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Bill Garrett: Breaking Boundaries in Indiana Basketball

There have been plenty of basketball players that have come from the fertile farmland of Indiana, but few have broken as many boundaries as famous Shelbyville resident Bill Garrett. Garrett lived during a time when segregation was king, before the civil rights movement was a force in the country. It was a hard time to be a black man in America, and even harder still to be a black man in the heart of the Midwest. But Garrett never let the difficulties that came with his skin color get him down. Instead, he initiated a series of sports firsts, went on to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, and paved the way for thousands of black athletes who otherwise might not have got the chance to prove themselves on the court.

Born in Shelbyville, Indiana in April of 1929, Bill Garrett attended Shelbyville High School. During his senior year at the Shelbyville school, Garrett was appointed a starter in the Shelbyville High School basketball squad, one of three black starters on the team, a first in basketball at any level in the United States. The Shelbyville Golden Bears quickly became known (derisively) as the Black Bears, and it became hard to travel with the team. Hotels and restaurants routinely denied players service because of their skin color. There were other obstacles, too: in a game against the powerful Terre Haute Purple Eagles, Shelbyville fans, convinced the referees were giving Terre Haute’s all white team an advantage, mobbed the court after Garrett was called on his fifth foul of the night, earning the Golden Bears a reputation for unruly behavior.

Bill Garrett and the Golden Bears would have the last laugh that year, however. The team won nine consecutive tournament games to earn a spot in the state championship game, again facing the unbeaten Terre Haute Purple Eagles. Led by Garrett, nicknamed Shelbyville’s “silent assassin,” Shelbyville High School triumphed at Butler University Fieldhouse (now named Hinkle Fieldhouse), 68-58. For his efforts during the 1947 season, Bill Garrett was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball for that year. After the state championship, Garrett was approached by the head coach of Purdue University‘s basketball team to discuss Garrett’s future, but Garrett eventually chose to attend Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana.

Bill Garrett‘s spot on the Hoosier basketball roster didn’t come easily, however. Just the year before, IU had declined to pick up the 1946 Mr. Basketball, Johnny Wilson, based on his skin color. A local activist named Faburn DeFrantz convinced the brass at IU to let Garrett play, and in 1947 Bill Garrett became the first black person to start for a Big Ten basketball team in history. For three years spanning his sophomore and senior seasons, Garrett led the team in both scores and rebounds. His senior year, Garrett became one of the top three centers in the country and was voted to the All-American First Team. In addition, he was the MVP of the basketball team his senior year.

Upon Garrett’s graduation from Indiana University in 1951, he was drafted by the Boston Celtics, the third black player ever drafted by an NBA team. However, Garrett was soon drafted into the army; when he returned two years later, the Celtics had cut him and he joined the Harlem Globetrotters. His career as a basketball player ended after three years with the Globetrotters, but he soon moved to Indianapolis to become the head coach for the basketball team at Crispus Attucks High School, an Indianapolis school that was all-black. Garrett coached at Crispus Attucks for ten years, and in 1959 he led the team to the Indiana State Championship.

Video of a 1956 basketball game between Lafayette, Indiana and Crispus Attucks High School, coached by Shelbyville, Indiana resident Bill Garrett

 

At the time of his death in 1974, Bill Garrett had left the world of basketball completely and was the assistant dean for student services at Indiana University – Purdue University (IUPUI), an Indiana college located in Indy. He succumbed to a heart attack at the age of 45 and was buried in Crown Hill Cemetery along with a host of other famous Indianapolis people. Inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame that same year, Bill Garrett left a lasting impact on basketball around the country. Garrett broke barriers throughout his life; he was one of only a few black high school basketball players in the late 40’s, and he became the first African-American to start on a Big Ten basketball team. But color didn’t matter to Garrett: he racked up big numbers wherever he went and played with his entire heart and soul. Not only is Bill Garrett famous throughout Shelbyville, his contributions were yet another tiny piece of the puzzle that would eventually bring change to the country.


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