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William "Bill" Leon Garrett (1929 – 1974)

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William "Bill" Leon Garrett (1929 – 1974)

Posted: 11 May 2013 9:28AM GMT
Classification: Biography
William Leon Garrett (April 4, 1929 – August 7, 1974) was the first African-American basketball player in the Big Ten athletic conference.

Born in Shelbyville, Indiana, he was Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1947, the year he graduated from Shelbyville High School, following Shelbyville's victory in the state tournament that year. At Indiana University, he became the first African-American to play on the school's varsity men's basketball team and also the first African-American to regularly start on a Big Ten team. He was All-American when he graduated in 1951. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the draft, becoming the third black player ever drafted by an NBA team.

Shortly thereafter, Garrett was called into military duty. After two years in the U.S. Army, Garrett returned home to find that he had been cut from the Celtics and began playing with the Harlem Globetrotters. Following his stint with the Globetrotters, he began teaching and coaching basketball at Wood High School in Indianapolis, Indiana, before becoming Head Coach at Crispus Attucks, which had previously won state championship's in 1955 and 1956 with Oscar Robertson as its star player.

He was assistant dean for student services at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis at the time of his death from a heart attack, aged 45.
He is buried in Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.

Garrett was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1974


Getting Open: The Unknown Story of Bill Garrett and the Integration of College Basketball

by Tom Graham, Rachel Graham Cody

Bill Garrett was the Jackie Robinson of college basketball. In 1947, the same year Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball, Garrett integrated big-time college basketball. By joining the basketball program at Indiana University, he broke the gentleman's agreement that had barred black players from the Big Ten, college basketball's most important conference. While enduring taunts from opponents and pervasive segregation at home and on the road, Garrett became the best player Indiana had ever had, an all-American, and, in 1951, the third African American drafted in the NBA. In basketball, as Indiana went so went the country. Within a year of his graduation from IU, there were six African American basketball players on Big Ten teams. Soon tens, then hundreds, and finally thousands walked through the door Garrett opened to create modern college and professional basketball. Unlike Robinson, however, Garrett is unknown today.
Getting Open is more than "just" a basketball book. In the years immediately following World War II, sports were at the heart of America's common culture. And in the fledgling civil rights efforts of African Americans across the country, which would coalesce two decades later into the Movement, the playing field was where progress occurred publicly and symbolically.

Indiana was an unlikely place for a civil rights breakthrough. It was stone-cold isolationist, widely segregated, and hostile to change. But in the late 1940s, Indiana had a leader of the largest black YMCA in the world, who viewed sports as a wedge for broader integration; a visionary university president, who believed his institution belonged to all citizens of the state; a passion for high school and college basketball; and a teenager who was, as nearly as any civil rights pioneer has ever been, the perfect person for his time and role. This is the story of how they came together to move the country toward getting open.

Father-daughter authors Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody spent seven years reconstructing a full portrait of how these elements came together; interviewing Garrett's family, friends, teammates, and coaches, and digging through archives and dusty closets to tell this compelling, long-forgotten story.

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