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The Pacers’ Hickory Jerseys Have Been a Hit—with Everyone But Crispus Attucks Alumni

Bill Hampton stood in the hallway of his old high school one afternoon this past August, gazing at a sepia photograph hanging on a brick wall. The image, taken 60 years ago, transported him back in time. Back to when he was 18 and a lean senior guard for Crispus Attucks High School’s basketball team, a bit player in what should be one of the most memorable stories in high-school sports history. Back to the time-honored state championship celebration of riding on a firetruck from Hinkle Fieldhouse, down Meridian Street and past the estimated 12,000 people lined up to see the boys, and around Monument Circle—the destination, as tradition held, where the state champions would dismount and join revelers in the streets. Back to when the firetruck didn’t stop, but lapped the Circle and then deposited the team at Northwestern Park, where Hampton and his teammates wouldn’t stir up any trouble, and if they did, it would be confined to a black neighborhood.

As he took in the photograph, Hampton pointed to the younger version of himself in the lower-left corner. There, in the first row, he kneels, No. 34. His left hand holds a basketball with the year inscribed: 1955. A basketball nearby reads: “State Champs.”

And Hampton remembered. He remembered the time he and the 11 players standing with him in the photo became the nation’s first all-black team to win a state high-school athletic championship. “It was a ride,” Hampton, now 79, said as he stood there. “I remember the climb.”

Hampton remembered what he says too many others have forgotten. Like in July, for instance, when the Indiana Pacers announced their new red-and-maize NBA Pride Hickory jerseys, which the team is set to debut in its 2015–2016 season, tipping off on October 28. The jerseys were a nod to the fictional team in the 1986 Academy Award–nominated Hoosiers, a film loosely based on the 1954 Indiana high-school state-champion team from Milan. Next year, the film celebrates its 30th anniversary. And the story that it tells—that of the smallest school to win a single-class state basketball championship—unfolded a year before Attucks’s own magical season did in real life. This year, Attucks is celebrating the 60th anniversary of its 1955 championship win.

Amos Brown—the AM 1310 radio host and longtime columnist for the city’s black newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder—tweeted that he wasn’t “feeling” the jerseys.

When the Pacers announced the new throwback jerseys on social media, posting an image of Broad Ripple High School’s own George Hill wearing one on Twitter, the news went viral, garnering the team instant national media coverage. “While the uniform being worn in front of a worldwide audience is thrilling, we are equally excited about the additional opportunities the partnership provides both on and off the court,” said Todd Taylor, Pacers senior vice president, in a statement. “The Miracle Men of Milan are just one of the legendary basketball stories in the state.”

Elsewhere on the Internet, however, the jerseys received a much colder reception. Amos Brown—the AM 1310 radio host and longtime columnist for the city’s black newspaper, The Indianapolis Recorder—tweeted that he wasn’t “feeling” the jerseys. To him, the Pacers seemed to have completely overlooked the 60th anniversary of Crispus Attucks’s big victory.

Among Attucks’s tight-knit alumni network, news of the perceived slight spread “like fire,” Hampton said. “It leaves a bad taste in your mouth. First is first, and it can never be duplicated.”

 

In 1922, the Indianapolis School Board decided to segregate black and white students. When Crispus Attucks opened in 1927, it became the city’s only all-black high school. For nearly two decades, the Indiana High School Athletic Association barred the school from sanctioned matches, arguing that it was not a public school because it only enrolled black students. Still, the program pressed on, picking up games whenever it could against rural and parochial schools. Finally, in 1943, the IHSAA permitted Attucks to participate in official games. By 1951, under coach Ray Crowe, a father figure to many of the players, the men of Attucks had built a state tournament–worthy basketball program. Three years later, in 1954, the team lost to the ascendant Milan 52-65 on the rural white team’s famous championship drive. All the while, Attucks never played a home game—its gym wasn’t regulation size, so the team often played at Butler University. And the Tigers endured lopsided officiating, entering games with the mindset that they were playing “five on seven,” as Hampton remembers, counting the two referees as members of the opposing team. In 1955, led by standout junior Oscar Robertson, the team marched to the state championship on a 31-1 record, playing an up-tempo brand of basketball that became a forerunner to the modern game. On March 19, Crispus Attucks defeated Gary Roosevelt 97-74 for the title.

The historic victory, along with the respectful demeanor Crowe demanded of his players, seemed to salve racial wounds in certain parts of the city. Tony country clubs invited the players to steak dinners. Barbers doled out free haircuts. Passersby offered players free rides in their vehicles. “That championship, like no other occasion in Indianapolis, helped bring about a better feeling between whites and blacks,” Al Spurlock, the team’s assistant coach, told IM in a 2005 oral history of the Attucks victory. “Barriers started coming down. The community did everything it could to show appreciation. And the players felt that what they had done meant something.”

 

Last winter, the Pacers had a big decision to make. For almost a decade, the NBA’s Pride Uniform program has encouraged the league’s teams to develop alternate jerseys that showcase their region or unique history. This summer, the Pacers finally became one of nine teams to announce throwback jerseys for the 2015–2016 season. Leading up to last January, Pacers front-office executives began vetting potential concepts. Staffers discussed a version of an Attucks jersey but eventually moved away from it. An early favorite among staffers: a Hoosiers homage.

