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Jack McCallum’s ‘The Real Hoosiers’ Chronicles The Crispus Attucks Team’s Historic Championship Victories

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The study of the role played by sports in social change often focuses on the professional sphere, or on high-profile events like the Olympics. But in 1950s Indiana, the all-Black Crispus Attucks High School basketball team struck a pioneering blow for the end of racial segregation after winning two state championship victories shortly after the state integrated its sports. Veteran Sports Illustrated journalist Jack McCallum joins Edge of Sports to discuss the Crispus Attucks team’s historic wins, which is the subject of his book, The Real Hoosiers.

Studio Production: David Hebden
Post-Production: Taylor Hebden
Audio Post-Production: David Hebden
Opening Sequence: Cameron Granadino
Music by: Eze Jackson & Carlos Guillen


Transcript

The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.

Dave Zirin:

Welcome to Edge of Sports, the TV show only on the Real News Network. Today we are talking to perhaps the most accomplished basketball writer ever, longtime Sports Illustrated scribe and bestselling author, Jack McCallum. We will discuss his new book, the Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and The Hidden History of Hoops and more, believe me. Let’s go to him now. Jack McCallum, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports TV.

Jack McCallum:

My honor, Dave, great to be here.

Dave Zirin:

So let’s just start with the book, the Real Hoosiers. Talk to us about what this book is and how you came upon this project.

Jack McCallum:

Well, it’s a story of, it’s both a, I hope, a political, cultural, economic story, but I’m not smart enough to carry that thread all the way through. So it’s also a basketball story. It begins, Dave, with sort of the origin of this high school named Crispus Attucks High School in western Indianapolis that was built as a segregated school in the 1920s. Because the same replacement theory we hear now, every place you have the word migrants, you could substitute the word African Americans, that a lot of Blacks were coming from the South and other places in the great migration to work in the factories of Indianapolis. And the city fathers, particularly the school board of Indianapolis, was worried that they were being replaced, that there was this overflow of Black students coming in and mixing with the white kids. And Indianapolis was justifiably proud of its educational system.

They did have good public schools. They were subtly segregated. A lot of Black kids just didn’t go to school. They began working when they were in eighth grade and ninth grade. So they built this high school and everybody thought it would fail because it had insufficient resources, secondhand equipment, all the things that you give a school that’s not your priority. But strangely, in an FU of epic proportions, the educated African Americans who had master’s degree in some cases, PhDs, or at least bachelor’s degrees, began saying, this is a good place to teach. We can’t get jobs at white universities. They still have to pay us the public school. At least the school district had to adhere to public school money.

And so, this incredible faculty flooded to Crispus Attucks High School when it opened in 1927. By three decades later, it had become a kind of basketball story because the same revolution that happened to African American education started to happen in basketball with the ascension of this coach named Ray Crow. And the ascension of these players, two of them were named Robertson. The last one named Oscar. And when he hit the scene in 1953 as a sophomore, all bets were off and it became this great basketball story.

Dave Zirin:

Yeah. I look forward to talking to you about Oscar and the basketball story. But before we get there, the first thing that captured me about the book, you had me before page one, because you start with this magisterial quote from W.E.B. Du Bois and his 1903 classic, the Souls of Black Folk. And really quickly, I want to read the quote for the audience and hoping you can explain why on a so-called hoops book, you would start with such words.

Here’s the quote, A new vision began, gradually, to replace the dream of political power, a powerful movement, the rise of another ideal to guide the unguided, another pillar of fire by night after a clouded day. It was the ideal of book learning, the curiosity born of compulsory ignorance, to know and test the power of the kabbalistic letters of the white man. The longing to know. Here at last seemed to have been discovered the mountain path to Canaan. Longer than the highway of emancipation and law, steep and rugged, but straight. Leading to heights, high enough to overlook life. Wow. Wow. You explained in your first answer, I think people get the context of why you would say something like that, but can you speak a little more about it?

