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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Book Review: Attucks!: Oscar Robertson and the Basketball Team That Awakened a City by Phillip Hoose

I have been trying to brush up on my understanding and knowledge of the history of blacks in America over the last many years, and I'm finding more and more that children's nonfiction books are the way to go. They are robust, they often can cover lesser-known incidents due to their shorter length, and they do it in a very easy to understand and accessible way.

Turns out I didn't even know the history of Crispus Attucks, which this all-black high school in Indiana was named for. He was a freed slave who was the first person killed at the Boston Massacre, therefore also the first person killed in the American Revolution. When Indianapolis decided to build a single high school for all the African-Americans in town,  they wanted to name it after Thomas Jefferson or some other president, but the African-Americans refused to do that and instead named it for this prominent and impressive young man. (And really, after a president who owned slaves? Come on.)

In the 1950s, a teacher and coach came to Attucks high school who understood that the students needed to start playing basketball younger, and that fundamentals, while important, were not everything, and if you found an outstanding player of impressive talent, you shouldn't try to force him into a model of who you think a good basketball player should be--let him be himself. For years Attucks was not allowed to play the other (white) Indianapolis high schools. They had to travel all around the state to fill their game roster, playing tiny rural schools and a lots of Catholic schools (also prohibited from playing public schools). And they really had to travel as they did not have a home court where they could play games. Eventually, after many years of persuading and pushing, Attucks finally got permission to play in the Indianapolis state-wide high school championship. As you may remember from the movie Hoosiers which also takes place in the 1950s and is based on a real story, for many decades, Indiana was proud that its state championship was the only one in the country which let everyone play on a level playing field. They did not separate out schools based on size. So a tiny rural school with barely enough players to field a team could play a huge urban school with thousands of students.

From the first year they were allowed to play in the championship, Attucks went very far in the playoffs to the semifinals. The next couple of years they also came close. And then finally, a young man by the name of Oscar Robinson was playing for them, and they won the whole thing. They were the first all-black school to do so (also the first school from Indianapolis). That's a feat in and of itself. A number of the players got college scholarships or went on to play in the Harlem Globetrotters or NBA including Oscar. But there was an interesting outcome to this game. When African-Americans started really dominating basketball, the coaches from the white schools started recruiting them. Thanks to Brown versus Board of Education, the law had changed (even though reality had not) and African-American students were now allowed to attend high schools other than Attucks. And so coaches wanted some of these players on their teams, at other schools. So they started desegregating, by themselves, without a court order, because they wanted to. Granted, it was in a pretty small way, but that was really cool. For the first time ever, African-American students were wanted. So this might be a blip in the Civil Rights movement, but it's still a really amazing story.

This review is a part of Kid Konnection, hosted by Booking Mama, a collection of children's book-related posts over the weekend.

This book is published by Farrar Straus & Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer. 

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