FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - That December night, 57 years ago in Prescott, a chill permeated the air. The temperature plunged below 30, jacket weather even for Flagstaff High School basketball players amped up to face their rival.
Inside the stuffy gym, though, pressure was building amid the squeaking of sneakers and smell of burnt popcorn. Tensions ran high, racial animus bubbling.
It could be felt in the cacophony of voices issuing from the stands, directed mostly at star player James Dugan and other Black Flagstaff players. It could be felt, on the court, in muttered comments thrown Dugan’s way and physical play meant to limit his dominance.
Something was going to happen. Something ugly and violent. Something that would be remembered and dissected over decades, dividing opinions on cause and effect to this day.
Here’s what no one involved disputes: With five seconds left in what would be a narrow Flagstaff victory, just after being assessed his fifth foul, Dugan turned on his heels and punched Prescott’s Randy Emmett in the face, breaking the player’s jaw and damaging other facial bones.
Utter chaos ensued. The stands emptied. Pent-up racial prejudice rose to the surface. Fans swarmed over the Flagstaff team, Dugan the object of their derision, and later surrounded the Flagstaff bus. They threw rocks that shattered windows and frayed nerves, forcing the team and coaches to duck under seats for safety. Prescott partisans also, with equal ferocity, threatened bodily harm.
Where disagreement endures is the root cause of the incident. It is a tale of divergent narratives in an era that teemed with societal upheaval, seethed with racial unrest, and where white privilege was so omnipresent as to not even merit acknowledgment.
And it is an incident that will not fade. Current Flagstaff principal Tony Cullen said the school soon will submit a petition to the Arizona Interscholastic Association to urge the group’s executive board to rescind the suspension of Dugan that came after that punch - a punitive action believed to be unprecedented in AIA history - to restore Dugan’s good name.
“They just have to reach out to us and we will help them with it,” said AIA spokesman Seth Polansky. “It just that we’ve been in the dark about this the entire time until recently.”
The petition that Cullen introduced during Black History Month hasn’t reopened old wounds between the two cities; those wounds never healed in the first place.
DIFFERENT VERSIONS OF THE SAME EVENT
Flagstaff players, Dugan included, have maintained that Prescott players and fans peppered Dugan all game with racial slurs - spouting the N-word with impunity - and that his punch came just after a player had spit in his face. Prescott players, just as adamantly, have maintained that they never said anything racially insensitive to any Black Flagstaff players, and that any such comments must have come from a few rogue fans.
Decades later, those involved can exhume vivid details with startling clarity.
Listen to Rocky Parra, shooting guard for Prescott who now is a Phoenix-area high school softball coach: “There were no racial slurs. That I will stand by until the day I die. In four years of me playing (for Prescott), we were never, ever, not even once, corrected or punished for using racial slurs against each other or against another team.”
Now listen to Norm Killip, a member of that Flagstaff team: “Oh, my God, yes, it (racial slurs) happened. All game. Their whole idea was to get James out of the game. And the kid who spit on him, you know, that ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back. You can’t blame him for losing his temper.”
And this from Dugan himself, now 75 and living in New Rochelle, New York, with his wife: “Everyone knew what that kid had done, spitting, and what the entire team had done (yelling the N-word). The entire place was full of racists. It’s like one of these damn rallies you see now. They were ravenous, they were lascivious. They were throwing things on the floor. My jersey was ripped basically off my shoulders that game. That’s what they did.”
But it was what Dugan did, in anger and in apparent retaliation for being spat upon, that led to his banishment. He became the first (and reportedly still the only) player suspended from athletic competition by the AIA. The Flagstaff and Prescott teams were put on probation.
According to Daily Sun accounts at the time, referees at the game confirmed that Prescott players and spectators called Dugan “vile names” and that the officials “reprimanded and cautioned Prescott during the course of the game.” The Flagstaff school board also verified the claims.
So ended, prematurely, a prep basketball career like few had ever seen in these parts. Dugan, a three-sport star at Flagstaff High who was named All-American in football, basketball and baseball, had dominated on the court in that 1963-64 season. The game before that fateful night in Prescott, he lit up Winslow High School for a school-record 54 points. He was, in a word, unstoppable.
The Arizona Republic, years ago, selected Dugan in the top 10 of its list of the 100 greatest prep athletes in the history of the state. And while Dugan never again achieved such heights of athletic stardom - he left Ohio State, where he had signed a football scholarship, after one semester; he never rose above Triple-A in his baseball career.
A MICROCOSM OF TURBULENT TIMES
At the time, the 1964 Civil Rights Act was months from being passed. And while Arizona didn’t implement Jim Crow laws as in the South, much of the state was seen as arch-conservative (spawning ground of Barry Goldwater) and full integration not always a welcome prospect.
Yet both Dugan and Killip recall that Flagstaff in the early 1960s was something of an oasis of racial tolerance, if not harmony. Flagstaff coaches John Ply (football) and Fred Anderson (basketball) were said to be among the first in the state to integrate their squads fully, and denizens of the city reportedly welcomed a diversity of races.
Killip, whose father Wilfred was assistant school superintendent at the time, said Flagstaff seemed so far away from the civil rights movement roiling elsewhere.
