Thursday, May 17, 2018

Who was the first African-American to play in the state tournament? It's not who you think

It was in 2006, in the book Minnesota Hoops that I first asked, and attempted to answer the question, Who was the first African-American athlete to play in the state tournament. I thought at the time that it was Bob Wagner of Hopkins' 1952 state champions, and I repeated this assertion in an article for the MSHSL Bulletin on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the state tournament in 2012.

I quickly found out that this was inaccurate. Aaron Marciniak, writing in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, called me out by name and said, "Hugunin was wrong." He then tricked my friend Jimmy Robinson into saying. "We (African-Americans) are not a significant part of the population. That's the general feeling of people who are not of our color." This was the very next paragraph after "Hugunin was wrong," and the obvious implication was that I was wrong because of a "feeling" that blacks "are not significant." I flatter myself that my friend Jimmy Robinson would not have said that about me and would not have said it at all if he thought that Marciniak was going to present it as an attack on my character. But, who knows?

At least the article went on to present some useful information. It turns out that two African-American athletes, Leon Combs and Curtis Russell, played in the state tournament in 1947 with St. Paul Marshall. Now, I can tell you that I've read numerous descriptions of the 1947 state tournament, and nowhere in any of the reports was any mention that Combs and Russell were black. The incredible irony of the whole situation is that in 1947 St. Paul Marshall was coached by my mother's first cousin, Cody Hanzel.

The point of this article is to set the record straight and to tell you that Marciniak was wrong and...okay, we'll leave it there. But, yeah, I'm pissed at the way he portrayed this matter. If I hadn't cared enough to ask the question and to posit Bob Wagner as a possible answer in the first place, nobody would ever have known about Leon Combs and Curtis Russell.  But, as I said, we now know that Combs and Russell were not the first African-American athletes to play in the state tournament. This information in now wa diminishes their accomplishment, by the way. They were the first blacks to play in the tournament in 29 years, as far as we know. It is obvious to anyone who knows anything about American history that they must have faced a tremendous amount of racial prejudice along the way to that tournament. But, the fact is they were not the first.

Now, I don't know for an absolute fact that Eugene "Boots"Watts was the first. But as of today, he was the first that I know of, coming as he did 29 years before Combs and Russell. This information comes to me by way of Duluth Central basketball historian Larry Lobmell, who might be known to some of you as Mean Larry, and amazingly enough, he forwarded the information to me without calling me ignorant or a racist because I didn't already know about it. But, what I have to say is that Eugene "Boots" Watts is a freakin' hero. Who can even imagine the racial prejudice that he must have faced just living in Duluth, much less playing on the Duluth Central varsity basketball team in 1918! This was 2 years before the famous lynchings of 3 black carnival workers in Duluth after a white girl claimed that they had raped her. She of course recanted her claim a few days later, but this did not help to bring the falsely accused young black men back to life.

You may have heard the Bob Dylan lyric about this event. "They're selling postcards of the hanging," he sang in "Desolation Row," and so it was. Some enterprising soul printed up a bunch of postcards showing the three lifeless bodies hanging from a lamppost at First Street and Second Avenue East. Dylan's father, Abraham Zimmerman, is alleged to have witnessed the event.

"Boots" Watts

Well, all of this background aside, the point of this post is to honor "Boots" Watts. So let's get to it.

Duluth Central made news twice in 1918—by knocking off the pre-tournament favorites St. Paul Humboldt in what must have been a crazy 32-31 comeback in the tournament's first round and, secondly, by playing the first final to match two undefeated teams. That’s plenty of news from a team that didn’t even win the state title. But, wait! The big news out of Duluth Central in 1918 was their center, Eugene “Boots” Watts, Jr.

Rarely have news reports ever made things easy for those in the distant future by simply saying that a player, any player, was African-American. In the case of “Boots” Watts, well, thank goodness there’s a photo. It shows a strapping young African-American man—long and lean, but muscled—whose proportions suggest a fellow of about 6-3. The Central yearbook says, “’Boots’ had little trouble out-jumping all opposing centers. Although a new man, he played a hard, consistent game all season.” 