Jack McCallum:

Well, two things, Dave. When I told my son, who you probably crossed paths with as a sociology professor, I told him about this idea of the book, and he went, “Oh, well, you have a W.E.B. Du Bois in it, right?” I said, “well, I certainly know about the Souls of Black Folk. I can’t say that I read it all the way through.” I immediately got it and started reading it. And throughout the book and throughout the history of Christmas Attics high school, there became kind of this tension as to whether they were going to be more Du Bois, which was sort of a revolutionary intellectual approach to education, or they were going to be more Booker T. Washington, these sort of classic working class hero that we have to make this a vocational school, that we have to do the best we can, and we got to turn out carpenters laborers.

And Du Bois was saying, “No, no, no, we have to turn out thinkers and politicians.” So it became, I’m not smart enough to turn this into a completely philosophical book, but that undertone of what kind of high school we were going to be, that was not an invented thing. That was a very strong thing in the early years of Crispus Attucks. And quite frankly, if you were a working class Black family, you had a lot to say for going the Booker T. Washington way. We had to get a job. We got to learn how to work within the white man system. So I think this tension between Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, which I’m not saying is resolved, but I think the fact there was this very tension and dialectic about it really helped grow that high school and produce all these remarkable people out of Crispus Attucks High School.

Dave Zirin:

Amazing. So how long did you know, even the basics of the Crispus Attucks history before embarking upon this book, even the most basics, the all Black team that won two championships in the shadow of the clan? How much of this did you know?

Jack McCallum:

Not much. And I understand if anybody bothers to write my obituary, the second sentence is, oh, this is the guy that wrote Dream Team: Michael Magic Larry, the era of basketball, which you and I have talked about a hundred times, and I get that, and that’s fine, but it’s sort of like I never wanted to be, oh, I was just that guy that covered basketball in the eighties and happened to have this great fortune of coming along during that golden age.

So I was looking for another story, Dave. And the story I came upon, it was during the pandemic and I was rehabbing my knee and like everybody else, I was in this existential crisis of reexamining things. And I started researching of all things, the history of lynching. You can’t have a more uglier subject. And I came upon this story in Marian, Indiana of a team that had won the state basketball championship in 1926. 4 years later hung two Black men in the same town square where they celebrated.

I became kind of fascinated with that story, wanted to do a book on it, and examined it a little bit, and it didn’t feel like me. And a number of people told me, I don’t think you need somebody else white-splaining the horrible history of lynching in America. It was too raw of a story. It was George Floyd. A lot of things were going on, and it was the wrong book.

And during the course of looking at… I went to Marion, Indiana a few times, did the research, have this much research that I still have about that. But I found the Attucks story with which I was vaguely familiar. Oh, that’s the team that was sort of connected to the movie Hoosiers, and was that the team? Was Oscar the guy in the movie? And so, when I started researching and I said, wow, this is just an amazing story, the way it unravels and the extent to which the white narrative, a fictional narrative, has overtaken this Black narrative. And hey, I’m responsible for it too. I never wrote anything about Crispus Attucks, yet I have certainly written two or three [inaudible 00:09:52] to Hoosiers. So I thought it was a good book to pursue in that sense.

Dave Zirin:

Yeah. Let’s take a second and talk about Hoosiers. Gene Hackman as coach Norman Dale. The first time you saw Hoosiers, what was your reaction to that film?

Jack McCallum:

Well, look, I’d be a hypocrite if I… And this is very fresh for me because I just had an exchange of emails with Angelo Pizzo who wrote the movie, and I’ve known Angelo for years, and he was not happy with everything I wrote in the chapter, sort of delineating the truth and the differences between the movie Hoosiers and the reality of Crispus Attucks. But I would be a hypocrite if I now said, well, it was terrible. It overtook the, Hey man, gene Hackman. He’s like the greatest actor to me. Seriously, literally the greatest actor that I’ve ever seen.

And the story, the way it begins coming into the town. I grew up in the 1950s, not in Indiana, but in a small New Jersey town, fell in love with basketball. Certainly, I was fortunate enough that I went to a very much of a mixed race high school, but I certainly grew up playing basketball with a lot of white guys and hearing a lot of white coaches teach me basketball the fundamental way and breaking into gymnasiums that looked like the Hickory High gymnasium.

So I loved the movie, and I get it. I really, really get its place. But I did start to notice that in the post George Floyd era, smarter people than me, were taking a different reckoning of it, that it comes across a different way to people. And it is certainly fair to those ways that things have changed. And I told Angelo Pizzo in this email, I said, “Look, man, things are going to change. People are going to analyze it differently. But if 50 years from now you still have a movie that people are going to be looking at, and if they draw something from there that you didn’t intend, Hey man, that’s just the way it goes.” But I’d be too hypocritical if I said, “Oh, everything is wrong with Hoosiers.” I’m not that guy.

Dave Zirin:

Well, yeah, I mean, it’s been almost 40 years since it dropped. So like Muhammad Ali said, “If you haven’t changed in 40 years, then you’re still in the same place.” So can you lay out for people who maybe aren’t familiar with Hoosiers. From a 2024 lens, what’s problematic about the film?

Jack McCallum:

Well, first of all, Hoosiers was drawn not from an original source. When Angelo and the director, David Anspaugh, who are Hoosiers themselves still Indiana IU basketball season ticket holders, they didn’t have a book or a movie that they took it from as like Jeff Perlman wrote Showtime, and they made the HBO special from, there wasn’t a book out there. There was this story of the gritty white, small team from Milan High School that had won the state championship in 1952. That was definitely the raw material. That was the raw material for the book. The story of that team.

I think a couple things that need to be noted, however, was the template and the paradigm for winning the Indiana State Basketball Championship was that kind of team. By that point, Indiana State Basketball Tournament had been played since 1911, I think. So most of these champions that were these gritty, white teams that had played together from the time they were in second and third grade, played very, very fundamental basketball.

Indianapolis, as a school, school district had never won a state championship until Attucks won it. So the idea that these guys were the outsiders, the little kids that somehow overcame great odds. And don’t get me wrong, Milan High School was a small high school. Don’t get that wrong. However, there were other teams like them that won the state championship, and the real outsiders coming into this thing were the Black schools. That, first of all, it was a very new phenomenon. They were kept by a catch 22 rule. Black schools were kept from competing in the state tournament for the first 30 years of the tournament. They didn’t start coming into it until 1942 or 1943. It’s in the book. Some of the dates are escaping me. So all those years they were kept out of the tournament. So those kind of background and story were not in Hoosiers, but I said in the book, Angelo and David Anspaugh, they wrote the story.

They wrote their truth. That was their truth. After I wrote Dream Team, a couple of people said to me, “Why the hell didn’t you write the story of the Lithuanian team, the team that had suffered more under the heel of the Russian captor and had their own bloody Sunday and had to raise money?” I said, “Good point. I hope somebody writes that book. That’s not the book that I wrote.” But at this time and place, I think it’s time that we unraveled the fact and fiction from Hoosiers since it is an indisputable fact that the white narrative of Hoosiers has overtaken the Black reality of Crispus Attucks. So this book in part is an attempt to straighten that out.

Dave Zirin:

Amazing. It’s like Howard Zinn wrote through these fingers.

Jack McCallum:

This is the people’s history.

Dave Zirin:

It is like a people’s history of Indiana basketball. Now, one of the great figures in the book, and to the audience out there, you got to get this book. It’s as good a basketball book as I’ve ever read. And it’s not just a basketball book. Oscar Robertson is so much a part of this story. Who is Oscar then, and who is the Oscar who you have been around for so many years?

Jack McCallum:

The Oscar then, and pretty much the Oscar that I haven’t been around Oscar now as much as I would’ve liked, and I think one of the ways to sort of define Oscar is that he and Jerry West were so much the magic and bird of their time. White player, Black player, great dominated college basketball, came into the league together. Oscar was the number one pick. Jerry was the number two pick.

Since 1960 when they came into the league, that’s 64 years ago. Jerry West has rarely been absent from the NBA, not just because he’s literally the symbol of the game. Player, coach, general manager, consultant. Jerry’s been there. Oscar, pretty much divorced from the league, never a coach, never a general manager. Had this team that he went to, the Cincinnati Royals, which became, who are they? Kansas City, Sacramento, never knew exactly who to honor him with, won his championship with Kareem and Milwaukee.

