Everybody knows the name, Bob Gibson. He was maybe the most physically and mentally dominating pitcher in baseball history. But, did you know that he was also a great basketball player? Not many do, but as a high school basketball player, Gibson more than excelled. When Gibson was 14 or 15, his North Y Comets played against the Omaha University team in an open tournament. Gibson and his team destroyed Omaha University, with Gibson dominating players anywhere from 4-7 years older than him.
Bob Gibson was a baseball player and a perfect one at the time, but his ticket to college was basketball, and he ended up playing at Creighton. Although Creighton did not have great success on the court, Gibson played very well. In 63 games, he scored 1,272 points, averaging 20.2 points per game, and made 35.2% of his shots. While the shooting percentage looks low, note that the average field goal percentage in the NBA in 1958 was just 38.3%. He was the first African-American basketball player at Creighton, as well.
The story gets interesting when you realize that Gibson’s first choice was to be an Indiana Hoosier and play for Branch McCraken. In the summer of 1953, a high school coach in Omaha wrote a letter to Indiana Head Coach Branch McCracken on behalf of one of his players and received the following reply: “Your request for an athletic scholarship for Robert Gibson has been denied because we have already filled our quota of Negroes.” The reference was to Hallie Bryant, Mr. Indiana Basketball, who enrolled that Fall.
The Indiana Hoosiers had a quota system for African-American players, and the number was one. In Indiana’s defense, they had the first significant African-American players in the history of the Big Ten Conference.
Bill Garrett, an Indiana freshman in 1947-48, was the Big Ten’s first significant African-American basketball player. Garrett was Mr. Basketball as a senior in high school but was not recruited to Indiana. Finally, school officials were forced to let him play, despite a “gentleman’s agreement” among conference coaches at the time.
Although Garrett led the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding all three years on the varsity, making All-American as a senior and leading Indiana to No. 7 ranking in the country, he never had a black teammate or competed against a black in the conference.
Next up came Wally Choice from New Jersey, a freshman in the fall of 1952. Five years after Bill Garrett had arrived, he was the leading scorer and rebounder as a sophomore three years after. The choice became the team’s leading scorer and made All-Big Ten as a senior.
Gibson tried to get a tryout with the Minneapolis Lakers, who showed some interest but was unsuccessful in his initial attempt to break into the NBA. The Cardinals offered him some money to sign with them, but it was not enough to get him to quit basketball. So Gibson chose to play basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters and, after a season, decided to take the Cardinals offer and the rest, as they say, is history.
The question here is, would Gibson have made a big difference in the last four years of McCraken’s career? Maybe, maybe not, but you got to admit it would have been cool if Bob Gibson had played basketball at Indiana University!
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