He became team captain the following year, and later he played college basketball and graduated from LaCrosse Teachers College in Wisconsin. Still later, he married, had a son, Eugene III, and moved with his family to Chicago. In 1932 came word of his death there at the age of 30. He was survived by his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Eugene Watts, Duluth; a brother, Fieldon, of Brooklyn, NY; and a sister Frances, also of Duluth.

There is no evidence either way as to whether anyone at the MSHSL or any of the other schools objected to an African-American participating in the 1918 tournament. It would be surprising, frankly, if someone had not objected. But in Northfield in 1918, it was either assumed that he would play, or, if there was dissent, then someone with the MSHSL intervened to settle the matter. Either way, hats off to the new organization. But, then, one wonders, why did not one African-American play in the tournament from 1918 to 1947?

Waseca routed three state tournament opponents in 1918 by an average of 25 points, while narrowly escaping Albert Lea 18-14 in a semi-final game, to become the first undefeated state champion. Forward Lester Juhnke led all scorers in the tournament with 14 points per game. What was not previously known is that their opponent in the final, Duluth Central, was also undefeated. The Duluth News Tribune reported that they “won 15 consecutive victories this year, beating everything in the Wisconsin and Minnesota regions surrounding Lake Superior, the best of the Iron Range, and all but one at the state tourney.” And, yet, Waseca won the final easily, 29-10.

It has long been believed that the Class AA title game featuring Coon Rapids and Woodbury in 1983 was the first state championship between undefeateds, but we now know that Waseca and Duluth Central beat them to it in 1918.

The question remains, however, whether Watts played in the state tournament. Having read through several newspaper reports of the 1918 tournament, I have to say that nowhere does his name appear. On the other hand, the only Central game for which a box score or even a starting lineup was reported was the final against Waseca. Yet, the Central yearbook for 1918 reports that Watts broke his ankle in the first game of the state tournament and hat he did not play in any of the subsequent games, certainly not the finale against Waseca. 

So this, my friends, is the true story of the first and only African-American player of whom we are aware who played in the state tournament prior to 1947. If there proves to be a black athlete who played before 1918 or sometime between 1918 and 1947, we'd love to hear about it. But if such a person turns up, the fact that you haven't heard about him yet doesn't mean that you're a racist. 

Minnesota's Best 100 Small Forwards Ever

            In the early days, the forwards were the designated shooters, working the baseline, looking for a pass from the high post for an easy “pot shot” underneath the basket. They were probably the best athletes on their team, but not the biggest. Big kids at that time (pre-1930s) were more likely to play the guard spot, where they were defensive specialists. They guarded people.
            The forward came to share the scoring load with the center after the advent of the low post in the 1940s, and after the 1950s one of the forwards came to be a second post on the floor, if in fact one had a pair of “bigs” to deploy in that way. The strong side forward continued to be a key scorer for most teams.
            Today, the small forward, or shooting or scoring forward (or, simply, the “3”), is pretty much interchangeable with the big guard or shooting guard (the “2”). Both handle the ball almost like a point guard, put the ball on the floor and get to the rim, and they can shoot it.

High School Resume’

Post-High School Highlights

1. Sam Jacobson, Park 1994

Scored 2,461 career points, #3 at the time. Mr. Basketball in 1994.

Scored 13 ppg in 4 years at MN, and 18 as a senior. Then scored 4 ppg in 68 NBA games.

2. Isaiah Dahlman, Braham 2006

Led the Bombers to 3-peat state titles and led 2 tournaments in scoring. Finished with a then-record 3,366 career points.

Played college ball at Michigan State.

3. Harold Gillen, Stillwater 1914

Led Stillwater to the state title.

Earned all-America honors for MN’s 1917 Big 10 champs.

4. Dave Tschimperle, Hopkins 1953

Led his team to 2 state titles, and led state tournament in scoring twice. 2ndplayer to make all-tournament 3 times.

Played college ball at Hamline.

5. Joel McDonald, Chisholm 1991

Won Class A state title. Broke 33-year-old record with 3,292 career points, was Mr. Basketball.

Set NCC record with 526 points in a season at St. Cloud State.

6. Amir Coffey, Hoplins 2016 

Coffey scored 19 ppg, led his team to state title as a senior. 

Helped MN Gophers go from 8 wins to 23 wins his 1styear. 

7. Tom Nordland, Minneapolis Roosevelt 1957

Led his team to 2 state titles, leading all tournament scorers in 1957 with 84 points.

Played college ball at Cal Poly. 

8. Mathew Hurt, Rochester John Marshall 2019

Scored 39 ppg as a junior.

Headed to Minnesota.

9. Joe Coleman 2011, Hopkins

Coleman led his team to 3 state titles. Won Mr. Basketball

Began his college career at Minnesota.

10. Martin Norton, Minneapolis Central 1921

Led his team to 3rd place in national tournament in 1920, and to 1921 state title. Set scoring and FT records that stood for 80 years.

Played football for the Green Bay Packers.

11. Don “Swede” Carlson, Minneapolis Edison 1938

Carlson helped his team to the 1937 state title. 

Played for MN. Coach Dave McMillan said Carlson was the best defender he ever coached. 

12. Darius Lane, Totino-Grace 1998

Led the 1998 state tournament in scoring with 88 points.

Played college ball at Seton Hall, scoring 15 ppg in 3 years.

13. Johnny Dick, Buhl 1936

Led Buhl to 2 state tournaments, and was considered to be 1 of the best players ever to play in the state tournament.

Played college ball at MN.

14. Dick Garmaker, Hibbing 1950


All-America at MN, scored 13 ppg in 6 NBA seasons.

15. Bob Bruggers, Danube 1962

Led his team to 2 state tournaments and finished with 2,364 points, #2 at the time.

Played football at MN and in the NFL.

16. Bennie Lichtenegger, Gaylord 1926

Led his team to the 1st true Cinderella state title, leading all scorers with 34 points.

Played college ball at Gustavus.

17 (tie). LeRoy Gardner 1965 and Ray “Black” Rasey 1922, both St. Paul Central

Gardner led his team to the state tournament, and led the St. Paul City Conference in scoring. Rasey led City Conference in scoring.

Gardner was the first black Minnesotan to win a scholarship to the U. Rasey also played at the U and was called the best player the U had ever had at that time.

18. Jabbar Washington, Minneapolis North 1997

Helped his team to 3 straight state titles.

Scored about 8 ppg at 3 colleges including Portland State.

19. Devean George, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1995

Played ball at Augsburg, then scored 6 ppg in 11 NBA seasons.

20. Greg Downing, Duluth Central 1979

Led his team to 2 state tournaments and to a state title. Co-Mr. Basketball in 1979.

Played college ball at Nebraska.

21. Alan Anderson, DeLaSalle

Sored 21 ppg as a senior and was named Metro Player of the Year.

Played at Michigan State, scoring 10 ppg over 4 years, then scored 9 ppg in 4 NBA seasons.

22. Tony Jaros, Minneapolis Edison 1940

Jaros broke most Minneapolis scoring records as a senior in 1940.

Jaros was selected to the Gophers all-time team in 1999, and also played for the Lakers.

23. Zeke Nnaji, Hopkins 2019

Scored 20 ppg with 5 boards and 2 assists as a junior.

24. Anders Broman, Lakeview Christian 2013

Led his team to 2 state tournaments, and was the 1st MN player ever to score 5,000 points.

Played 2 years at South Dakota State, then transferred to Winthrop where he joined brother Bjorn.

25. Aaron Middendorf, Caledonia 1997

Scored 48 points in Class AA final win over DeLaSalle. Mr. Basketball finalist.

Scored 8 ppg over 4 years at Northern Iowa.

26. Dusty Rychart, Grand Rapids 1997

Led his team to 1997 state tournament, scoring 29 ppg.

Scored 11 ppg in 4 years at MN, then played 11 years of pro ball in Australia.

27. Dave Ruliffson, Minneapolis 
Washburn 1941

Led his team to the state tournament, where he led all scorers with 41 points.

Played ball at the U of MN.

28. John Klarich, Buhl 1942

Led his team to repeat state titles in 1941 and 1942.

29. Tom Mulso, Sherburn 1970

Scored 83 points in 3 games for 1970 state champs. 81 FGA is still a tournament record. Scored 1,192 career points.

Played college ball at Augustana.

30. Cory Johnson, Duluth East 2006

Led his team to Class AAA runner-up in 2006, and finished with 2,960 career points, #4 at the time. Mr. Basketball finalist.

Played 2 years at Iowa State and 2 more at Valpo. Played pro ball in Europe.

