THE STATE’S FIRST BLACK BASKETBALL STAR
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Nearly 80 years ago Johnny Watts led Beloit to three straight WIAA titles
Author - Gregory Bond, Ph.D.
As published in The Capital Times, Madison, Wisconsin, March 3-9 Edition, 2010.
With his team trailing Wausau 13-11 in the fourth quarter of the state championship game of the 1933 WIAA boys basketball tournament, Beloit coach, H. L. Jacobson looked down the bench and motioned for his star player, Johnny Watts, to enter the game.
A junior, Watts had led Beloit to its first state championship in 1932 and had paced the Big Eight Conference in scoring, but he had sat out the previous eight quarters of state tournament action after falling hard and breaking a bone in his wrist in the opening-round game at the University of Wisconsin’s gleaming new arena.
When Beloit’s star player checked in at the scorer’s table, one reporter noted that “the wild cheers of 3,500 frantic customers roared through the Field House.”
Johnny Watts was pulling a Willis Reed before there was a Willis Reed.
Team doctors had pronounced him out of the tournament after he fell to the floor while going for a rebound in a quarterfinal against Horizon, and he sat on the bench in street clothes to watch his teammates beat Chippewa Falls in the semifinals.
He insisted on being in uniform for the championship game against 19-1 Wausau, the UW’s head trainer “wound what appeared to be about three yards of white gauze around the injured member and reinforced this with a pair of splint” made from ping pong paddled, according to a news account from the day. The heavily bandaged Watts appeared unlikely to play.
Watts’ unexpected appearance on the court sparked his teammates, and Beloit immediately stole the ball and converted a layup to tie the score at 13. On the ensuing possession, after a missed Wausau shot, Watts made a one-handed catch of a “long hard pass” from a teammate and streaked the distance of the floor to convert what proved to be the game-winning basket.
Led by Watts, who recorded a steal as time wound down, the Beloit defense allowed Wausau only one point in the fourth quarter, and the Purple - was the school was known then, with “Knights” becoming part of the moniker at a later time - secured their second state title in a row, by the score of 15-14.
The crowd thundered its approval of Watts’ gutsy play. One local sportswriter observed that, at the state tournament, “no individual (had) ever received a greater ovation that did the crippled Watts.”
Through all of this, the color of Watts’ skin did not seem to matter at all.
The WIAA boys basketball postseason begins this week with regional play, and scores of African-American athletics will take the court with the same goal held by Watts more than 75 years ago - thought they may not know that they are following the trail blazed by the former Beloit standout.
Repeatedly hailed as one of the best high school players developed in Wisconsin during the first half of the 20th century - at a time when African-Americans constituted less than half of 1 percent of the state’s population - Watts is regarded as the first black player to star at the state tournament.
And despite not being allowed to break barriers at the next level - he was rebuffed in his attempts to pay at UW due to a “gentleman’s agreement” barring black players from the Big Ten - Watts went on to make his mark in football and basketball at La Crosse State Teachers College (the predecessor of UW La Crosse), became a member of the Harlem Globetrotters, and later form his own barn-storming squad.
Fueling Beloit’s three-peat
Born in Mississippi in 1913, Watts moved to Wisconsin soon after, and by 1930 he and his sister lived in Beloit with their grandparents.
He grew up playing basketball in his neighborhood with several future high school teammates, and earned a starting spot on the varsity team as a sophomore.
There wasn’t a color line at the prep level, perhaps in part because there simply weren’t enough African-Americans in the state to provoke any backlash.
The first known black high school player, Claude Paris, dressed for Waupun in 1899. He was regarded as a good player on a formidable term, but that was 17 years before the WIAA tournament. However, no official records were kept, and research to confirm this assertion has been inconclusive.
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that Watts was the first African-American player who dominated at the state tourney.
A quick and agile forward who was proficient on both offense and defense, Watts helped Beloit to its first state title in 1932 and was named to the all-tournament team - which, at the time, doubled as the All-State squad.
The following season, Watts, who also starred on the school football team, led his favored Beloit team to a perfect 10-0 conference record and scored 97 points in league games to establish a new circuit scoring mark.
After his dramatic performance in the 1933 tournament, Watts returned for his senior year, and Beloit continued to rule Wisconsin high school hoops.
The Purple went 9-1 in the Big Eight to win their third consecutive undisputed league crown, and again advanced to the state tournament, which in 1934 for the first time was split into two divisions based on enrollment; Beloit competed in Class A, among large schools. (That experience ended after the 1939 tourney; it was a single class event until 1972.)
The Purple’s three opponents in Madison could come no closer than nine points. Watts who earned All-State recognition again, poured in 14 points in the title game, as Beloit downed Wisconsin Rapids 32-18 for its unprecedented third consecutive WIAA championship.
In his three years as a starter, Watts led his team to a sterling 63-4 record. He was the lone black player for Beloit in each of the first two years; the 1934 championship team boasted another African-American player, sophomore Jack Gilmore, who went on to lead the Purple to another conference title in 1935-36.