So they represent these two kind of parallel courses. So the Oscar that came into Crispus Attucks as a sophomore was smart, disciplined, determined. I hate to use the word angry because that conjures up this, I’m not going to listen to anybody else, and I’m pissed off from the beginning. But Oscar was not a sweet man. Somebody told me, and one of the players, a historian from Indianapolis named Stanley Warren, a great scholar, said, “Oscar got a lot to be pissed off about, and he’s pissed off.” He wasn’t forgetting these things that happened to him. And so, when it came time, I knew from dealing with Oscar a little bit for Sports Illustrated, that he just wasn’t happy with the media, whether it would be the Caucasian media or media in general. He just thought that his story has never been told accurately. He worries that the Crispus Attucks narrative has been lifted from him and his teammates and taken over by certainly the Hoosiers narrative.

He’s pissed about that. And I tried eight to ten times to talk to him for the book, and he finally wrote back and said, “Good luck with your project. I will not be cooperating.” Which from the beginning was perhaps based on my previous interactions with Oscar, was really not the surprising outcome. Now I can rationalize and I am and saying, I think it’s just as good a book without them, I didn’t want to do a biography of Oscar. That’s not what I was looking to do.

But something inside my job at Sports Illustrated was always to get to the guys. That’s what I did when I did Dream Team. The biggest challenge was not writing the book. The biggest challenge was making sure I got all 12 of those guys to sit down and talk to me and pour out their feelings. Fortunately, I was able to do that. So there’s a little part of me that is disenchanted that Oscar was not personally a part of this, even though, obviously, he’s all through the book

Dave Zirin:

Now, Oscar Robertson was also a labor trailblazer and a rebel in that regard. Do you see any common threads between the person he was at Crispus Attucks and the rebel that he was in the NBA?

Jack McCallum:

No, no question. Oscar came from this area, this part of town. He played at this playground called the Dust Bowl, which by the time he got there, it was not really dusty. It was in the west side of town. It had been established by these two Black policemen, the police athletic league, and it hatched this incredible basketball culture. It’s as important as… It’s Rucker Park 20 years before that hatched to Dr. Jay and Connie Hawkins and all those kinds of people. So the person that grew up there, tough leader, always looking, Larry Fleischer, the great union leader, told Oscar at one point, “You have exactly the attribute.You need to be a labor leader. You have a complete distrust of the other side. You are programmed to believe that whatever they say is bullshit.”

And that’s, Oscar weighs everything. And Dave, there’s a great quote in the book that Ray Crow, his coach died. He was one of the many people died before, was long dead before I could talk to them. But this quote that I always was running through my head as I wrote the book was, Ray goes, “Oscar. He just ran the game. He just ran the game. And I’ve said that if you could get 20 players out there, the greatest players of all time, Magic, Michael, Larry, LeBron, Steph, get them all out there at one time, I guarantee you that when they were going to pick teams, Oscar would pick it up and go, all right, man, who’s on my team because I’m running this shit.” That’s sort of how he was as a player, and that’s how he was as a leader. He took it very seriously. And the name that on the lawsuit that gave the NBA free agency, it would’ve happened, eventually. There’s no question about that. But it happened quicker because of a suit called Oscar Robertson versus the National Basketball Association. His name is on that lawsuit.

Dave Zirin:

Wow. I could talk to you this whole time about Oscar Robertson, but I want to get back to the book. You’ve mentioned Ray Crow several times, and he’s such a great character in the book. Who was Ray Crow, and what was his sense of mission with regards to Crispus Attucks?

Jack McCallum:

Well, Ray was a guy who grew up in Indianapolis. He is the brother of George Crow, who back before I started this project, I would’ve known George Crow, great baseball player. I remember him. Big muscular pinch hitter for the Cincinnati Reds. Ray was part of a big family. They grew up in the, as I said in the book, the appropriately named Whiteland, Indiana as this only Black family in town. So Ray grew up with white people. That’s how he went to school. He was a smart kid, got to college, did go to a Black school. But his upbringing was sort of this guy who knew how to get along in both worlds, that he had been brought through a white school system, got a job coming out of college and it wasn’t paying anything. And somebody said, “Why don’t you go be a teacher?”