31 (tie). Louis Nordly 1915, Carl Nordly 1919, Oliver Nordly 1922, Red Wing

All 3 played in the state tournament. Louis helped win the 1915 state title, Oliver in 1920 and 1922.

Carl and Oliver played college ball at Carleton. Both went on the coach in college, Carl at MN and Oliver at Northern Iowa.

32 (tie). Michael Hurt, Rochester John Marshall, and Steffon Mitchell, Shakopee, both 2016

Hurt is 6-6. Mitchell, 6-7, scored 26 ppg as a junior.

Hurt committed to the U of M, Mitchell to NDSU.

33. Shane Schilling, Minnetonka 1999

Led his team to 2 state finals and the 1998 state title. 

Played at the U of MN.

34. Goanar Mar, 

Scored 13 ppg and won 3 straight Class AAA titles. Great defender.

Will play college ball at George Mason.

35. Carl Lidberg, Red Wing 1921

Led Wingers to 1920 state title and 1921 tournament, leading all scorers in 1920 with 45 points.

Played college ball at Carleton and the U of MN.

36 (tie). Kenny Exel 1938 and Larry Exel 1956, both Minneapolis Roosevelt

Larry helped his team to the 1956 state title.

Kenny was MN Gophers captain in 1947.

37. Larry Overskei, Alexander Ramsey 1965

Played at MN, captain as a senior in 1970.

38. David Zellman, Lewiston-Altura 2002

Led his team to Class AA runner-up and led all tournament scorers with 74 points.

Led Winona State to the NCAA D2 title as a senior in 2006. 3 times all-conference.

39. (tie). Ozzie Cowles, Browns Valley and Joe Hutton, Excelsior, both 1919

Starred together (along with Carl Nordly #43T above) at Carleton.

40. Harold Schoening, Appleton 1927

Led all scorers in the 1927 state tournament with 35 points.

Earned all-Big 10 honors at MN.

41. Chester Hendrickson, Madison 1922

Led all scorers 73 points (18 ppg), a near-record 72 percent of his team’s points. Also starred in Chicago.

42. Tyler Wahl, Lakeville North 2019

Scored 18 ppg with 14 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 steals and 3 blocks as a junior.

43. Arvesta Kelly, Jr., Cretin-Derham Hall 1993

Led Cretin to 3 straight AA title games and 2 state titles. Just the 3rd boy ever to earn all-tournament honors 3 times. Mr. Basketball finalist.

44. Jim Akason, Halstad 1952

Took 3rd place in the 1952 state tourney, and finished as the #1 scorer in history to that time. 

Played college ball at NDSU.

45. Don Olson, Mankato 1945

Led the Scarlets to runner-up in 1945 state tournament.

Led Mankato State to 2ndplace in 1948 NAIA national tournament.

46. Travis Busch, Mounds View 2005

Mr. Basketball. Led his team to the state tournament.

Played college ball at MN, Cal Poly and Colorado State.

47. Tim Hanson, Prior Lake 1984

MN Mr. Basketball 1984.

Played at MN.

48 (tie). Mike Forrest 1963 and Mike Johnson 2000, both Cloquet

Forrest led Cloquet to 2nd place in single-class tournament, Johnson to 4th place in AAA, leading all scorers with 97 points.

Johnson played college ball at North Dakota. Forrest was injured in a car accident before beginning his college career.

49. Virgil Miller, Hopkins 1948

Led his team to a state tournament.

Played college ball at MN.

50. Erik Crawford, Tartan 2001

Helped his team to 2000 state title, then scored 82 points for 4th place Tartan in 2001.

Scored 1,108 points at Northern Iowa.

51. Bryan Grohnke, Edina 1964

Led his team to 3rd place in the state, leading all tournament scorers with 29 ppg.

Played a little bit at MN.

52. John Beyer, Luverne 1966

Helped his team to the 1964 state title.

Played college ball at MN.

53 (tie). Artie Tverra, Minneapolis South 1927 and Don Griffin, Minneapolis North 1933

Tverra led his team to the state title, Griffin led his to 2nd place.

Both starred in senior men’s AAU ball.

54. Cole Olstad, Plainview-Elgin-Millville 2011

Scored 3,055 career points, and led his team to 3rdplace in 2009 and 2010 state tournaments.

