The 1972 Kirkwood High School basketball team, the only integrated one of the four in this story, is a metaphor of what this nation could be when all come together in a selfless quest for a common goal. If there is any place where true equality can be found, it is on the basketball hardwood, a popular catalyst with the power of March Madness to bring all factions of a community (temporarily, at least) together.
The widow of Bud Lathrop told me she was so proud of how the great coach had over the years guided his beloved home town of Raytown through a total racial flip flop. If you listened close enough you could hear the barriers falling, the walls come tumbling down, she tells me. “We had all white boys when we went to school here and for the first 20 years that Bud coached here,” the coach’s wife says. In 1972, Raytown South basketball was as white as snow. “Then the black kids began moving in,” she says. “ I remember the 1990 team (undefeated state champions) were about half white and half black. The boys got along so well and that helped the town accept each other. Our fans, blacks and whites, cheered with one voice.”
“Never,” was the 1950’s and early 1960’s battle cry of the white rednecks and KKK members in Missouri that fought integration. Over a ten-year slice of time framed by the years 1962 to 1972, a historical equivalent to the blink of an eye, it all changed. I watched it unfold right before my wide-open youthful eyes. Blacks and whites now went to school together, played on the same little league teams and high school football and basketball squads.
My mother said it seemed like small steps of acceptance, but for one of fair mind who had lived through the years of Jim Crow, she found it spiritually uplifting. “When I worked at the bank (in the 1950’s),” she told me several years before she passed away in 2018 at the age of 88, “we had a colored girl who worked with us. Once a year the Bank would buy tickets and we would all get on at the bus station and go to a Cardinal baseball game. She could not sit with us at game or on the bus, so she didn’t go. I never thought it was fair but I never spoke up against it, either. But things got better. It always does. Right just takes time.”
But, change will almost always be met with resistance. In my mother’s time, “Never,” the white demonstrators would chant, waiving their menacing ax handles. “We shall overcome,” sang the protesters in response. Today, the new protest mantra of the times is, “hands up, don’t shoot.” The mostly black voices of anger collide bitterly with the Make America Great Again movement. History may not always repeat itself, but in this case it sure does rhyme. Mom was right, history always belongs to the voices of those who sing the righteous songs of protest. It just takes time.
Both the St. Louis and Kansas City failures demonstrate the power of the federal courts. Drastically, and often over vocal patron complaint, local education underwent Federal Court mandated major shifts in priorities. Well intended or not, the court’s mandates and leadership brought no significant change for the better for either district’s students. Under judicial oversight, failing St. Louis and Kansas City school systems have, since 1972, morphed into much more expensive but now totally dysfunctional entities. Throughout the now 50+ years of court ordered “solutions” for our segregated urban schools, it is painfully apparent the courts and their academia allies have not the insights nor the strategies needed to produce the equal educational opportunity that they so haughtily, through their autarchy, champion.
The Bible says to build your house on the rock. The four coaches who battled strategy against each other on March 8, 1972 are the foundation upon which for over a half century their respective teams were brilliantly and workmanlike built upon.
The coaches - Jack Bush at Kansas City Central, Denver Miller of Kirkwood, Bud Lathrop at Raytown South and Jody Bailey of Northwest - were as star-studded as their team’s records. It was truly a fraternal gathering of coaching giants. For all four, coaching was a life-long calling. Each, with no hesitation, had answered the siren's song. Each was known as a tenacious taskmaster with a huge and gregarious personality that often overshadowed the talent of their players. I asked Coach Bush, the only survivor of the quartet, if he is a member of the hall of fame? “Which one,” he responds, without a hint of boastfulness. “I am in I know three, maybe four. You will have to ask my wife. She
With head coaching careers that ran the range of 43-55 years, basketball fans in the state of Missouri had never since seen, and possibly never will again see, such an iconic group brought together for one night of fierce competition. Coaching basketball is like eating spaghetti in a white dress shirt— pleasurable if done neatly, not so much when mistakes are made. Longevity and success of such monumental levels as these four reached is unheard of in the always revolving door of high school basketball coaching.
