LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Eddie Whitehead said that he wasn't signing up to be a trailblazer when he accepted a basketball scholarship to the University of Louisville. Had he known, he probably would've gone elsewhere. Of his move to Louisville from Alcoa, Tenn., Wade Houston said, "I didn't know what I was coming to, I just thought it would be better than what I was leaving." Both felt better that Sam Smith, a 6-7 center from Hazard, Ky., would be joining them, if only as a "wide body" protector.
Together, the three men became the first African-Americans to join the U of L basketball program, and on Tuesday night during the Cardinals' game against South Florida in the KFC Yum! Center they will be honored as part of U of L's 100th season of basketball celebration, and on the 50th anniversary of their achievement.
Whitehead and Houston met with reporters and reflected on their college days on Monday. Smith will join them for Tuesday's festivities.
The football program already had been integrated when the trio arrived in Louisville in the fall of 1962. Whitehead, however, hadn't thought about any of that when he signed. He grew up just miles from the University of Cincinnati campus, and wanted to get away from home. Louisville was just far enough away, and was interested in him.
"If I had known at the time that I signed the letter of intent that I would be one of the first, I probably wouldn't have done it, just because I knew the what country was in at that time with regards to racial prejudice and racism," Whitehead said. "And had I known that at the time I probably wouldn't have signed. But I found out that we were the first when I got here. That's how much I paid attention to that. But once we got here and that's the way the cards were dealt, we just knuckled down to do what we had to do. There were a lot of distractions. If you allowed yourself to be distracted, you could be very easily. If you allowed yourself to be angry, there was plenty of opportunity for that. But luckily, we had enough good stock, with our family and our friends, that we were able to kind of block some of that stuff out."
The African-American community in Louisville had been eager to see the team integrated. Still, when Smith, Whitehead and Houston arrived, there was little notice taken. Whitehead said there was "no hoopla." But there were plenty of adjustments for all three players.
"The first non-African-American player I played with was when I came here," Houston said. "When I was in high school, growing up in the south, our schools weren't integrated. We didn't play against white players. So to have a chance to play with Eddie and Sam, and also the white players on our team, was a whole new experience for me."
With freshmen ineligible to play, the three players endured some difficult circumstances during their freshman season, as they played at gyms around the state of Kentucky. When they joined the varsity, there were other obstacles. Smith was the first to actually play in a game, and became the program's first African-American starter. Houston said they were treated well by teammates, most of whom came from northern states.
Texas Western University had integrated in the late 1950s. But U of L was the first major basketball school south of the Mason-Dixon Line in the southeastern U.S. to integrate in basketball. Both said they got advice from African-American football players who had come before them, particularly Lenny Lyles, whom Whitehead described as "the Godfather," and Ernie Green, a U of L alum who went onto become Jim Brown's blocking back for the Cleveland Browns.
"It was kind of a fraternity," Whitehead said. " . . . They all just said stay the course. You're going to run into a lot of stuff, but keep your head down, keep your focus and stay true to what you're here for."
The situation was a new challenge for the coaches too. Both men described then-Cardinal head coach Peck Hickman as an old-school taskmaster.
"He was in an era when the school had to make that decision to break the color line. And it was very tough on all of us," Whitehead said. "It was tough on (Adolph) Rupp, it was tough on Hickman, it was tough on us. We were all pioneers in that regard. We weren't friends. We weren't the friendliest of people. He coached us hard, he respected us, he stood up for us, and you know, I have a lot of respect for him."
For assistant coach John Dromo, however, the players voiced something close to affection. Dromo welcomed the new recruits with open arms, treated them like one of the family. And occasionally, he did more than that.
"Coach Dromo was very intolerant of people who didn't treat his players properly," Whitehead said. "When we went to the deep south one story I remember, I think we went to Louisiana and New Orleans and we were stopped in front of the hotel by the (manager) who said that the team was welcome to stay there except for ‘those guys.' And Coach Dromo stood up and said either we all stay or none of us stays. And that kind of broke the ice on that. We stayed at the hotel, and were treated very well once that was over. That incident was kind of shocking to me, although I knew it happened and I experienced other times, I was just a little shocked we were treated that way at that level."
Houston grew up just outside Knoxville, Tenn. He was recruited mainly by all-black colleges, Tennessee State, Knoxville College, Grambling. So when he came onto Louisville's radar, as he said, "it was a whole new ballgame." He made a visit to U of L, met Dromo and some others, and was excited about the opportunity.
"When we traveled throughout the south in the fifties and sixties, you packed a big lunch, because you weren't going to stop at the restaurants, so that was the first thing you did, your grandma and mom would pack just buckets of chicken, and you had to fend for yourself as to where the restroom was going to be," Houston said.
He looked at Louisville as a more northern town where he might get away from such concerns. While Louisville had its own issues with race, in their time at the university, both men said they were able to change some perceptions on campus, if not the city at large.
Houston described the south he grew up in as a highly segregated place, and remembered a family trip to Alabama, when someone rear-ended his family's car at a stop light.