Played college ball at Concordia (St. Paul).

55. Rockne Johnson, Duluth East 1975

Led his team to the tournament. Mr. Basketball finalist.

Played college ball at Oregon State and UMD. Dad of #24 Cory Johnson.

56. Tommy Connor, Virginia 1937

Led his team to state runner-up.

Starred at Hamline.

57. Omar Larson, Granite Falls 1953

Scored 1,401 career points and was considered the 1st great jump shooter in MN HS. 

58. Kurt Knoff, East Grand Forks 1971

Led his team to 3rd place in the 1st Class A tournament, scoring 75 points in 3 games including 39 in the 3rdplace game.

Earned all-America football honors at Kansas.

59. Lloyd Thorgaard, Minneapolis Washburn 1949

Led Hamline to the 1951 NAIA national championship. Finished with 1,669 career points and was drafted by the Minneapolis Lakers.

60. Dave Dahlke, Chaska 1982

Scored 1,477 career points and led his team to 2 state tournaments. Mr. Basketball finalist.

Played college ball at U of MN and Drake.

61. Courtney Brown, East Ridge 2019

Scored 24 ppg as a junior.

62. Jay Kiedrowski, Edina 1967

Helped his team to 2 straight state titles.

63 (tie). Jeremiah 2015, David 2008, Stephen 2006, Matt 2003, Daniel 2004, Isaiah 2013, Joshua 2009, and Andy 2001 Hanson, Maranatha

8 brothers played for Maranatha from 1999-2015, scoring 13,390 points as their team went 403-67.

64. Doug Bolstorff, Grand Rapids

Played at MN, then 3 NBA games.

65. Dennis Fitzpatrick, St. Thomas, and Lew Rickert, Duluth East both 1969

Fitz won all-state honors as a senior.

Rickert played 1 year at MN. Fitz helped St. Thomas to 4 MIAC titles. Member St. Thomas Hall of Fame. Played pro ball in Portugal.

66. Kory Deadrick, Esko 2014

Twice all-state tournament, led his team to Class AA title in 2014.

Played at St. Thomas and St. Scholastica.

67. Ted Strugar, Totino-Grace 1978

Scored 1,863 career points. Mr. Basketball finalist.

Played college ball at Idaho.

68 (tie). Larry Ogden, White Bear Lake and Doug Carter, Mpls. North, both 1985

Ogden’s team beat Mpls. North in both the 1984 and 1985 finals. Both teams came into both finals unbeaten.

Ogden played 2 years at Mankato State.

69. Dick Furey, St. Paul Humboldt 1943

Led St. Paul City Conference in FT shooting.

Played at St. Thomas, where he is a member of the Hall of Fame. 

70. Joe Keenan, Mankato Loyola 1967

Scored 1,417 career points.

Scored 1,890 career points at St. Mary’s (Winona, MN).

71. Nick Jacobson, Roseville 1999

Scored 2,315 career points.

Played ball at Northern Iowa.

72 (tie). Lester Juhnke, Waseca 1918; Gordy Malmer, Albert Lea 1919

Led Waseca and Albert Lea to state titles, leading tournament scorers with 14 and 16 ppg, respectively.

73. Wendell “Buzzy” Gray, Cass Lake 1934

Led his team to the state tournament.

Starred at Hamline.

74. Jefferson Mason, Robbinsdale Cooper 2006

Led Cooper to runner-up in Class AAAA.

Played at Northern Colorado, then led Mankato State in scoring and rebounding and was NSIC defensive PoY.

75. Jeff Voit, Rocori 1988

Led Rocori to the Class AA state title, scoring 21 points in the final.

76. Velko Rajacich, Buhl 1936

Helped his team to 2 state tournaments.

Played at St. Cloud State where he is a Hall of Famer. 

77. Don Eliason, St. Paul Harding 1938

Helped Hamline to the 1942 NAIA national title, then played 1 game in the NBA.

78. Dick McWaters, Red Wing 1941

Helped his team to runner-up in the state tournament.

Lettered at MN in 1948.

79. Jericho Sims, Cristo Rey 2017

Young, raw, athletic 6-8 small forward, son of former Gopher Charles Sims.

Playing his college ball at Texas.

