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Date Posted: Saturday, January 12, 05:22:35pm
In reply to:
Dead at 91
's message, "Harlem Globetrotter, Jumping Johnny Wilson" on Saturday, January 12, 04:55:34pm
The first time Jumpin' Johnny Wilson felt the unfairness, it was blatant. A coach made things crystal clear to the 10-year-old basketball player.
"Johnny, you know in order for you to ever play ball at the high school, youíve got to be twice as good as any white boy on the team," the coach told Wilson.
To Wilson, those words just didn't make sense. He was already a standout for the city of Anderson in fifth grade. He'd made the sixth-grade team as a fourth-grader.
So, the next year, Wilson tucked the coach's words into his head at every game and kept silent. No back talk. No asking why. He just played.
When the season ended, Wilson was the leading scorer in the city, with more than twice the points of the boy who came in second, 240 points to the other boy's 99.
"So I took the paper, the only clipping I ever cut out of the paper in my life, I cut it out and I took it to that coach," Wilson told IndyStar in 2016. "And I asked, 'Am I good enough now to make it?'"
Wilson, time would tell, was more than good enough.
The Indiana basketball legend who used athletics to shatter racial barriers died Friday in Virginia at the age of 91. He had been the oldest living Indiana Mr. Basketball and oldest living former Harlem Globetrotter. After his playing days, Wilson became the first black head coach of an integrated high school in Indianapolis and as coach of Malcolm X College in Chicago for 16 years, Wilson compiled a 378-135 record.
He did all of it quietly, without boasting, without fanfare.
"Looking back, he was the perfect role model," said John Wilson, Jr., Wilson's son. "He never talked about everything he had done. He was just dad."
'That's one kid saved'
Wilson first made his mark at Anderson High School, standing just shy of 6-feet tall, dunking the ball, winning a state title his senior year, scoring 30 of his team's 67 points in its victory over Fort Wayne Central, and being named IndyStar Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1946.
A statue of Wilson ó who was nicknamed Jumpin' because he was the only player on his high school team who could dunk ó was erected in front of Anderson High in 2016, a tribute that Wilson hoped would make an impact on future generations.
"If at least one kid can look at that monument and say, 'Hey, I can do that,' thatís the thing that I want," Wilson said. "Because thatís one kid thatís saved."
Wilson had moved to Virginia to live with his son and daughter-in-law, Jackie, three years ago. He was doing well as late as Christmas Day, Wilson, Jr., said, but got sick and then got pneumonia.
"He wasnít scared. He said he acknowledged he lived a long life," his son said. "His mom passed away when she was 90. He always said he wanted to live one more year past her. And he did it."
In addition to his son, Wilson is survived by daughters Sherri and Gena Wilson, brother Gene Wilson, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his former wife, Norma.
"He was my uncle, but he was also a legend and so I always looked up to him," said Leisa Richardson, Wilson's great niece. "He's been the epitome of a role model for generations."
One of Wilson's most notable impacts was on his best friend growing up in Anderson, a white boy named Carl Erskine. The two were joined at the hip, an unlikely pair in the 1930s. They walked to school together every day in elementary school.
The two had remarkable chemistry as they played basketball in the historic Wigwam gymnasium at Anderson High. It was a magical place that seated nearly 5,000 people at the time. When they played in the 1940s, every game sold out at the Wigwam. Season tickets were coveted and passed down through families.
70 years later, a statue honors Indiana basketball hero
Erskine and Wilson led the team to the state semifinals in 1944, but Anderson lost to Kokomo after Wilson was injured in semistate.
"We just couldn't make up that 25 or 30 points Wilson usually scored," Erskine said. "Boy did we have teamwork going for the two of us."
Erskine didn't realize it at the time, but Wilson would shape his views on race and blur black and white into a color that Erskine didn't even see. And later in his life, someone would notice that. Inside the Brooklyn Dodgers locker room, Erskine heard a guy come up behind him.
"Hey Erskine, how come you don't have a problem with this black and white thing?" The voice belonged to Dodgers teammate Jackie Robinson.
"I said, 'Well, I grew up with Johnny Wilson,'" Erskine told Robinson. "'I didn't know he was black. He was my buddy. And so I don't have a problem.'"