"My sister was, maybe, three or four years old at the time, and when we got hit the car knocked her against the back seat and cut her lip and we were standing there, mom was panicking, you know, her baby was hurt," Houston said. "The policeman came to the car eventually, so she was saying, ‘Where's the doctor? Where's the hospital?' And I can remember him saying, ‘Lady, what you've got to do is get out of here as soon as you can. No hospital is going to treat you, no hospital will treat her, I think she's going to be all right.' And she was just practically in tears because her baby daughter was hurt. So that was my first real experience of what it was like growing up at the time. He seemed threatening in a way, but in telling us to get out he was probably doing the right thing for us as a family, to get us out of that situation. But again, there, growing up was totally different from Louisville. We had the theaters, the Lyric, the Grand, the Ohio theaters just starting to integrate. But for the most part, in the south where I grew up, it was pretty bad."
On the court, their success came in different stages. Smith was the most successful early on. But Houston and Whitehead advanced as they grew more experienced. The team was dominated by veterans when they became eligible as sophomores, and Whitehead remembered being frustrated. He enrolled in the school's new Air Force ROTC program before his junior season, though his playing time began to take off after that and he even had some pro opportunities. But his military commitment meant he couldn't pursue them as he might have.
In 1966, both players remember watching the historic NCAA championship game between Kentucky and Texas Western.
"Oh, let's see. Who did I pull for?" Whitehead grinned. Texas, of course. That was a thrilling moment, because it didn't get any more defined racially than that game, in terms of athletic prowess. One of the things I'd heard about Kentucky before we signed here was that blacks weren't good enough to play Division I basketball. So when Texas (Western) and Kentucky played, we said, now we can see, in black and white, literally, is this true or not? And obviously, it wasn't true."
Around the same time, both players were helping U of L take the next step. They were working on a young Louisville high school star, Wes Unseld, trying to recruit him to Louisville.
"Wes was critical," Houston said. "We all feel we played a huge role in the start of the program as far as bringing African-Americans in, but Wes was the one piece that we felt pulled us all together. Wes and Butch (Beard). They were such critical pieces of what we felt we were doing as a program, as a family. Everybody wanted Wes. Kentucky came after Wes so hard it was unbelievable. Wes' father, big Charles, just didn't buy into what was going on at the time. Big Charles would tell people that came in trying to be critical about U of L and positive about other schools, in a minute, ‘That's not the way it is.' Wes liked us, and Coach Dromo was a big piece of it. Getting Wes in, and then Butch later, it just solidified — the program was always good — we felt like they were big pieces to the puzzle.
"Mrs. Unseld was the greatest. She'd cook for us. We'd go out to the Unseld's house on Sundays and she'd have just a spread, because they had a big family anyway. We'd sit right at the table, they'd save a spot for us, they just thought we were part of the Unseld family."
Smith played one season with Louisville, averaging
9.2 points per game. He transferred to Kentucky Wesleyan in 1964 after his
sophomore year and eventually led the school to the 1966 College
Division National Championship (now the NCAA Division II Championship).
He played in the ABA
from 1968-71 before being taken in the third round of the 1977 NBA
Life after U of L
Whitehead finished his degree in elementary education and then went into the service where he wound up on an armed services All-Star team made up of 12 players from all branches of the military and sponsored by the U.S. State Dept. Also on that team was a young West Point product named Mike Krzyzewski. Whitehead played four years of basketball in the military, but when his commitment was up, he no longer was interested in playing pro ball.
He settled in San Francisco, married Lynn Demarest, and earned two master's degrees from Cal Berkeley — social welfare in 1974 and public health epidemiology in 1979. He was three years into a doctoral program but did not finish his dissertation because he was having success in real estate investment. After that, he founded Whitehead Broadcasting. His son, Luke, became a U of L basketball standout himself.
Houston graduated with a degree in educational psychology and later added a Master's degree. He got into coaching and led Louisville Male High School to two state tournaments, winning the state title in 1976 before joining Denny Crum's staff at Louisville, where he remained until 1989 when he became the first African-American head coach in the Southeastern Conference, taking the head coaching job at Tennessee.
Out of college, Houston married Alice Kean, who grew up two houses down from Muhammad Ali in Louisville. He enjoys telling stories about the heavyweight champion. When Ali showed up for the second birthday party of his son, Allan, he'd just fought Ken Norton and his jaw was wired shut.
"So when he walked in I told him, ‘This is one of the few times you've got to keep your mouth shut.' Otherwise he'd have been talking a mile a minute," Houston said. "But he'd always tell me, ‘What are you doing with Alice? She used to be my girlfriend. You're too ugly to be around her.' So I would always say, ‘Keep on now, I'm going to take you out. You keep talking about my wife, I'm going to take you out.' We'd kid around quite a bit when he would come around. So we spent quite a bit of time together. He'd come back in the neighborhood after most of his fights. He'd always come back driving that recreational vehicle, down Grand Street, and police would pull him over, look in the window, and see Ali, then say, ‘Slow that thing down, champ.' And he'd keep on driving. He loved driving back home."
When the first black basketball players arrived at U of L, they moved into a room with a football player named Charlie Johnson, who would go on to play in the NFL for six seasons and was on the taxi squad of a Baltimore Colts team that won Super Bowl V. But Johnson's biggest venture was to be with Houston.
Johnson and the Houstons remained friends, and joined together to form a transportation company that grew to be the second-largest minority owned business in the U.S., and the largest minority-owned transportation company in North America. Houston's son, Allan, became an All-American at Tennessee and a star in the National Basketball Association.
The Houstons reside in Louisville today, and are involved in countless philanthropic and community ventures.
It was a different world and a different campus when these men first arrived in the mid 1960s. But if ever a group achieved something worthy of celebration, they did.