And he was a smart guy. He got a job teaching at Crispus Attucks. And one of the threads of the book, Dave, is that Crispus Attucks High School as an all Black high school playing against mostly white teams, had to figure out how to comport itself. Did they act like they were on the… There was always this worry that they would be too Black, that they would be too playground. So this culture was kind of hatched at Crispus Attucks High School that was very polite. They played basketball very politely, hands off on defense, didn’t do a lot of running, guarded your man, but stayed off of him a little bit. And that was the philosophy imparted by the previous coach.

So when Ray Crow got there, Ray had to figure out how to thread this needle. He had to figure out how to still comport to what the principal and the administrators at Crispus Attucks and by extension, all of Indianapolis school system, how they wanted the Black team to comport themselves versus what the hell he had to do to win the basketball game. His perfect player was Oscar Robertson. Because here’s a guy, complete fundamental player, completely disciplined, yet five times better than anybody else.

And one of the things your viewers can do is very easily YouTube clips, Crispus Attucks High School, Indiana State High School Championships back from the fifties. And just like getting old REM videos on YouTube, you can get these basketball games up. And Oscar comes along. Boom. It’s like this evolution. He’s just playing games differently. He gets from here to here quicker. He makes this pass quicker and cuts immediately to the basket. I know these sounds all basic things, but basketball, as Larry Bird used to say, is a pretty damn simple game. You just got to do these things better than anybody else.

Oscar did them better than anybody else from the time he was a sophomore, by the time he was a senior and Attucks was concluding its run to the second straight championship. He was so far and away, you could have come from outer space and looked down at this game for a minute and go, well, this guy’s playing it. This guy’s playing it differently than everybody else.

Dave Zirin:

Wow. The book is The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and The Hidden History of Hoops. This book is such a towering achievement. I’d be so remiss if I didn’t ask you one last question, Jack. It’s a two-parter. What advice do you have for young book authors? And did you ever doubt you could pull this book off? Because it’s an incredible blend of social history and sports, and that’s not an easy thing to do.

Jack McCallum:

Well, certainly the second one, I had extreme doubts because when I start out doing a book, I’d be interested in what you say about this, because you’re more of… Not more of a political, historical, that is your lens. And I was talking about my son earlier. He always asks, “Well, what’s your argument? What’s your thesis in the book? What are you trying to prove?” And I always tell them the same thing. I try to tell a story. That’s what I found that I could do best. What is a way to tell this story? And for me, it came very early. The first time I went to Indianapolis, I walked through the halls of Crispus Attucks High School, and there were these pictures on the wall of each graduating class. And I didn’t start with Oscar Robertson. I started in the twenties, and it was like, holy crap, I am just drawn in by this history.

And I said, I can tell this story. I can tell this story through this feeling I have about the history of this high school. So I was very lucky to get that beginning. So far as advice for young writers is I do think in this world where Sports Illustrated has cratered and daily newspapers have cratered, there is still this incredible thirst for people to learn about things. I’m sure you find this out yourself.

Dave Zirin:

Absolutely.

Jack McCallum:

You’re kind of astounded. Now, how big is that audience? That’s a good question. It’s not going to be the James Patterson or the John Grisham audience, but you have to think to yourself if you are able to tell this story. And I think one of the things that has become a little lacking in communication or journalism or the way we do things is curiosity. I always found that the two books I’m proudest of are probably this one and a book I did about my own prostate cancer because I’m not a doctor, and I had to find everything about that. I had to find everything myself. This question leads to that question. So I would say if you start out with an essential curiosity, rather with the idea that I know everything there is to know about this subject, you will write stories successfully, and people will be interested in them.

Dave Zirin:

Well, my favorite Jack McCallum book was Seven Seconds or Less, but now I have to amend that and say The Real Hoosiers: Crispus Attucks High School, Oscar Robertson, and The Hidden History of Hoops is. It’s not just my favorite of your books. I think it’s my favorite basketball book now, which is to me pretty high praise because I think basketball has produced some of the most beautiful writing in the entire sports world. Jack McCallum, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports TV. It’s a total honor.

Jack McCallum:

Well, the honor was mine, Dave. Thank you very much.

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