Wilson couldn't get enough of basketball
Wilson was born in 1927 to Randolph and Hazel, who when married in 1917 already had four children between them. They then had seven more kids. Mary Francis was the oldest, followed by six boys. Amos died as a baby, leaving five boys.
Growing up in Anderson, there was no money for frivolous things such as a basketball. Wilson and his brothers would put rags in an old sock, then a rock in the middle. That was their basketball. They would shoot the sock-rock ball into a bushel basket nailed on an old shed out back.
His brother Gene Wilson talked to IndyStar about how Johnny Wilson just couldn't get enough of basketball. He would find a way to play even if it was shooting a tiny bean into a jar.
"We kept a scoring card. We had a book," said Gene Wilson. "We kept the names of the players and everything."
The practice paid off on the court, but off the court, sometimes it didn't matter how good he was.
There was the time Wilson was denied a $100 wristwatch, the prize to be given to the MVP of the All-Star game between Indiana and Kentucky. Wilson was the first black player to ever compete against a Kentucky team.
Wilson scored 27 points and led his team to victory over Kentucky. But that team was all-white and, at the end of the game, the prize panel decided that Kentucky's leading scorer, with 17 points, was the MVP of the game. He got the watch.
"That sure didn't feel fair," Wilson said. But he didn't complain. Someone else did, though, a sportswriter for the local paper. And before Wilson knew it, people were sending in donations to buy him a $100 watch.
There was so much money that there was enough to buy another teammate a watch as well, and to send the two boys to Cincinnati to watch a baseball game.
Sometimes, things would turn out just fine keeping quiet. Other times, dreams were shattered.
'He's one of the legends'
After graduating from Anderson, Wilson had big dreams of going to Indiana University to play ball. That was his first choice and Mr. Basketball usually had a good shot at first choice.
Not this time. There had never been a black player in the Big Ten, and Wilson wasn't going to get the chance to be the one to break that barrier.
He learned that at a luncheon, one of many banquets he attended for winning a state title and being Mr. Basketball. IU coach Branch McCracken was the speaker at the luncheon. After his talk, there was a question-and-answer session with coach.
Someone asked McCracken, "If Wilson comes to IU, would he play basketball?"
"He looked straight at me and says, ĎI donít think he could make my team,í " Wilson said. "And he didnít have a single kid on that team that I hadnít played against in high school and beat."
Wilson had offers from schools, smaller schools in Indiana, but not a lot. Not Butler, not Purdue. He did get plenty of offers from the historically black colleges in the South.
"My mother would not allow me to go to the South because at that time things were bad news," Wilson said.
So Wilson landed about two miles from his home, at Anderson College. He lived with his mother, who was left a widow when he was 13 after his dad died of pneumonia. He majored in history and physical education.
Many today don't realize the struggles Wilson faced, said Rev. James Streeter, who was on the committee to honor Wilson with a statue.
"Heís one of the legends thatís here," Streeter said. "The story that he has, the things that he's done, the things that he's been through, people donít realize that. Maybe some of these kids really need to hear the story because they're out there playing and they donít realize that someone had to pave the way and open the door."
Out of college, Wilson signed a contract to play baseball with the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues. He wasn't just a basketball player; he was a standout in baseball and track.
He then spent nearly five years playing basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters. With the Globetrotters, Wilson got to travel the world. He was the drop-kicker for the team, standing center court and kicking the ball into the basket. He made that basket about 70 times of his 300-plus tries. Each time he made it, he got $100.
After leaving the Globetrotters, Wilson taught in an Indianapolis elementary school. Two years later, he landed a job teaching history and physical education at Wood High School in the city. When he was named basketball coach a couple of years later, Wilson became the first black head coach of an integrated school.
Wilson then spent 16 years as head coach and athletic director at Malcolm X College in Chicago, compiling a 378-135 record. All the while, he recruited students from Anderson who likely wouldn't have gone to college otherwise.
"Heís done a lot of things that he doesn't toot his own horn about," Streeter said. "But he's helped a lot of people in this community, a lot of kids."
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