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Forty Five Years Later: Billy Jones' Time in the Spotlight has Passed but not his Wisdom

When Billy Jones eats lunch and holds an informal discussion at Wekiva High School in Apopka Florida (near Orlando) with the players as well as teams of the Police Athletic League as a part of each (high school basketball) team's off-season preparation every year, it doesn’t raise eyebrows.    

But that wasn’t the case 45 years ago, when Jones became the first African-American member of an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball team.

Then again, while blatant direct racial discrimination has come to be seen as the evil it is, his message is that success in life is still about overcoming obstacles.   

“I believe our role as coach is to teach more than basketball,” Wekiva coach Scott Williams said. “For Billy to bring forth a wealth of experience and to have a vastly different experience than my own and relate it to the kids is important. I think kids today sometimes take things for granted a little too much. They have the doors of opportunity that a generation ago some people couldn’t began to knock down.”

A native of the state, Jones played for the Maryland Terrapins and coach Bud Millikan between 1964 and 1967.

When Maryland took to the court for their first round game of the ACC tournament on March 3, 1966 (the first with Jones as a member of the team), the leading figures on the sports pages that day were African Americans, boxer Cassius Clay, better known as Mohamed Ali, and NBA star Wilt “the Stilt” Chamberlain.    

The front page of the Washington Post read, “20,000 more men set for Viet duty, bringing total troops in Vietnam to 235,000”. Then president Lyndon Johnson was set to unveil plans for a federal Department of Transportation and a ban on arm sales to India as well as Pakistan was eased.

In the geographical heart of the NCAA’s most traditional of tournaments, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, University of North Carolina chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson invoked the speaker ban for the first time. The president of North Carolina’s state university system, William Friday, supported the decision.

The statute, later declared unconstitutional, allowed Sitterson to prevent a speech Frank Wilkerson was set to deliver. Wilkerson was the head of a committee advocating the abolition of the house Un-American Activities Committee.

Today, the United States is taking military action in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some believe the basic freedom to express opinions through speech and in other ways are being challenged, particularly with the Patriot Act.

And African-American athletes such as Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett as well as LaDainian Tomlinson are written or talked about in the nation’s news outlets in recent years, with the same leading figure proficiency as the ones before them.

Sometimes they themselves are guests on television/radio shows.

While the names, places and environment of society change, the need to find purpose and meaning in how to deal with the circumstances of the times doesn’t and accordingly neither has the path to success.

“I didn’t want to take on the characteristics of the community I grew up in,” Jones told the players,” I wanted to be prepared to be able to contribute and do something meaningful with my life when I grew up. Basketball was my vehicle to do that. I enjoyed playing basketball and the challenge of competing to be the best, but I also enjoyed the idea that it gave me the tools to better myself as a person and my place in life.”

While Jones doesn’t talk specifically about particular incidents involving racial discrimination or his experience of always being remembered as a social pioneer, the focal point of his insights as an athlete who has been there done that was built on the unique distinction of being the first African-American to play in the ACC.     

“Basketball is a man’s sport,” Jones tells the players. “Players have to work through the hard times. Nobody is going to let another team win and that means there are going to be times when games are decided by a team’s willingness to stay the course and not give up. They have to keep their poise, focus and the understanding there is something to be learned from the challenge. 

"The most successful people are those who make the best of the difficult and uncertain times. Successful people work through those times and basketball provides for it, with players physically making contact with each other and the mental aspect of answering a team’s momentum when they get it.”

Jones particularly loves the sound of shoes squeaking as players run on the basketball court and verbal communication. The squeaking of shoes indicates an intensity to achieve what the teams’ and players’ desires. Communication indicates a willingness to be a part of and understanding success is predicated on being a part of a team.

The example Jones looked up to is John Wooden. Wooden coached the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA basketball titles, including consecutive titles between 1967 and 1973.

Often at the center of discussion about Wooden’s career was his ability to develop the qualities in young men which make for successful lives being more important to his accomplishments than basketball strategy.

