- The Washington Times - Friday, April 27, 2007

In 1966, Texas Western fielded the first all-black starting five to win the NCAA basketball championship. The story was told last year in the feature film “Glory Road,” which drew considerable praise but also took considerable artistic license. In other words, it played fast and loose with several key facts.

More than a decade before Texas Western, there was Crispus Attucks High School of Indianapolis. The enrollment was all black because of the city’s segregation policy at the time. Led by future college and NBA great Oscar Robertson and several other players nearly as talented, Crispus Attucks won the 1955 Indiana state basketball championship and became the first all-black team to win a title in an integrated American sport.

It was a shock to the city’s culture and sensibilities, but a landmark event in civil rights history and a major step toward breaking down racial barriers. The team constantly fought prejudice. Now the story of Robertson and the school’s achievement has made it to the screen in “Something To Cheer About,” a documentary written and directed by Betsy Blankenbaker. It opens today at the E Street Landmark theater in the District and in eight other cities.

Unlike “Glory Road,” it’s all true.

“It’s an inspirational and hopeful film that a group of black teenagers can make a difference,” said Blankenbaker, an Indianapolis native. “‘Glory Road’ is a good story. This is a better story.”

The documentary, which features extensive archival footage and interviews with team members and others familiar with the story, “depicts life in Indianapolis and how basketball helped the schools integrate and how it helped us really grow as individuals,” Robertson said. “It allowed us to gain confidence and say, ‘We are somebody.’ For so many years it was, ‘Blacks can’t do this. They can’t do that.’ ”

Blankenbaker originally released the film in 2002 but said it was still “a work in progress.” She added an original soundtrack and made other changes to polish up what amounts to a true labor of love. The inspiration was the close friendship between her father, who died in 1989, and Crispus Attucks coach Ray Crowe.

“I went to see Coach Crowe about eight years ago, and I realized how old he was and thought, ‘If I don’t make this film now a big part of our history is gonna be lost,’ ” she said.

Crowe died in 2003, but he remains as much the focal point of the film as Robertson, the Big O. In a state where basketball is followed with near-religious fervor, Crowe helped revolutionize how the game was played with a fast-breaking, wide-open, yet disciplined style. He not only allowed, but encouraged his players to show off their prodigious dunking talents. He was dignified and demanding, tough in a subdued, non-combative manner. A half-century later, his players still speak reverently about him.

“I don’t think any coach can teach you how to play basketball,” Robertson said in a telephone interview this week. “But he could teach you about life. He had rules, and if you didn’t follow the rules, you were out. If you did anything wrong, you were off the team. This is what we lived by. We lived by those rules.”

A basketball legend, Robertson was an All-American at Cincinnati, a 1960 U.S. Olympic gold medal-winner and a perennial all-NBA player for 14 seasons with the Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks. Beyond his play — he once averaged a triple-double for an entire season — he made a lasting impact on the NBA as a leader of the players union with the so-called Oscar Robertson Case, which opened the door to free agency.

Just as Robertson and his Crispus Attucks teammates made more than a few people uncomfortable, Robertson rankled the NBA establishment. “If not for being a great player, they would have gotten me out of there a long time ago,” he said.

He moved to from rural Tennessee to Indianapolis with his parents and two brothers when he was 4. His family was poor, like most of the other blacks who were concentrated in the city’s west side. He grew up in a “shotgun house” with no indoor plumbing until his dad, a meat-cutter, eventually got a toilet.

As more than a few white folks uneasily looked on, Robertson’s older brother, Bailey, nicknamed “Flap,” and Hallie Bryant, who later played with the Harlem Globetrotters, helped the 1951 Crispus Attucks team reach the state semifinals for the first time. It touched off a huge celebration in the black section of the city.

Oscar’s time would come later. He was a sophomore in 1954 when Crispus Attucks — named for the first casualty of the American Revolution, a black man — lost to Milan High in the semifinals, an event portrayed (again, with some historical inaccuracies) in the popular 1988 film, “Hoosiers.”

But Crispus Attucks won it all the following year and did it again during Robertson’s senior season, going unbeaten. It was another first for an all-black high school team.

“‘Hoosiers’ was about a small team that beat a big team,” said Robertson who, at 68, has lost none of his feistiness. “I’m sure that happened many times before. We were the first [all-black] team to win a championship and the first to go undefeated.”

But yet, city officials twice denied the team the type of victory parade afforded past champions. It rankles Robertson to this day. “Why should you get over something like that?” he said. “I can say I forgive them, but I’ll never forget.”

Changing entrenched attitudes was slow and often painful, but Robertson believes the success of his team and the way the players carried themselves went a long way. As much as many still wedded to the old ways tried, it was impossible not to respect what they accomplished.

“We were gentlemen,” he said. “We were real good gentlemen on the court and we conducted ourselves off the court. It goes a long way.”

The movie’s theme of triumph over adversity also serves as a metaphor for the journey of its creator. Blankenbaker, who turned to documentaries after working six months as a TV news reporter (“I couldn’t stand being in front of the camera,” she said), embodied the cliche of independent filmmakers who mortgage their lives. A divorced mother of four, she maxed out her credit cards, sold her house and wound up driving her ex-husband’s car.

“I haven’t been paid in years,” she said. “I owe a lot of people money. Some people did a lot of generous things for me, but I supported the brunt of the film.”

She estimated the total cost of production of about $400,000, of which she ponied up about half. But she hopes the film helps her recoup some of the money and lead to bigger things, like Hollywood. She is working on a non-documentary film version of the story and recently met with actor Jamie Foxx.

“Maybe people thought I was having a mid-life crisis,” said Blankenbaker, 44, “but this was a dream of mine. I grew up knowing all these guys. The only thing that would stop me was funding. But I didn’t see it as a risk. I saw it as a way of realizing a dream.”

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide