UCLA and some other schools before I decided on a college. After all, I told him, I would spend the next four years at that school; therefore, I had to be sure. In fact, and we both realisesd it, I was declining his offer. Of course I needed and wanted more time to visit other colleges, but that was only one reason I did not accept his offer.
There was, to be completely candid, another more important reason I was hesistant to enroll at Indiana University: Oscar Robinson, already the best high school basketball player in both Indiana and soon to be the best college player in the USA; Hallie Bryant, a balck player at Indiana University whom I had met at the Dust Bowl in Indianapolis in the summer of 1956; and, Charlie Brown who had played his second year at IU, and then transferred to Seattle University, told me, when I visited Seattle University, to stay away from IU. "Man, that's a racist place...He'll[Coach McCracken] never let you play. He plays the white boys unless they're losing, LeRoy. He'll never have more than two black players in the starting five, even if you're ten times better than the white boys."
What Oscar, who was destined to become arguably the best point guard to play in the NBA, did not tell me was thar Branch McCracken had recruited, Bill Garrett- from Shelbyville, Indiana- who was the first African American to play varsity basketball in The Big Ten Conference. Eventually, this fact convinved me that Coach McCraken was not the "racist." Nonetheless, later I discovered that in spite of Coach McCraken history making decision, Oscar, Hallie, and Charlie Brown had not be entirely wrong in their accessment of the social and athletic conditions for black basketball players at Indiana University.
"Did you enjoy your trips to Kansas and UCLA?" Coach McCraken asked me almost as soon as I entered his second floor office form which one could see the Memorial Union Building, the beautiful center of students' activities on the IU campus. I wanted to ask him how he knew about my trips, but I simply said that LA was too big and Lawrence was too small for me. "What makes you think that you'll like Bloomington, Johnson?"
Although I did not realize it then, "Johnson" and not leRoy would be the name Coach McCracken would always call me; and depending upon his tone of voice, I always knew whether he approved or disapproved of the way I played, of the social and political activities in which I participated, or of the courses in enrolled while I was a student at IU. Now, looking back to that time of my life, I still have to ask myself whether I liked or disliked Coach McCraken, although I am sure that he neither liked nor understood me. At that time, however, i only wanted to know whether he still wanted me to play for him.
"My freshman players have to attend summer, if they don't have a summer job...you got a summer job, Johnson?"
We both knzw the answer to his question, and that annoyed me because I saw no point in asking questions to which you already had the answers. However, during my three bitter sweet years at IU, I quickly realised that Coach McCraken excelled at putting rhetorical questions
to his players.
"No, I don't Coach," I replied softly.
"You'll have to enroll in the second summer session, if you want to live on campus and work out with the rest of the team, Johnson."
"Anything you say, Coach," I replied. Coach McCraken, in his very indirect southern Indiana manner, was again offering me the scholarship
I had turned down at the beginning of 1957. I was, to say the least, overjoyed, but I tried to conceal my joy.
"Thank you Coach," I said as I managed a nervous smile.
"You're going to share a dorm room with another freshman summer school student. Bellamy, Walt Bellamy. He's from North Carolina.
You're going to be playing with him, so you might as well get to know him," Coach McCraken said in a matter of fact tone of voice.
For a moment I did not speak, but then I timidly ask Coach McCraken how to get to the dormitory where I was going to live during the
"One of the team managers will take you to the Men's Quad, as soon as I'm finished with you," he answered; and then he opened the top draw of his desk and took out a long manila envelope with the words "Johnson from Mishawaka" write in bold black letters written on it. Coach McCraken removed a summer school application. He instructed me to fill it out; and of course Idid immediately. Once I had completed it, Coach McCraken inspected it, and then gave me a summer school meal card. "You'll have to get your picture taken and put it on the card." Coach McCraken stood up, and I realised that the first of the many encouters I would have with him was over.
As he finished, one of the varsity basketball team's managers suddenly appeared. A young man with short sandy hair, a big friendly smile on his face, and laughing eyes entered Coach McCraken's office. He introduced himself, and told me, "We all live in the same dormitory. It's not far, and I'll take you over there now." He and I left Coach McCraken's office and headed for the place I would live for the following three years.
When we reached the Men's Quad, the student manager took me to the second floor of the new and massive building, where he knocked on the
door of one of the rooms. I heard movement inside of the room; and shortly a tall, muscular young man with keen eyes opened the door. His
head nearly touch the top th door frame. I had only been that close to one other man as tall as this one; and that was when I was eleven years old
and had had the extraordinary chance to meet George Milken, the center of the then Minnapolis Lakers, who, like my future roommate, was nearly
seven feet tall. The manager introduced Walt to me. "Hey, he said, " glad to meet you. Last Friday, Coach told me that I'd have a roommate."
He paused for a moment, and then he continued: "I've hear a lot about you. They say you can run all day and shot the hell out of a basketball...But
race horse- that 's the nickname Bellamy gave me- can you play defense."
"Look, work horse"-my nickname for Bellamy-"you're not a ball player unless you can can defend. I learned that a long time ago." For a moment
Bellamy gazed down at me. Then he said, "Come on in race horse and tell me about Kansas and UCLA," as he stepped aside and invited me into
the room he and I would share during the second 1957 summer school session at Indiana University. As I entered the room, I had no idea- and probably neither did Walt- that I was going to share living space with one of the future greats of the NBA. But I quickly took a liking to this silent, resolved, gentle giant from New Bern, North Carlonia, a small town in the American South. I would learn a great deal from bellamy abut race relations in the South. And about halfway through my first year at Indiana University, I began to realize that Indiana University, located in the very southern part of the state of Indiana, was itself in the South.
Leroy Johnson, sept 07