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Attucks museum honors coach who won, changed attitudes


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INDIANAPOLIS

The auxiliary gymnasium Ray Crowe’s groundbreaking success helped ensure and, ultimately, build at the southwest corner of Crispus Attucks High School is gone.

In its place is a museum with four galleries, more than 70 exhibits and an unlimited supply of stories to tell.

The Crispus Attucks Museum focuses not only on the school’s 40 years (1927-67) as an all-black place of learning and an alumni base extending well past impressive but also on the African and African-American experience.

History, music, student achievement and government are only some of the aspects covered. After all, the late U.S. Rep. Julia Carson was an Attucks alum. Same can be said for noted soprano Angela Brown, jazz legends Wes Montgomery and J.J. Johnson, and countless others.

THE CROWE FILE

Name: Ray Crowe

Born: May 30, 1915

Died: Dec. 20, 2003

Age: 88

High school: Whiteland

College: Indiana Central College, 1939

Jersey number at Whiteland: 11

Coached at Crispus Attucks High School: 1950-57

Record: 179-20

State championships: 1954-55 and 1955-56

IF YOU GO

What: Crispus Attucks Museum

Where: 1140 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St., Indianapolis

Phone: 317-226-2434

Museum hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; Saturday and Sunday by appointment

Information: ChesterR@ips.k12.in.us

But it’s the handiwork of Crowe, a black man raised in the virtually all-white Johnson County of the late 1920s and early 1930s that museum visitors are most drawn to. As museum curator Robert Chester so accurately points out, “We are in the Hoosier State. Basketball is king.”

Crowe’s seven seasons as boys basketball coach at Crispus Attucks are proudly promoted at the museum, and understandably so. Those Tigers ball clubs from 1950-57 were a force of societal impact like none before them or since. Furthermore, it might have been the greatest, most-dominant dynasty of them all in Indiana: two state titles, four Final Fours, two Mr. Basketball winners and the jaw-dropping average of 25.6 victories per season.

It’s a window of time in which Hallie Bryant’s on-court dominance predated that of a guard possessing a lethal one-handed jumper named Oscar Robertson. In all, Crowe, who in his youth finished his junior and senior seasons at Whiteland High School as the team’s leading scorer, would go on to coach seven Attucks players named to the Indiana All-Stars team (for purposes of perspective, it has since produced five).

By then, Crowe was quite familiar with the All-Star process. His younger brother, George, a 1939 Franklin High School graduate, is forever immortalized as Indiana’s first Mr. Basketball.

Ray Crowe broke ground of his own. His 1955 squad, led by 6-foot-3 senior forward Willie Merriweather and the junior Robertson, was the first all-black high school in the United States to win a state a state championship. It also was, in the 45th year of a boys state tournament, the first team from Indianapolis to celebrate a title.

The achievements of those Crispus Attucks squads live on in yellowed newspaper clippings, grainy black-and-white footage and yarns spun by old-timers claiming to be present whether they were or not.

At the Crispus Attucks Museum, space is devoted to the Tigers’ athletic glory, though not so much as to outdistance the school’s other areas of achievement.

A 1956 letter jacket with the word “Undefeated” stitched over the right breast appears in pristine condition, homage to Crowe’s 31-0 squad that stomped Marion Crawley’s Lafayette Jeff squad by 22 points in the title game. There are photographs galore, an Attucks pennant, assorted trophies and plaques.

The 1954-55 school yearbook opens with eight pages devoted solely to basketball. Varsity basketball, that is. Photos and information pertaining to the Tigers’ junior varsity and freshman teams would fill the next few pages.

Seven years. One incredible legacy.

Adjusting to Attucks

The second of 10 children, Crowe grew up in Whiteland as part of the town’s lone black family. After high school, he played at Indiana Central College (now the University of Indianapolis), where he earned nine letters participating in basketball, baseball and track before graduating in 1939.