80 (tie). Clarence Burton 1959 , Al Frost 1963, and Greg Boone 1976, all Minneapolis Central

Burton was regarded as the best black player of the 1950s. Boone was a Mr. Basketball finalist.

Boone is a member of the Augsburg Hall of Fame. Frost scored 1,704 points at Hamline.

81. Rodney Hargest, Minneapolis Marshall-U 1977

Helped his team to state title in 1976 and 5th place in 1977.

Played but only briefly for the MN Gophers.

82 (tie). Darren Dearing, DeLaSalle 1992 and Riley Dearing, Minnetonka 2013

Both were Mr. Basketball finalists.

Dad played at Virginia, son playing at Wisconsin.

83. Vic Moore, Montgomery 1968

Scored 1,755 career points, #9 at the time.

Played college ball at St. John’s.

84 (tie). Lee Hopfenspirger, Morgan 1956 and Dave Schneider, Appleton 1952

Hopfenspirger scored 1,171 career points. Schneider led Appleton to state tournament, and scored 1,105 career points.

Both helped Joe Hutton and Hamline to his final MIAC titles in 1956 and 1960, respectively.

85 (tie). Victor Johnson, 1936 and Dick Laurence, 1945, both Bemidji

Johnson helped his team to the state title, while Laurence led his team to the consolation title.

Johnson lettered at MN in 1940, Laurence played at Bemidji State where he is a Hall of Famer.

86. Alex Hanks, St. Cloud Tech 2010

Helped his team to 2ndplace in Class AAAA, setting a tournament record of 47 FT attempts.

Played college ball at Mankato State.

87 (tie). Chester Thompson, Buffalo 1931; Earl Pennington, Mankato 1932

Thompson led Buffalo to 2nd place in 1931; Pennington led the Scarlets to 2 4th place finishes at state. Made a game-winner from half-court in 1931.

Thompson played at Gustavus, where he is a HoFer. Pennington played 4 years at Mankato State.

88. Maxie Rosenbloom, St. Paul Johnson 2010

Helped Johnson to state title; Pi Press metro player of the year.

Played 4 years at Bemidji State, scored 12 ppg as senior.

89. Arvid “Swede” Hagberg, Buffalo Lake 1925

Led MIAC in scoring at Gustavus and is a member of their HoF.

90. Carl Matel, Duluth Cathedral 1935ish

Considered to be the best player ever to come out of Cathedral.

Played college ball at St. Mary’s.

91. JaVonni Bickham, Minnehaha 2018

Scored 16 ppg with 8 boards and 2 assists as a senior.

Headed to Denver U.

92 (tie). Neil Fedson, Lyle 1949 and Roger Lueck, Wellcome 1954

Fedson scored 1,303 career pts, #2 at the time. Lueck finished as the #1 scorer in MN history at the time. with 1,731 points.

93. Matt Turk, Aurora 1923

Led Aurora to the state title with a tournament-best 45 points, yet was left off the all-tournament team.

94. Steve Nett, Winona Cotter 1978

Led his team to a Class A state title.

95 (tie). Gerhard “Shorty” Hiebert, Mountain Lake 1915, and Carroll “Shorty” Malvey, Moorhead 1930

Hiebert led 1915 tournament in scoring, in fact, scored all 18 Mountain Lake points in the final. Malvey helped Moorhead to 3 straight state finals including tiles in 1928 and 1929.

Malvey helped Concordia to win the 1931 MIAC title.

96. Nick Pepelnjak, Virginia 1937

Helped Virginia to 2nd in the 1937 state tournament, then led the 1938 tournament in scoring.

97. Albert Tousley, St. Paul Humboldt 1917

Led Humboldt to the state tournament, led the St. Paul City Conference in scoring.

98 (tie). Jay Rasmussen, Morristown 1960 and Mike Peroutka, Morristown, Faribault Bethlehem 1970

Rasmussen scored 1,861 career points. Peroutka scored 2,038 career points and was MVP of 1970 state Catholic tournament.

Rasmussen played football at U of MN. Peroutka played college ball at Mankato State.

99. John Kundla, Minneapolis Central 1934

Never started for his high school team.

Top scorer for MN Gophers 1937 Big 10 champs.

100. Kevin Treanor, Coon Rapids 1983

Mr. Basketball finalist.

Score 1.6 ppg over 4 years at Western Illinois.