The changes both in basketball and society that had taken place during the careers of the four are truly head-spinning. From Denver Miller’s first year on the Kirkwood bench, 1932, to Raytown South’s Bud Lathrop’s retirement in 2006 - 74 years - the game of basketball had evolved 180 degrees from the sport’s Jurassic Era of the 1930s and 40s. Major rule changes, racial integration, the development of superior athletes, a faster style of play (often above the rim), the exploding popularity of the game and the resulting pressure to win it hatched; even the size, the weight and the shape of the ball itself, all radically changed. The game the four had learned first as players and then as young coaches in poorly lit and tiny Great Depression era band box gyms was by 1972 unrecognizable.
Coaches that have long careers are a lot like rivers. A young river flows fast and runs deep, cutting through whatever stands in its way. As a river ages it tends to take a path of least resistance, meandering, more comfortable with a new, less resistant approach. The banks recede, becoming shallower, branching off to improve flow and to cover more area. These four legendary coaches had one common thread that bound them together in their successful and long careers - all had evolved and adapted with the changing times and thus, continued to win. For all four, it was a necessary choice to stay current. But, change for a man with deep set convictions and beliefs is hard, as Lathrop would learn. The Raytown South coach was the only one of the four thatdid not depart his school on good terms and totally of his own free will.
Despite their successes on the state’s hardwoods, when these four legendary coaches were asked over the years by reporters what they remember most about their decades of toil, each had the same knee-jerk response: "The losses." Northwest’s Jody Bailey once said, “after all these years, I'm just happy that it's still big news when we lose." Pride is a must to remain on top. Challenge complements pride, achievement harmonizes with it.
All four are offspring of an era that history has canonized as the “Greatest Generation.” Today, its members are almost all gone. A young 18-year-old sailor stationed at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the definitive day of infamy for their time, is now an old man approaching his 95th birthday. They endured an upbringing in the throes of the Great Depression and then stared down the great evil of the Axis powers in World War II. When faced with imminent peril; all layers of their complex society pulled together as one. In doing so, this “Greatest Generation,” saved the world.
Just as surely as The St. Louis Cardinals will pack Busch Stadium for a summer weekend series with the hated Chicago Cubs, each of the four coaches would be courted over the years for jobs on a bigger stage; and just as sure as one’s taste buds will salivate to the succulent aroma of a melt in your mouth T-Bone steak from the KC Stockyards, each coach would decline all offers graciously. Each had found the perfect coaching fit and had the wisdom to embrace it.
Richard Nixon and the “Silent Majority” of 1972 or Donald Trump and the “Deplorables” of 2019; is there really a difference?
When I was growing up as a middle-class white youngster in a somewhat integrated area in the 1960’s, adult relatives and friends of my parents would sit around the Sunday after dinner table and bemoan the craziness that had infested the “negro” race. These friends and relatives were NOT, as they would preface each racial discussion, prejudice. That, I found, was code for the racism to begin. The discussion would be on who they considered as the “good coloreds,” of America, athletes like Willie Mays and Joe Frazier. And then there were the “niggers,” like Muhamad Ali who was now not only a “colored” radical but also a Muslim and those “two track boys with the black fists.”
Today, the “good coloreds” in the white conservative world of athletics are Tiger Woods and Michael Jordon; apolitical athletic icons who entertain us without threatening their mostly caucasian fan’s crusade to “Make America Great Again.” Woods doesn't take on the controversial hot button issues of the day with the same aggression as he attacks a par 5. "When Tiger said years ago that he was Capitalism, to me that was a way of avoiding a sort of connection to African-American culture," says Dr. Todd Boyd, a professor of race and popular culture at Southern California and the author of Young, Black, Rich & Famous. "It's his right to define himself as he sees fit, but before we start with his lack of politics, we start with the fact that he has presented himself as an athlete who wants to excel based on his own excellence on the golf course, and there's not much after that.”
