Indiana High School Basketball: Attucks, Oscar Robertson, and Civil Rights

Cindy: Basketball fans rejoice—have we got a book for you! I know there’s some Super Bowl hype ratcheting up, but I couldn’t care less (especially since the Bears are out). It’s officially Big 10 college basketball season at my house and my crimson-and-cream, candy-stripe Hoosier warm-up pants are at the ready, while Lynn cheers for her Purdue Boilermakers. Lynn and I were eager to read Phillip Hoose’s new book, Attucks! Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City (2018), when we first learned about it—and it did not disappoint.

Combining sports action with civil rights history, Hoose tells the story of the 1950s basketball team from all-black Crispus Attucks High School on the west side of Indianapolis, its legendary coach Ray Crowe, and its superstar Oscar “The Big O” Robertson. Basketball has long been important to Indiana citizens, but for many years, racism restricted access to the sport for people of color. The Ku Klux Klan built Attucks to segregate the black students in Indianapolis and for years, these students, who faced many other inequities, were also not allowed to play basketball against teams from white public schools. But when Crowe took over the team in the ’50s (the times they were a-changin’), he coached a different style of play that would also change the game of basketball.

Hoose grew up in Speedway, Indianapolis, and for a few short weeks attempted to teach English at Crispus Attucks High School. He then spent years researching, interviewing, and writing this powerful book. I made the mistake of showing this book to my airplane seatmates, both teachers, on a recent trip; one of them kept it for the whole flight! They were North Carolina grads and basketball fans. I later told friend and poet Jack Ridl about the book since he grew up with a notable basketball-coach father, Charles “Buzz” Ridl, and has published a collection of basketball poems, Losing Season. Jack bought Attucks! immediately, telling me this:

“Oscar was my idol. Dad gave me a Christmas present of tickets to see him play and go to the locker room after to meet him. I noticed a random thread on the back of his sports coat, took it, and carried it in my wallet everywhere.”

Jack was 15. The Big O was special. Read Attucks! and learn more about his story. You’ll find yourself booktalking it to everyone you see, too, teen and adult.

Lynn: Basketball fans won’t need any convincing but I want to make sure we alert another large segment of readers about the importance of Hoose’s terrific book. Yes, this is a gripping sports story and a really important civil rights story, but it is also so much more. The real heart of this book comes from the people who worked tirelessly to overcome the deeply rooted and long accepted systems of discrimination that existed at every level. From cultural expectations to athletic organizations to city and state governments, bias and segregation ruled the day. Crowe and the remarkable young players who broke the color barrier in the Indiana Boys Basketball State Tournament had many around them who worked for years to achieve that triumph, and their story is an inspiration. This is a book to hand to the young people who have joined a new era of activism—a story of young people who made a difference.

On a personal level, reading Attucks! was like revisiting my teen years, but this time it felt like wearing glasses for the first time and really seeing what was around me! I started high school in a tiny school in Indiana in 1962—just seven short years after Attucks first won that tournament. I am deeply embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about Indiana’s shameful history and I learned much that helps explain Indiana politics today. Many of the places chronicled in the book are places my school’s team played (and lost), including some of the huge “basketball palaces” built during the “gym wars.”

But whatever your interests, Phillip Hoose, as always, writes compelling and fascinating narrative nonfiction. Even knowing the outcome, readers will feel a breathless sense of suspense as these ultimate underdogs triumphed over so much. Don’t miss the back matter, especially the section titled “The Times That Followed,” outlining what happened to the key individuals in the story, and an extremely enticing list of sources.

In a world where athletic prowess is more revered than ever, I think it’s even more important to reflect on Coach Ray Crowe’s philosophy:

“It is not my job to build basketball teams with boys . . . It is my job to build boys with basketball teams.”


About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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