With that in mind Jones presents the players with Wooden’s pyramid of success qualities within himself he holds dear to his success in life.  

The pyramid consists of 15 personal characteristics, divided into five levels, with the more specific ones closer to the top.

When properly combined the end result is success, “a peace of mind which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing one did their best to become the best that he or she is capable of becoming.”

However, success is a product of believing in oneself. As Jones puts it, if a person doesn’t believe in him or herself, then why should anyone else? That belief in himself allowed him to handle the indignities of the time.      

“You just learn to deal with that stuff,” Jones tells the players every time he speaks to them. “Its something I grew up with and always dealt with. But it’s no longer a big deal to me, because it was everyday life to me. It amazes me people are interested in me being the first ACC basketball player. Go to Raleigh-Durham (N.C.) and ask the guy on the corner what it was like. The only difference is I could shoot a basketball.

“But it taught me an awful lot about persevering, hanging tough, staying focused (which are qualities in the pyramid). I was called nigger, followed around stores and asked by policeman where us bunch of monkeys were going. If I fought every time those things happened I’d still be fighting. I wouldn’t’ have time to do anything else.”        

The underlying development of the qualities making for a successful life which are specified in the pyramid were particularly important for the racial pioneers of college basketball.

For as bitter as Jackie Robinson’s experience was as a baseball pioneer he knew how to cope with the senselessness of racial discrimination. He was a 26-year old adult who had earned a college degree and served in the army as an officer. He had also lived in integrated settings.

Jones and his college basketball pioneering colleagues were teenagers with little adult world experience. All of them had lived for a period of time removed from what was then mainstream society. Some stepped into the college game directly from segregated high schools. And few college athletic departments were as sensitive and aware of the situation as the Dodgers were with Robinson.

And despite the influx of African Americans into the ACC in the mid to late 60s, progress was slow. N.C. State became the first ACC champion to feature an all African-American starting lineup, 18 years after Jones first season.

Yet, the traditionally perceived ultra-conservative SEC had their first conference champion with five African-American starters only seven years after Perry Wallace of Vanderbilt broke the ice. Wallace became the first African-American basketball player to play in the SEC two years after Jones stepped onto the court as a Terrapin for the first time. 

A 6’ 1” guard/forward Jones personal basketball career also played a role in what he talks about. During his sophomore year, he played with a fractured foot which went undiagnosed. After it was finally diagnosed he missed nine games and it never fully healed during the season as Jones played the ACC tournament in pain.

While the story of a diner in downtown Durham denying service to Jones is an often publicized story during the struggle for equality, the fraternities and other organizations closing their doors to the player is not.

“When I went onto the floor (at the 1966 ACC tournament) I got an ovation,” Jones said. “I think they were acknowledging the fact that this young black kid had survived the season.”  

Maryland lost to UNC 77-70, who then lost to Duke the next day. The Blue Devils would go on to claim the ACC title and earn a berth in the NCAA tournament final four.

Jones approach of handling his experience as a racial pioneer also served him and as an example to other young men when he became a fine coach in his own right, leading the University of Maryland-Baltimore’s basketball team to the national quarterfinals of the NCAA Division II basketball tournament in 1979. He coached UMBC for 12 years.

“Coach Jones was the first to walk through those doors,” Williams emphasizes when Jones comes to the school. “The context of how we view the game today and what it means to athletics and society is because of what he did. He came here today because he wanted to share his experiences, not because he had to. But he wanted to share his lessons because he wants to see young men develop into successes, not to talk about what happened in the past.

"He talks about how and why it was an important part of his development as a person. Also it important for the kids to be exposed to that learn some of the history of our sport and their culture. It is always a pleasure for me to talk shop too with another coaches.”

And there he has been the last four years explaining the importance of developing the qualities it takes to lead successful lives to young men with an articulation, poise and dignity befitting the message he was delivering as well as a man who overcame unjust obstacles.

The pioneers of NCAA basketball have been chronicled in the book “Across the Line." 




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