Giving Joe B. Hall 'proper respect' for integrating UK basketball part of Rupp Arena debate

Jon Hale
Louisville Courier Journal

LEXINGTON — More than 50 years later, George Hill doubts that legendary Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp expected him to accept the invitation.

Hill, a Black postdoctoral fellow in UK’s department of biochemistry at the time, had become active in the civil rights movement upon moving to Lexington and initially being denied an apartment due to his race.

As Hill pushed for fair and open housing in the city, he continued to be astounded by the way basketball dominated the conversation.

That obsession seemed like an opportunity to Hill.

What better way to advance racial equality in the city than to tackle one of its most visible examples of a white-dominated institution? So, Hill fired off a letter to Rupp about the lack of Black players on his team. Rupp responded with an invitation to discuss the issue in person.

“When I walked in, it was obvious he was surprised,” Hill said in a recent interview with The Courier Journal. "… We had a conversation, but (Rupp) was shocked. It never occurred to him that the person who was writing the letters was a Black person. Never.”

The conversation with Rupp quickly stalled, but Hill found a sympathetic ear in someone else at the meeting — then-assistant coach Joe B. Hall.

Kentucky looses to Ohio St. 87 - 74 in the 1961 NCAA tournament at Louisvill'e Freedom Hall.  Kentucky Head coach Adolph Rupp addresses the crowd after the loss.  March 18, 1961

As Rupp’s top assistant, Hall spearheaded many of the team’s recruiting efforts.

“It was clear that Adolph … was just an old, crusty white man,” Hill said. “It was. He was very negative. It was also clear that Joe B. Hall, his assistant, really wanted to do something.”

Rupp had failed to land Black Kentucky high school stars Wes Unseld and Butch Beard earlier in the decade. In 1966, an all-white Kentucky team had lost to Texas Western and its all-Black starting five in the national championship game.

By the time Hill approached Rupp in the spring of 1968, it had been almost five years since UK President John Oswald had opened the school’s athletic programs to integration and more than two years since the UK football program had signed Nate Northington as the department’s first Black athlete. Rupp was coming under increasing pressure from within the university to sign a Black player.

Hall and Hill developed a plan to help integrate the team in which Hill would accompany UK coaches on trips to visit Black recruits.

Less than a year later, Hill had become so disheartened by the situation, he wrote a letter to the editor published by The Courier Journal predicting, “no Black basketball player will probably ever play under coach Rupp!”

Hill’s prediction would be proven false in less than a month when Rupp signed Shawnee star Tom Payne in June of 1969 as Kentucky’s first Black player, but Payne would not suit up for the Wildcats until 1970 and then would only last one season. Rupp would not sign another Black player before he was forced to retire in 1972.

Hall was promoted to head coach after Rupp’s retirement. He signed Reggie Warford as the program’s second Black recruit in his first freshman class. Hall’s second UK team in 1973-74 was Kentucky’s first to feature multiple Black scholarship players. He hired Leonard Hamilton, the program's first Black assistant coach, in 1974.

Later that year, Hall would welcome to campus Black former Lexington high school stars Jack “Goose” Givens and James Lee, who would go on to form the nucleus of the 1978 national championship squad.

UK coach Joe B. Hall gets a boost to make the final slashes in UK's net-cutting ceremonies after winning the NCAA championship with a 94-88 victory over Duke in St. Louis.  Mar 27, 1978

“It’s Joe B. Hall who really desegregates the UK basketball team,” said Derrick White, a professor in UK’s African American and Africana Studies program whose research focuses on race and sports. “Tom Payne literally plays one season, and it was a disaster. You can point to the '78 national champions with James Lee and Jack Givens, who would have never stepped foot on this campus if Rupp had still been coaching, and it’s all because of the groundwork that Joe B. Hall did.”

