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Across the Line,
Profiles in Basketball Courage
By Barry Jacobs

Reviewer: Marc Maturo, MarcMyWords.net; Lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) and sports copy editor for The Journal News, White Plains, N.Y.


Across the Line is an exhaustive and well-researched work recounting the trials and tribulations endured by pioneering African-American basketball players in the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences, which were a bastion of segregation not that many years ago -- barely a lifetime actually -- and that's what is most striking about the many lives detailed and examined within what were, historically, white intercollegiate leagues.

Even for those of us who grew up when the walls were finally coming down, Jacobs' effort strikingly brings home the difficulties that these black players were forced to confront. Some of them overcame everything, such as Charles Scott, the only ACC pioneer to make all-conference. But others were not so fortunate, such as Norwood Todmann, who fell by the wayside at Wake Forest and wound up in prison.

Jacobs brings the reader back to a time in our nation's history when change was in the air, when the brutal fight for civil rights often led to tragic deaths, overt racism, and subtle ostracism. Some of the pioneers were unaware of what they were accomplishing, others were quite aware, but all of them either came to grips with the situation or, like Todmann, who was ultimately imprisoned, were unable to make the adjustment. The author does it with a fine detail of events, using a 150-book bibliography, archives from 100 newspapers, and interviews with 57 persons to flush out each player's historic undertaking.

While the black players felt the brunt of the movement, many if not most whites were naively unaware. Listen to Nashville sports writer Jimmy Davy: "Never thought about it. You were born and grew up, and that's the way it was, and you didn't have to figure out that's the way it was."

The way it was in the ACC and SEC was whites only, nearly 20 years after Harry Truman integrated the military and Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Just imagine: it took until 1972 before every varsity basketball program was desegregated. But by 1975, Alabama had won the conference title with five black starters. Today, the bulk of players in both leagues is black, as well as eight of 24 head coaches, all but one in the ACC. Getting from point A to point B, however, is a large part of this heretofore untold story.

It's a story that largely began in the 1965-66 season as Maryland's Billy Jones shattered the varsity ACC color barrier. And yet, Jacobs poses this question: Why, even now, decades after equality was supposedly achieved, do the ACC and SEC each have only one African-American athletic director. It's not an easy answer.

Nor was it an easy road for these pioneers. The genial Perry Wallace can't hide the price he paid at Vanderbilt, where snubs were far more common than acts of acceptance, or C. B. Clairborne at Duke, where racial animosity could be inferred from a professor's comment. Yet Clairborne persevered, without hatred. To this day, the only critical comment he has to say is that the name on his jersey was spelled incorrectly.

Larry Robinson, Tennessee, says, "we're 50 years old now, so let's move on. It's not going to make a difference. Let's just move on."

Move on they did, some better than others, Across the Line does a yeoman job documenting those movements. For college basketball fans, for sports fans, for anyone interested in history, Across the Line should be on your library shelf.


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