Barred from the Big Ten
Watts was a popular and respected athlete throughout his years at Beloit. In nearly off of his games, fans vigorously applauded his exploits and sportswriters enthused about his powers on the court. Nevertheless, reporters constantly identified him by the color of his skin, describing him, for example, as the “colored shooting ace,” the “ebony-hued flash” and, even, a “latent black volcano.”
Despite this exacting attention to his race, Watts faced little overt prejudice on the court. Yet he recalled years later that the integrated nature of Beloit’s team complicated their frequent road trips around southern Wisconsin, because it was often difficult to find restaurants that agree to serve the entire squad.
At the close of his interscholastic career however, Watts had a more direct confrontation with institutional discrimination.
After watching a Beloit game in 1933, longtime University of Wisconsin coach Walter “Doc” Meanwell told the Wisconsin State Journal that “there is no question he (Watts) is one of the greatest basketball layers ever turned out in a Wisconsin high school.”
Despite Meanwell’s compliments, basketball boosters knew that, to that point, no African-American had ever made a varsity basketball team in the Big Ten. It was an open secret that league coaches observed an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” to bar black players from the big league.
At the WIAA tournament in Watts’ senior year, a reporter from the State Journal pressed Meanwell on the subject and inquired about the possibility of the Beloit star enrolling at the UW. Perhaps caught off guard, Meanwell emphatically denied the existence of a color line and claimed “Watts is a fine prospect and I’d like to see him enter Wisconsin....Any boy will get a fair chance to make my team regardless of color.”
Two months before Meanwell’s pronouncement, however, his counterpart at the University of Michigan, Frank Cappon, had dismissed an African-American from the Wolverines’ freshman squad.
Despite Meanwell’s compliments, basketball boosters knew that, to that point, no African-American had ever made a varsity basketball team in the Big Ten. It was an open secret that league coaches observed an unwritten “gentleman’s agreement” to bar black players from the league.
Meanwell also apparently did not want to break the ice, as Wisconsin made no serious effort to recruit Watts. After reportedly spurning a scholarship offer from USC, he move to La Cross to live with his sister and brother-in-law and attended La Cross State Teachers College.
After passing on Watts, the University of Wisconsin continued to observe the conference’s color line. Instead of becoming the first Big Ten school to include an African-American basketball player in the mid-1930's, the Badgers were the second-to-last conference hoops squad to feature black athletics when Jim Biggs and Ivan Jefferson suited up in the 1958-59 season.
Dick Culberson is credited with breaking the Big Ten color line at Iowa in 1944, when standards were relaxed across the board due to World War II. But the league returned to its all-white status and the line wasn’t broken for good until future All-American Bill Garrett became eligible at Indiana in 1948.
The last school to become integrated was Minnesota. Football star Bobby Bell joined the team as a walk-on during his senior year in 1960-61 and played three games. The Golden Gophers didn’t have a black player on scholarship until 1963.
Becoming a barnstormer
At La Crosse, Watts starred on the basketball and football teams for two years, helping to win a conference championship on the hardwood in 1935. In a football game against Winona State that same year, Watts returned a punt 97 years for a touchdown - a mark that still stands as the record in Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association (then known as the Wisconsin Teachers College Athletic Conference). Midway through his sophomore year, however, he was declared academically ineligible and dropped out of school.
Promoter Abe Saperstein, who had reportedly been scouting Watts since high school soon signed him to pay for the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters.
Formed in Chicago in the late 1920's the Globetrotters quickly became one of the best basketball teams of any race in the country. Although they performed their trademark clowning and humorous antics against some of their overmatched opponents, they were a serious basketball team and challenged for the world professional championship in the late 1930s.
Watts was with the team for three years and played alongside such legendary Globetrotters as center Inman Jackson and Harry Rusan, the first clown prince of basketball.
For the 1939-40 season, Watts left Saperstein’s team and formed his own all-black barnstorming team, the Negro Globe Trotters, based out of Milwaukee. For the next decade, Watts captained his Globe Trotters squad as the criss-crossed the country playing all comers, averaging 160-170 games per season.
In 1950, he renamed his traveling squad the Harlem Aces, and by 1953, he was more of a coach and general manager, but he still occasionally to the court for the team.
Settling in Milwaukee.
In the mid-‘50s, Watts retired from the road and settled in Milwaukee, where he played baseball and basketball in industrial leagues and helped coach basketball in his neighborhood.
He was and informal assistant to the Milwaukee North boy’s basketball squads that lost in the state title game in 1958 and 1959. Watts watched the action from a seat of honor on the team bench at the UW Field House, the site of his past glories.
Watts lived long enough to see his Beloit teams’ record of back-to-back-to back state championships matched by Milwaukee Vincent, which won three straight titles from 1996-98. In 2001 Watts died in Milwaukee at age 88 from complications of prostate cancer.
Beloit has made 19 trips to the state tournament since Watts last played, including an appearance in 2009 when all five starters for the Purple Knights were African-Americans.