The year 1965 was a strange one for black high school sports in Tennessee. The association governing black teams had folded into the white one, but African-American schools weren’t full members yet. They couldn’t play for the state championship for another year. The games were still segregated, but two coaches weren’t interested in waiting.
On January 5, a season before the rest of the state was ready, the mostly white Father Ryan Fighting Irish played the all-black Pearl High Tigers before a capacity crowd in Municipal Auditorium.
Apprehension And Excitement
Tony Moorman remembers news of the pending game scared him a little. Moorman was 15-years-old at the time, a member of Pearl’s junior varsity squad. He’d played ball in junior high and on rec league teams, but nobody had ever seriously proposed a game against a white team before. He wasn’t sure what might happen in the stands or after the game.
His assistant coach, Melvin Black, puts it more plainly. The worry, he says, was that, “If Father Ryan had beat us, we were just going to beat the hell out of them.”
After all, as Walter “Slim” Fisher, explains, Municipal Auditorium was essentially right in the neighborhood, adjacent to housing projects where people were “very sensitive about Pearl High” and, he says, spoiled by the team’s success.
But any concern about what problems might erupt were balanced by the continual effort that Pearl High faculty and administration put into teaching its students to, as Black puts it, always be “on good conduct.” And, Black points out, Father Ryan had the same expectations of its students.
Father Ryan also had a student body that was better prepared for the idea of playing a black team than most other mostly white, Southern schools of the era. Nashville’s Catholic schools, including Father Ryan, had integrated a decade earlier. In the 1963-64 season, a black student named Willie Brown had integrated the Father Ryan basketball team, and now several other African-American students had joined him on the squad.
Don Craighead was one of them. In fact, had he not chosen to go to catholic school, Craighead would have been at Pearl. He’d grown up hearing about how good the team was. He’d seen its players playing ball around the neighborhood. So when he found out his Fighting Irish would play the Pearl Tigers, his reaction was to be nervous—not about potential fights, but about the basketball game itself.
In fact, it was at Craighead’s father’s barbershop where Pearl coach Melvin Black fielded questions from friends about the game. “Why are those white boys playing us,” he remembers them asking. “We’re going to beat the hell out of them!”
Putting On A Show
On game day, it seemed like the whole city turned out at Municipal Auditorium. Fisher says it was one of the few times both his mother and father came out to see him play. They were older people, he remembers, and felt a little overwhelmed as they wound their way through a crowd of nearly 10-thousand people. Black sat next to white, everyone standing and cheering. Moorman remembers it got so loud he couldn’t hear anything but ringing in his ears.
The Fishers got their first glimpse of their son at halftime of the JV game. Pearl High sent out its varsity team to put on a little show of sorts. As Coach Black puts it, they wanted to intimidate the competition, and they had a great tool for the job: seven players on the 1965 squad had mastered the slam dunk. So one after the other, they took turns running up to the goal, jumping high enough to touch it, and ramming the ball through the net. The entire crowd began to yell in one voice at every dunk: “woosh!”
In the Father Ryan locker room, Pat Sanders remembers one curious teammate getting up to see what was going on. He thought those were junior varsity players dunking the ball. Sanders laughs at the memory of his friend coming back to tell the Fighting Irish they might be in trouble.
So when both varsity teams came out to warm up, it’s no surprise that the Father Ryan boys were overwhelmed by what they saw across the court. Their coach had to yell at several to stop staring at their opponents and start shooting baskets.
A Close Game
After tip-off, the Father Ryan boys did get their head in the game. Coach Black says he doesn’t remember either team ever being up by more than a few points. Pat Sanders recalls it as a full-on effort by both teams that never let up, “all arms and legs and hands and just get after it.” What so many had expected to be a runaway victory for Pearl was, instead, a close-fought match that never let up for even a moment.
In the end, Don Craighead says, it all came down to a bounce that went Father Ryan’s way. His team won it in the last two seconds, 52-51.
It was an exciting game. A satisfying game. The kind where everyone in the stands could walk away proud and happy. The Pearl players were upset to lose and swore they weren’t going to do it again, but they had nothing to be ashamed of or mad about. There was no reason to question any of the officials’ decisions. Surely, the way those two teams played such an excellent game has something to with the most profound aspect of that night.
Walter Fisher points out that there are a million little things that could have touched off a racially-charged fight. A black boy could have bumped up against a white one in the crush of people leaving the arena. Somebody could have stepped on the wrong person’s foot. Pearl High upset by the loss could have looked for trouble. But, Fisher says, “it didn’t happen. It did not happen. And I will take that one to my grave.”
In the next few months, the civil rights movement was marked by violence. Malcom X was assassinated, the Watts Riots erupted in Los Angeles and Alabama state troopers attacked demonstrators on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. But at least on the basketball court, two Nashville schools had shown it was possible for black and white to come together and just play ball.