Crowe worked as a sweeper at International Harvester before taking a job as a physical education teacher at Indianapolis Public School 17. He then moved on to Crispus Attucks, though the transition wasn’t as seamless as one might think.

“He said when he first got to this school it terrified him because he had never seen so many black folks,” said Chester, a 1985 graduate of Manual High School. “He knew the game. And he brought about this divine change not just at Attucks but in some respects in America.”

It wasn’t easy. Not in the least. The United States of the 1950s still viewed blacks and whites as opposites in virtually every respect. Five months after the Tigers won the 1955 state championship, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan visiting relatives in Mississippi, was brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Prejudice ran rampant, including on the basketball court.

“(Crowe) wasn’t respected in the coaching ranks by his peers because he was black,” remembers Bill Hampton, 76, a starting guard on the 1955 Crispus Attucks team who still lives in Indianapolis. “He was never (voted) Coach of the Year. I don’t think he was ever really appreciated for his coaching, but that’s the way it was.”

Added Chester, “I’ve had elderly white men come in and say, ‘I’ll never forget this old rickety bus pulls up on our lot with all these black players with uniforms that weren’t matching and mismatched shoes. Some of them wouldn’t even have socks on. But looks and flash didn’t mean anything once you stepped onto the court.

“Those teams became champions just trying to survive. There were so many unnecessary fouls. Blatant violations. The players would have nobody to cry to but Ray Crowe. He would tell them to get out to as big of a lead as you can right out of the gate. The fire was burning on the bus. By the time the team got to the arena, it was flames.”

The sense of urgency affiliated with having to sometimes go 5-on-7 or 5-on-8 helped make those Tigers nearly impossible to tame. Crowe’s first team at Attucks in 1950-51, led by 6-7 sophomore forward Willie Gardner, advanced to the state finals, where they lost to Evansville Reitz, 66-59, in a semifinal game.

Crispus Attucks was back in the semifinals the following season, this time losing to Shelbyville. In 1954 the Tigers fell short against eventual state champion Milan, a result that, according to Merriweather, never would have happened had he not been sidelined by a knee injury sustained during football season.

Think about it. If Merriweather had been healthy, Ray Crowe’s one shining cinematic moment (as the losing championship-game coach to the fictional Hickory Huskers in the 1986 movie “Hoosiers”) might never have happened.

What makes a coach

High school basketball coaches for generations have come in all shapes, sizes and skin colors and with varying methods of getting across one’s message.

Crowe was the perfect man for the perfect job at the perfect time, a gentleman who filled the role of male parent for many of his Crispus Attucks players.

“First of all, Mr. Crowe was very respected and was like a father to a lot of us,” said Merriweather, 75, who spends his winter months in San Antonio. “His greatest quality was his caring outside of basketball. Mr. Crowe was a math teacher, and he kept us all in his homeroom so he could keep up with us. He cared about whether you did your homework and whether you had food. This is in addition to what he did in basketball.”

Merriweather continues, “My father (Albert) died when I was 14 of bleeding ulcers. I remember Oscar’s father, but I don’t remember anybody else’s father. I remember everybody’s mother, though.”

After hanging up his practice whistle, Crowe served as the athletic director at Attucks for 11 years. He served from 1967-75 in the Indiana House of Representatives and later was employed as Indianapolis city parks director.

He passed away on Dec. 20, 2003, at the age of 88.

In his own soft-spoken manner, Ray Crowe helped place a dent in the racial barriers that existed during that turbulent era. Having some of the best talent this proud basketball state has ever produced at his disposal certainly played a role, but the right individual had to be the one calling the shots for it all to come together.

That man, along with the Big “O” and the rest of the Tigers, forged a legacy that continues to endure.

“A large part of our visitorship is interested in the basketball part of the museum,” said Chester, the museum curator. “Openly and honestly, it bothers me. Attucks High School is so much more than sports.”

But like the man said, this is Indiana.

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