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For every championship team comes a season defining moment, when confidence replaces self-doubt. Identifying the moment is sometimes not easy. But, not in this story. For the 1972 Kirkwood Pioneers, that time was now. With its season hanging in the balance, Miller did not blink. In the timeout huddle, the coach was emphatic to the point that his certainty shot waves of confidence through his team, just when they needed it the most. All season, in every practice and game, Miller had stressed to his team the importance of continually pushing the action. His message in the biggest timeout huddle of the year was simple, “Get it and go. We know what we need to do, so go do it.” He specifically told his team, regardless of whether Shelton’s second free throw was good or not, no timeout was to be called. Just do what we have practiced for all year, just get it and go.
Excerpts From Ball Of Confusion
The Central loyalists were outraged at what they saw as a vague and ambiguous ruling while ambivalent to fair and consistent past board actions involving white schools and their fans’ misbehavior. Coach Bush pointed to the exemplary behavior of his athletes before, during, and after the contest. Bush objected to the school being held accountable for the behavior of blacks who were not staff or students at Central.
Several Raytown South players commented they felt the punishment of Central was misdirected, that the players at Central were being punished for the actions of their crowd of followers who had caused the problems. Ed Stoll said he felt bad for the Central players. Coach Bud Lathrop had spoken with the state board at the hearing. He refused to comment as to the fairness of the ruling and the punishment, nor reveal what he had shared with the MSHSAA tribunal. He did say he felt that a school was responsible for the behavior of its followers. Central Coach Bush vehemently disagreed. “Not one of our students has been accused of misbehavior,” Bush observed. “You can’t make us responsible for the behavior of every black person who attends the game, and that is what the state is doing.”
“We play 23 regular season games and have no problems,” Coach Bush continued. “What the state needs to understand is that when the playoffs get here and a city school’s team gets beat, they (the losing school’s followers) then start following us, coming to our games. Many of these people (at Maryville) I had never seen before.” True, but according to MSHSAA, if they have black faces then Bush and Central were responsible for their unruly behavior. Bush saw it as a dubious example of a racist system. “If they are breaking the law, no matter who they are, throw them in jail,” Bush said, “but don’t punish our kids who have done nothing wrong. The way this has been done it is if they are saying we all failed, student-wise, player-wise and school-wise. I don’t think that is true or fair.”
1972 or 2019
In 2019, with the exception of the most extreme racists, the “N” word is culturally taboo and brings immediate censure to the fringe racists who use it. However , the change is only semantic, the intent of the context slur still socially pervasive, just spoken through racist dog whistles like “The Wall and “shit hole countries.” For conservative white middle America in 2019, the “nigger radicals” of the athletic world are Colin Kaepernick and LeBron James and those NFL “son of a bitches” take a knee thugs; spoiled millionaires who do not appreciate what white America’s new and enlightened view of race has done for them.
Jim Crow Segregation
In the fall of '49 the Jim Crow segregated South was, for a poor white sharecropper, a life of little choice. One political party (Democrat), one crop (cotton), and one dollar, if you were lucky. But, the lot of a black man was worse. There was no choice and there was no dignity. For a black man passivity and poverty in Caruthersville ruled, life passing slowly in the cotton fields amid dirt and the boiling summer sun. Bush’s experience in Caruthersville, he says today, is something, “I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. There was nowhere in that little town black people could go to socialize,” recalls Bush. “Our students, their parents were cotton field workers. We were given hardly any money for those kids to educate them. My wife and I both had college degrees. My wife had been a college professor, for goodness sakes. Made no difference, we were treated with no respect by local whites. We might as well been in Mississippi.”
Seven years later, by the time Bush left Caruthersville and moved back to Kansas City, Missouri had begun open racial competition in high school athletics with all schools belonging to the MSHSAA. The Missouri Negro Athletic Association (MNAA), until then the organization for black high school sports in Missouri, was swallowed up by MSHSSA. All athletic competitions, by Missouri law until 1956, were separate by race. There were before 1956 some isolated desegregated competitions winked at during the regular season. For several years in the early 1950’s the all-white St. Louis Public High League, “in a show of friendship,” invited the city’s “negro” schools” to compete in the PHL’s spring track meet for the boys and “play day” for the girls. But until 1956, come playoff time, competition segregated by race, as called for by law, was strictly enforced.