Working with a connection in the league office who has experience in the movie business, Frank Pulice, the Pacers’ general counsel, scored a meeting with representatives from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which owns the rights to Hoosiers. When the Pacers played the Lakers at the Staples Center that month, the team’s management huddled with studio execs in L.A. Over dinner, a joint marketing deal was all but inked. A few months later, after both sides had time to digest the details, they convened again. Everything that followed before the rollout was pro forma.

After this July’s social-media announcement, Twitter users retweeted the photo of Hill in the Hickory jersey more than 800 times and favorited it more than 500. Hill soon trended nationally on Twitter. Marketing experts hailed the partnership as a stroke of genius. “Those are the exact jerseys,” Angelo Pizzo, the Indiana native who wrote the film, told The Indianapolis Star. Retired Pacers veteran Reggie Miller tweeted: “LOVE the new uniforms, nice throwback.” WTHR sports columnist Bob Kravitz called them “fantastic.”

“It’s pretty rare to get the amount of coverage we’ve gotten,” Taylor said of the Hickory jersey hoopla. Within 24 hours of the announcement, approximately 2,500 people had signed up to be notified when new Hickory items arrived. As of August, orders for the jerseys had poured in from 33 states and two foreign countries. (The Pacers declined to discuss revenue from the merchandise.)

But then came the Attucks blowback. Among the most prominent dissenters was Sonny Vaccaro, the former Nike executive who signed Michael Jordan to his shoe deal. Vaccaro, a champion of the Attucks team, broke the news in an August phone conversation to Attucks alum Willie Merriweather. Merriweather, an All-American guard for Attucks during the 1955 season, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “No one thought this thing through,” he said.

Vaccaro was incensed. “It offended me instantly,” he said. “My point is this: It’s the Indiana Pacers. They should have recognized the team down the street. It’s a sad commentary. How in the hell do you not include one of the greatest high schools that ever played the game?”

To their credit, the Pacers quickly sensed the Attucks alumni’s frustration. They concede that the jersey decision was, in some ways, charged. “The reality of it is, we would have sent a photo out of George, and he would have had one school or the other on there,” Taylor said. “Whether it had been Attucks or Milan, people would have looked at it, and maybe they would have said, ‘It’s kind of weird that a pro team is wearing a high-school jersey.’ To us, Hickory doesn’t represent one school. It represents all of the Indiana schools.”

Of course, not everyone would agree. In Hoosiers, Hickory plays a predominantly black team for the championship, but Milan actually beat mostly-white Muncie Central for the 1954 title. For its fudging of history, some critics now consider the film to be racist. It’s hard to imagine Crispus Attucks alumni embracing that.

As of press time, the Pacers were still deliberating over how to address the Attucks controversy. Taylor said they definitely plan to honor both Milan and Attucks—among other storied high-school programs—during the Hickory celebration this season. And they hope to find other ways to pay tribute to the Attucks squad. Should they recognize the team during February’s Black History Month? Or perhaps at a different point in the year, maybe when the team faces Milwaukee, whom Robertson, the Attucks alum, once played for? (The team is set to play the Bucks on November 21 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, and again in December, March, and April.) Whatever they decide to do, they remain confident that they made the right decision with the jerseys.

“If we had picked Milan or Attucks, it would have been cool to us from a local standpoint,” Taylor said. “But it wouldn’t have had the exposure that just happened naturally with Hickory.”

 

Back in August, Hampton wandered the halls of the Crispus Attucks Museum on the campus of the high school, with its four galleries and 70 items, including the 1955 championship team photo that captured his attention that afternoon. Then he joined nine of his fellow alums in a conference room. Convened by City-County Councillor William “Duke” Oliver, himself an Attucks alum, the group gathered to talk about the Attucks legacy and how they should handle the Pacers issue. Spread out on the table in front of them were photos and news clippings chronicling the team’s 60-year history. Many of the images documented the team’s turn as grand marshals for this year’s 58th IPL 500 Festival Parade. There, Hampton and his teammates rounded Monument Circle again—this time, at a more leisurely pace.

They began their meeting by handing out a statement they planned to distribute. “It is well documented as to how little fanfare was given to the victorious Indianapolis Attucks Tigers,” it read in part. “In fact, the team has been characterized in some circles as the forgotten Hoosiers.”

“Our story is omitted,” Oliver said. “I’ll be talking to the Pacers.”

As for the Pacers celebrating the team in some other way, such as a Black History Month recognition, the Attucks alums were mostly underwhelmed.

“It’s better for them to do something rather than nothing,” Hampton said. “But this February thing, I don’t like that. That’s like putting an asterisk beside it. They’re trying to put a Band-Aid on a wound.”

This article appeared in the October 2015 Issue.

Adam Wren writes about business, politics, and crime for Indianapolis Monthly—often in the same story.

Follow him on Twitter @adamwren or visit his website at adamwren.me.
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