From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

NCAA Men's Basketball Championship Game, Coming South

In March of 1958, the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship finals were held in Louisville, KY at the Kentucky Fair and Exposition Center, Freedom Hall. In the final game, the University of Kentucky (UK) defeated Seattle University 84-72. Elgin Baylor, one of the African American players on the Seattle team, was named the MOP (Most Outstanding Player) of the tournament. Baylor was also the 1958 No. 1 NBA draft pick by the Minneapolis Lakers (becoming the Los Angeles Lakers in 1959).

Elgin Baylor was an outstanding basketball player. The 1958 NCAA Championship in Louisville was his last college game, a game played in front of an all-white audience of 18,803 spectators [source: D. Raley, "Where Are They Now? John Castellani, Seattle U basketball coach." Seattle pi, 3/27/2007 (available online)]. 

In 1958, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was still within the early stages of integrating basketball teams. For example, in 1958, Mississippi State did not participate in the NCAA Tournament because of the school's policy of not competing against racially integrated sports teams. Mississippi State did not allow African American athletes on any sports team; they were not the only school with such policies. 

Integrated college basketball tournaments had been taking place since 1948 when the Indiana State Teachers College [now Indiana State University] team, coached by John Wooden, participated in integrated games. In 1947, Wooden's team had received an invitation to the NAIB Tournament (National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball), but the team could play only if their African American teammate, Clarence Walker, did not participate in the games. Coach Wooden declined the NAIB invitation. The following year, the NAIB reversed its decision to ban African American players [source: K. Abdul-Jabbar, "One sport, two games" in ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia, pp. 12-19].

Two years later, in 1950, both the NIT (National Invitation Tournament) and the NCAA reversed their ban on African American basketball players. Though the national basketball organizations had lifted the race restrictions in reference to basketball players, and there were a few African American basketball players on NCAA teams in 1958, the change did not address games played before segregated audiences. 

In 1958, the University of Kentucky basketball team had no African American players and would not have any until 1969. During the 1957-1958 basketball season, UK had no ban prohibiting the team from competing against teams with African American players, even though the seating in Memorial Coliseum, the home basketball court, was segregated with lower level seating off limits to African American fans [source: M. Davis, "In Roach's death, Lexington lost a remarkable gentleman and teacher" Lexington Herald-Leader, 9/3/2010 .

The NCAA site selection committee was very much aware of integration and segregation rules at the member schools and segregation rules in reference to public access to tournament sites in various geographic locations. During the years that the NCAA had race restrictions in place, the finals tournament had never been held in the south nor  in Kentucky, which was often referred to as a border state. During the first 20 years of the NCAA Championships, there had been seven finals held in Kansas City, MO between 1940 and 1957, with tournament locations no further south in either the west or the east.

In 1945 and 1946, Oklahoma State University was the first southern team to win the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship. The final games were played in New York City. Other southern teams with championships for the first time were the University of North Carolina in 1957; University of Texas El Paso in 1966; North Carolina State University in 1974; and the University of Florida, in 2006, became the first Deep South team (excluding Texas) to win an NCAA Men's Basketball Championship--the game was played in Indianapolis, IN. The team won the championship again in 2007 in Atlanta, GA. 

Almost 50 years prior to that championship, the 1958 NCAA Championship played in Louisville was the first step toward holding the finals in the south. Perhaps Louisville was selected because the city had been thought of as a transition point where the north becomes the south and the south becomes the north. A few examples are the segregated bowling tournaments that didn't come any further south than Louisville prior to the 1940s; and the 1915 Interracial YWCA Conference and the YWCA Subcommittee Conference on Colored Work, which held its first southern conferences in Louisville. Beginning in the late 1800s with interstate travel on trains and later on Greyhound buses, traveling south with a stop in Louisville meant that African American passengers had to move to the Jim Crow car of trains and move to the back of buses [sources: E. Guess, "The Struggle makes you strong," in All We Had Was Each Other, by D Wallis, p. 47; and "The Color Line," in Life Behind a Veil, by G. C. Wright, pp. 50-76]. 

In the 1950s, civil rights and equal opportunity efforts were being championed and challenged in Louisville. In 1951, Louisville Municipal College for Negroes was integrated into the University of Louisville; in 1953, the segregated Louisville Greyhound Bus Station waiting area was challenged by an African American man; in 1954, the General Hospital School of Nursing had started to integrate after the election of a new mayor in Louisville; and in 1956, the Kentucky Negro Educational Association (KNEA) was subsumed into the previously all-white KEA (Kentucky Education Association). The KNEA had kept a close tie to Louisville, where the annual KNEA conference had been held for more than 50 years. 

Change was happening in Louisville, but not in a riotous manner, yet the 1958 NCAA Tournament went off without a hitch. There were no headlines questioning why there had been an all-white audience at Freedom Hall. In 1959, the NCAA basketball finals were again held in Louisville before an all-white audience, and in the final game, the University of California, Berkeley defeated West Virginia University [source: "Louisville is site of NCAA series," The Spokesman-Review, 8/31/1958, p. 5]. There were no African American players on either team. Jerry West, on the West Virginia team, was named the tournament MOP. NCAA tournament finals continued to be held in Louisville in 1962, 1963, 1967, and 1969 [source: NCAA Men's Basketball Championship History website]. 

During the first 40 years of the NCAA Men's Basketball Finals Tournament, 1939-1979, the furthest south the finals were held was in Los Angeles, CA (1968); Houston, TX (1971); and Atlanta, GA (1977). It was after 1981 that more southern cites were selected as the site for the finals.

For more information see The Encyclopedia of the NCAA Basketball Tournament, by J. Savage; Benching Jim Crow, by C. H. Martin; and Elgin Balor, by B. C. Bayne.

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“NCAAMen's BasketballChampionship Game,Coming South,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed March 1, 2024, https://nkaa.uky.edu/nkaa/index.php/items/show/3120.

Last modified: 2023-03-31 17:16:56