As part of a list of reforms suggested to address race relations on campus in a July letter to UK President Eli Capilouto, White and the rest of UK’s African American and Africana Studies program called for the university to change the name of Rupp Arena because they felt “the Adolph Rupp name has come to stand for racism and exclusion in UK athletics and alienates Black students, fans, and attendees.”

In the months since the faculty letter, Rupp’s record on race has been brought under the spotlight again.

While White reported being pleased with many of the steps the university has taken to address issues raised in the letter, such as funding the Commonwealth Institute for Black Studies and approving several new faculty positions in the program, he said there have been no substantive conversations with the athletic department about Rupp Arena’s name.

“‘I think this whole conversation slights Joe B. Hall in a way that Joe B. Hall is too humble to ask for his proper respect on this issue,” White said. “… The solution is to just give him his credit on that. He won’t say it, so sometimes you have to say it for him.”

‘It’s a question of power’

University of Kentucky basketball coach Adolph Rupp talks to his team during a game against Notre Dame at Louisville's Freedom Hall. Dec. 29, 1964

Integrating the basketball team was no idle curiosity for Hill.

When Perry Wallace, the SEC’s first Black basketball player, played at Memorial Coliseum for Vanderbilt against Kentucky, Hill made sure to be there. When North Carolina traveled to Lexington to play Kentucky with Charlie Scott, its first Black scholarship player, in December 1968, Hill went to the team’s hotel to visit with UNC coach Dean Smith about his efforts to integrate the Tar Heels’ program.

Hill and Hall traveled to Savannah, Georgia, in 1968 to visit Black high school star Joby Wright, but he would later sign with Indiana.

More: The Naismith Hall of Fame snubs Joe B. Hall. John Calipari wants to change that

“It’s like recruiting students today or recruiting professors today,” said Hill, who went on to be the vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion at Vanderbilt. “We never learn. That is, you can’t go after one person. … There has to be more than the targeted person you’re after. I’m sure Indiana, there was more than just one person. There already were some individuals who were there. It’s like coming in and benefiting from the culture the institution or the department had. Recruiting the first person is really, really hard.”

Rupp disagreed with that philosophy. He was adamant that the first Black player he signed must be of starting caliber, even though he signed a host of white players in the 1960s who never developed into more than role players at Kentucky.

It should perhaps come as no surprise then that Hill’s brief stint as a recruiting assistant for the basketball team eventually devolved into a public sparring match with its legendary coach.

“The Blacks in Kentucky and elsewhere remember 40 years of all-white teams,” Hill wrote in the letter to the editor printed in The Courier Journal in May 1969. “They remember the years when NO effort was made to recruit Black athletes. They also remember statements emphasizing ‘Why should we recruit colored boys when we can win with only whites?’ Now Blacks are dominating basketball and they want no part of UK and certainly of coach Rupp.”

A month later, Rupp responded with his own letter to The Courier Journal. In it, he highlighted the efforts to sign Unseld and Beard, and alleged Jim McDaniels, a Black player who went on to star for Western Kentucky, was unable to qualify for the university.

“George Hill said I had made it perfectly clear that a Black athlete here must start,” Rupp wrote. “We don’t sign anyone with any other idea in mind. We don’t sign boys to sit on the end of the bench.

“He criticized the university, saying that Black students are discriminated against. I don’t know about that because I know of several of them who certainly have been received with open arms here at the university and are doing a bang-up job in getting an education and just a 100 percent good University of Kentucky student.

“He says the whiteness of our team discourages the Black athlete from coming here. It will always be that way until we can convince a Black student he will be treated the same way as a white student and that he will have the same opportunity to play basketball here as any other student will have. There is no discrimination here; however, we must have the complete cooperation of everyone regardless of race here on our campus if we are to continue to have the fine program that is expected of our university.”

Rupp’s defenders have pointed to his recruitment of Unseld, Beard and others as well as the presence of a Black player on one of his Illinois high school teams before he was hired by Kentucky as proof he was not the racist many have painted him as, but White questions the sincerity of those efforts to integrate the program considering every other Division I program in Kentucky integrated before the Wildcats, as did SEC programs Vanderbilt, Auburn, Alabama and Georgia.