“If we were partying, those (Black, Hispanic, Native American) kids were partying with us,” he said. “If we went on a trip to Oak Creek, we were all on the bus together, not segregated. I should’ve been more aware.”
Dugan, at the time, was acutely aware of racial dynamics, but said prejudice mostly occurred in cities other than Flagstaff. He recalled talking with his friend and rival, Isaac (Ike) Bonds, a star basketball player at Winslow High who also was Black, about how minorities were only allowed at Winslow’s community pool after the white kids finished, “right before they drained it,” Dugan noted, wryly.
“Flagstaff was way, way beyond its time, way advanced,” Dugan said. “Flagstaff was an anomaly. The people who ran the city made it (safe for Blacks), made it to this day what I call a mecca for Arizona and other areas in the Southwest. It was a lovely place to grow up.”
Flagstaff embraced Dugan as a local hero for his athletic prowess. Even today, people talk in awestruck tones about how he dominated as a running back, how he was a scoring threat from anywhere on the basketball court, and that time in baseball he hit a home run that traveled clear to the roof of Marshall Elementary School.
But when Flagstaff High left town for road games? A different story. Racial hatred often arose. Nowhere was that more prevalent than in Prescott.
Even Parra, who flatly denies his team said anything inappropriate to Dugan ever, admits that many people in Prescott were not racially tolerant.
Racial mixing, to some there, was looked down upon.
Not so in Flagstaff. In the spring of 1964, Dugan was named Flagstaff High’s prom king; the queen was a white classmate, Cheryl Currence. No one batted an eye, apparently.
SPITTING, RACIAL SLURS, ROCK-THROWING
The game, and immediate aftermath, was shocking in itself. Observers at the time recalled Prescott players grabbing Dugan’s jersey, roughing him up, trying to deny him the ball. Then came his fifth foul with five seconds left, the alleged spitting incident and the very real punch that sent Emmett, a Prescott reserve, to the hospital for reconstructive surgery on his jaw.
The gym had to be cleared of spectators so that the final five seconds could be played. Prescott fans waited outside for Flagstaff players to board the team bus. The bus needed a police escort to leave town safely.
“They broke all the windows in our bus,” Killip recalled. “We had to lay down so as not to get hit. They were throwing rocks, and we weren’t sure if there was gunfire, from the sound of it. It was terrible. We got out of town fast. My dad had to call for a new bus.”
Dugan, object of the scorn, said he refused orders to hide under the bus seats. He said he sat on the bus, ramrod straight, and endured the abuse. He said he was ready to fight, if challenged, and carried a buck knife like many people living in Southside Flagstaff.
“If they were going to hurt me, believe me, mister, they were going to get hurt in turn,” Dugan said. “That’s the way I left it that night.”
Back home, in the aftermath, Dugan received nothing but support. Then-school board President Neil V. Christensen didn’t suspend Dugan for punching Emmett, having been apprised of the racial slurs and spitting incident. Christensen was quoted at the time as saying, “Sometimes, it is easier to congratulate a hero when he does everything right than to help him when he commits an error or mistake.”
Dugan visited Emmett in a Prescott hospital three days later and apologized. Flagstaff school district officials also apologized to their counterparts in Prescott. But the repercussions continued. Emmett’s family did not file charges against Dugan but others in Prescott pressed for retribution. A complaint was filed to the AIA Executive Committee.
Emmett, who has an address in Alabama, did not return messages left by The Associated Press this week through email and phone numbers listed for him.
Flagstaff city leaders, as well as school officials, weighed in on the situation back then and defended Dugan’s good character. Dugan recalled being summoned to city hall, where he was asked: “Son, why’d you wait so long to hit that boy?”
Platt Cline, editor of the Daily Sun at the time, defended Dugan in a front-page column, stating that Dugan was “tormented beyond endurance” and rhetorically asking, “Where do you draw the line at what any man is expected to take?” Jet Magazine, a popular national Black publication, even took up Dugan’s cause.
But Flagstaff’s inaction prompted action on the state level. Dugan wasn’t given a chance to tell his story to the AIA Executive Committee before it meted out its penalty. Christensen told the Daily Sun at the time that the school board was “incensed,” and “to convict a man without a hearing violates every concept of constitutional rights.”
The fact that the alleged racial taunting Dugan endured did not factor into the decision to suspend him still irks Dugan.
“It should have never happened,” he said of the suspension. “They wanted to get rid of me. Prescott never produced the (game) film because they knew what happened. The whole thing about that era, those Prescott people never saw anything like the kids who came out of Flagstaff that were of color. It was exacerbated by the fact we stomped them in football. They couldn’t take the fact of Black kids were beating white kids.”
Years passed, decades passed. Dugan moved on. He said he has a nice life in New Rochelle, working in the petroleum acquisition business and breeding thoroughbred horses. And, despite it all, he still thinks of Flagstaff fondly.
Dugan applauded Cullen and Flagstaff High School for starting the petition. It won’t change what happened or the trajectory of his life, but it will give him some solace and, he said, “it’s the right move.
“It was an awful time, and it’s hard for kids today to understand what it was like,” Dugan said. “That scarred me, that incident. There was damage done. It kind of destroyed me mentally (at 17), I got to tell you.”
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