Adolph Rupp made Tom Payne his first Black recruit when he signed the Shawnee High 7-footer in 1969, six years after the university?s athletic teams were officially desegregated

By the late 1960s, the idea that Kentucky need not recruit Black players to be successful had been proven false. Rupp’s last national championship came in 1958. Every national champion from 1960 on featured at least one Black player.

“It’s a question of power,” White said. “When you make this sense that he couldn’t go against the wind, you make him out to be just another coach who could be fired if he stood up to this, challenged this rule. Not the person who has 800-plus wins and the most powerful coach in college sports. So, either he’s strong or he’s weak.

“My argument is then if he’s so weak that he couldn’t stop this tide and didn’t want to use his fame, then his name doesn’t belong on the arena anyways. If he’s strong and he’s the winningest coach up until recently and the most powerful college basketball coach of his era and his name belongs on the thing, then you have to ask another set of questions.”

‘Do you really want us to dance?’

For Hill, the integration of the Kentucky basketball program and the work he was doing to advocate for open housing in Lexington were always connected.

“Looking at it a different way, if the team had been really average, would I have targeted that effort? No, not at all,” Hill said. “… The passion was incredible. If you were just on the elevator and they had played the night before, it was overwhelming. I actually wasn’t expecting something like that, and I haven’t seen it since.”

The connection between UK’s basketball program and the broader university and Lexington community is at the heart of the African American and Africana Studies faculty’s call for the Rupp Arena name to be changed.

White, a Black man who grew up in Lexington, remembers being surprised to not learn his soccer coach attended UK years after their time together. White had few Black role models growing up who had anything positive to say about the university.

As of 2019-20, Black students made up 6.5% of the student body at UK, compared with 11.6% at the University of Louisville. 

“This is not just simply me having a conversation about my employer,” White said. “This is me coming through this town in a way, having family members knowing where a lot of these bodies and these experiences that have been completely marginalized not only in the way we remember Lexington and Central Kentucky, but also the way the University of Kentucky imagines itself.

“So, when the school can’t figure out why this school is not the first choice for Black Kentucky students and they’re wringing their hands about why, the answer is really staring right in front of them on the top of the most important, most visible building in and around our campus, Rupp Arena.”

After arriving at Vanderbilt, Hill formed a bond with Wallace, who died in 2017.

Wallace’s story about not feeling supported by his teammates while integrating SEC basketball resonated with Hill. It’s a lesson he applied to his time working on diversity in high education.

“It might be a diverse environment, but it sure as hell wouldn’t be an inclusive environment, which is one of the things that students and faculty are talking about today,” Hill said. “UK can be diverse and they can count numbers, which is really the worst thing you can do, or Vanderbilt can be diverse and have all these numbers, but are the people who are there an inclusive part of the institution? Do they play a role in making decisions? Can they actually change the institutions?

“I’m sure that’s what a lot of the individuals at UK are talking about. We’ve been invited to the dance, but do you really want us to dance?”

‘He made us feel that we were welcome’

Jack Givens drives against Duke in the 1978 NCAA championship game.

White’s experience growing up in Lexington was not all that different than Givens’.

It was not until Givens’ sophomore year at Bryan Station High School in Lexington that he began to think of himself as a future college basketball player. Baseball had been his first love, but perhaps equally important, he did not see a future for himself at a program like UK.

“I couldn’t look at Kentucky basketball, the team, as a kid and see anybody out there that looked like me that made me think it was a possibility for me to play there, so I didn’t think a whole lot about Kentucky basketball when I was growing up,” Givens said. “It was easier for me to look at a whole lot of other places around the country and see Black players playing and think that would be a place for me, maybe.”

Thanks in large part to Hall, the perception of Kentucky’s program would change for the next generation of local Black high school stars.

Givens received recruiting letters from programs across the country, but he had no interest in getting on an airplane to visit schools far from Lexington, and his family did not own a car he could use to drive to visit schools closer to home. He only visited two campuses: Kentucky and Tennessee.

For subscribers: Kentucky and Notre Dame took opposite stances on segregated 1956 basketball tournament

The Volunteers held the early lead in his recruitment, but the reception he received from UK fans as he played at various gyms around the state as a senior piqued his interest in the hometown program. Hall’s assistant coaches were a constant presence at his games, and Kentucky was also recruiting Lee, his friend who was starring for Henry Clay High School at the time.

“The thing that Coach Hall did is he made us feel that we were welcome there; we were wanted,” Givens said. “What was most important, he made us feel like we had an opportunity there, not that we were just there for dressing, icing on the cake. He wanted us to be able to play basketball.”

When Kentucky ended its 20-year national championship drought, it was Givens who led the team. He scored 41 points in the 1978 title game, cementing his status as the Wildcats’ first Black superstar.

Hall had fostered the environment Hill hoped for when he reached out to Rupp to help integrate the program.

Following Rupp was no easy task. Fans were aware Rupp had only retired because he was forced to do so by the university’s mandatory retirement age when he turned 70. While Givens was impressed by the reception he received from Kentucky fans as a recruit, he also was aware that segments of the fan base were not thrilled with Hall’s recruiting strategy.

“He stayed the course,” Givens said. “He continued to recruit the best players he felt were out there, regardless of whether they were Black or white. That’s the thing that he did that kind of changed the whole view or started to change the whole view of Kentucky basketball.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hall, now 92, was a fixture at Kentucky games in Rupp Arena. Coach John Calipari embraced Hall early in his Kentucky tenure and has been one of his most ardent supporters throughout the last decade.

Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall and Louisville coach Denny Crum pose for a photo at Rupp Arena before the game.
December 28, 2019

Perhaps honoring Hall’s role in integration will allow Calipari and the rest of UK’s athletic department to engage with the African American and Africana Studies faculty on the Rupp Arena name in a way they have been unwilling to do so far. When UK sophomore forward Keion Brooks said in August he would be supportive of changing the arena name, he was met with intense criticism by a segment of the fan base.

More: Kentucky coach John Calipari willing to listen on calls to change Rupp Arena name

Calipari took to Twitter to defend Brooks and said he planned to connect his team with former players to discuss Rupp’s legacy, but all but one of Rupp’s players are white.

“The thing that’s most disturbing about this entire ordeal and conversation is that white reporters and citizens and coaches and players are the ones determining if Coach Rupp is racist,” White said. “Somehow their evaluation is vastly superior to Black players, coaches and scholars.

“… These coaches say that they want to get to the bottom of this or they take this issue seriously, whatever, whatever. At the same time, there are literally experts on this subject on campus. You don’t even have to dial out.”

Members of the African American and Africana Studies faculty did meet with UK’s volleyball team in the summer to discuss the intersection of race and sports in the wake of widespread athlete protests following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. White tweeted another offer to meet with Calipari and the men’s basketball team last week after Calipari flubbed his defense of the team’s decision to kneel during the national anthem days after the violent riot in support of President Donald Trump at the U.S. Capitol.

The intense criticism of the team’s anthem protest from some fans is unlikely to make UK’s administrators any more eager to discuss Rupp’s record on race.

Honoring Hall, who entered an assisted living community this summer, could be one avenue to the conversation.

“Was it perfect? No,” White said. “Could he have done more? Obviously. But the thing you never asked the question after '75 or '76 is was Kentucky a segregated team? They were not getting beat over the head as an institution for being racist.

“… When (Hall) goes to the upper room and he passes away, people will start to write this story. I’m like, ‘Say it right now.’”

Email Jon Hale at jahale@courier-journal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JonHale_CJ