Friday, February 28, 2014


Magicians of the Hardwoods

In their day, the New York Celtics were the Kings of Basketball in America.  Only the Harlem Globetrotters could claim that equal crown.  Not to be confused with the modern day Boston Celtics, the Celtics were a pre-NBA team which called New York home.  In the latter years of the 1930s and 1940s, the Celtics barnstormed across the country playing local and collegiate teams in tiny, rural high school gymnasiums and large, urban arenas.  They rarely lost a game,  playing just good enough for a small, but comfortable, margin of victory. 

Such would be the case when the nationally celebrated septet came to Rentz, Georgia on the  cold, rainy Tuesday night of January 24, 1939.  The fund-raising event was billed as an exciting evening of basketball.  The fans who crammed the tiny wooden gym that night did not come away disappointed.

The first of the three-game slate matched the girls of Rentz High School against their bitter rivals, the lasses from Cadwell, who were out to avenge an earlier season loss to their neighbors to the north.  

The second contest featured "Deacon Holy" Grahl's powerful Cedar Grove quintet match with an equally strong team from Dudley.

The climax of the evening's games featured a 9:00 pairing of the Celtics against the Teachers from South Georgia Teacher's College in Statesboro.  The Teachers, the forerunners of Georgia Southern University, had practically their entire team returning from another successful season under the tutelage of legendary coach, B.L. "Crook" Smith. The "Blue Tide," as the boys from the "Boro" hailed themselves, were no slouch of an opponent for the professional Celtics, who entered the game with 31 consecutive season victories, including a victory over the college team the night before in their own gym in Statesboro.

The "Magicians of the Hardwoods" were regarded as the greatest passers in the game.  They held in their play book a large number of trick plays.  More than comedic and gimmicky players, each of the Celtics were known as dead sure shots from nearly any spot on the court.   

The Celtics were led by player-coach Henry "Dutch" Dehnert, who is generally credited with inventing the pivot play.  The solidly built, tall for his day, Dutchman was a member of the Original Celtics, one of the first two teams to be inducted into the National Basketball Hall of Fame.  Considered the game's first big men, Dehnert led the Original Celtics to more than 1900 victories in thirteen seasons.  He left the Celtics after two consecutive league championships in 1927 and 1928 to join the Cleveland team, which won ABL titles in 1929 and 1930.

After leaving the barnstorming Celtics after more than two decades with the team, Dehnert managed another barnstorming team, the Detroit Eagles.  One of his better players was "Press" Maravich," father of the legendary ball-handling great "Pistol Pete" Maravich.  Now you can see where "Pistol Pete's" talent came from.

Dehnert, who was the only member of the team to have played with the "Original Celtics,"  was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1969 along with legendary coaches, Red Auerbach of the Boston Celtics and Adolph Rupp of the University of Kentucky.

The clown prince of the Celtics was Davy Banks.  Banks had to be funny.  He was the shortest man on the team.   Banks, a 19-year veteran,  was a five-tool player. Laughter, tricks, stunts, speed  and pinpoint shooting were his talents.  Four months after the game at Rentz, Banks became the first player to wear a radio transmitter during a game, humorously broadcasting the action to a clamoring crowd.

One of Banks' patented trick shots came when he received a pass while sitting in a chair along the sideline.  From his seated position, Banks, who was a licensed bookmaker and promoter,  would frequently put his shots in the basket.  When the Celtics were well ahead, especially when their opponents were a local aggregation, Banks would shoot into their basket to cut the safe Celtic lead. 

One of the newer members of the Celtics, Paul Birch, played at Duquesne from 1932 to 1935, helping lead his team to a (51-4) record.  Birch, an off season professional baseballer, played intermittently with the Celtics for a couple of years before signing with the Fort Wayne Pistons.  After enjoyed two world championships with the Pistons, Birch went into coaching, leading the Pittsburgh Iromen  (1946-1947) and Ft. Wayne (1951-1953) in the NBA.  

Rusty Sanders, another newcomer with the Celts, once moonlighted as a prison guard. 

Dan Herlihey, a veteran Celtic and Long Island golf pro, was all business, no humor, just aggressive hustle and deadly accurate shooting.  Bob McDermott, a cage star at Long Island University whose forte' was the long shot,  and Nat Hickey, who managed baseball teams in the off season,  rounded out the veteran dominated lineup. 
At half time of the girls game, arrangements were made with the Celtics to stage a clinic for all of the county's  high school teams.   

Cadwell's girls didn't come close to evening their record with Rentz, which, with 47 points, more than tripled the Cadwell girl's point total of 15.  

Billy Keith, a Dublin High upperclassman covering the game for The Courier Herald, failed to report the outcome of the Dudley-Cedar Grove tilt. 

Sadly, Keith's 87-word scant article simply reported that Celtics, considerably better than the boys from Statesboro, never really opened up.  The Celtics jumped out to an early 10-point lead and kept it that way until the end of the game when Crook Smith's teacher pulled to within seven points to lose 58-51  to the Celtics, who claimed they only lost two games in the South in twenty-five years.
The members of the Celtics played on thousands and thousands of basketball courts around the country during their long and storied careers.  But, it was on that night, that one magical night  seventy- five years ago this week when the New York Celtics charmed a standing room only crowd as they worked their magic on the hardwoods of the Rentz gym. 


A Forgotten Football Hero?

Now that the seemingly - endless, overly - hyped hoopla of the Super Bowl is finally over, sit right back in your Lazy Boy chair and read the story of Otis Troupe, one of the best college football players you probably never heard of.  In the days before Jackie Robinson forever broke the color barrier in major sports, Troupe was denied the opportunity to play football in the National Football League.  No one will ever know the impact that this bruising runner and all around athlete would have made on the professional gridirons of the nation, but in his day and in his league he was generally regarded as one of the best black collegiate athletes in the nation and for a brief time was a star player of the fledgling Negro Professional Football League.

Otis Emanuel Troupe was born on August 29,  1911 in Laurens County.  His parents, Emanuel and Annie Hester Troupe, lived on the road leading from Dudley to Rebie, Georgia in 1920.  Otis was the grandson of Wallace and Charlotte Troupe, of the Hampton Mill District.    His family, including Quincy Trouppe, a legendary catcher and manager of the Negro Leagues,  descended from former slaves belonging to Governor George M. Troup, who maintained a plantation at Vallambrosa and at Thomas Crossroads north east of Dudley.    During the 1920s, the Troupe family moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey, where they  lived at 425 South Park Street in an ethnically diverse neighborhood.   Otis lettered in football, baseball, basketball and track and became somewhat of a legend in high school circles in New Jersey.

A talented singer, Otis received a music scholarship to attend Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland  which was at the time considered one of the finest black colleges in the nation. His athletic physique and strong bearing caught the eye of coaches Talmadge "Mars" Hill and Eddie Hurt.   Morgan State dominated black college football in the 1930s,  winning seven CIAA championships between 1930 and 1941.

Otis tried out for football as well as basketball and track.  He lettered in all three sports in his four years at Morgan State.  The Morgan State Bears captured the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association title during Otis' entire career.  In 1935, team captain Troupe led his three-year unbeaten team to the Black College National Championship, earning All-American honors at full back in the process.  That same year, Otis was lead tenor of the famous Morgan State Choir, one of the country's premier collegiate choruses.  Under the leadership of Coach Hurt, Troupe's 1933 basketball team won the C.I.A.A. championship.  His track team won numerous championships.

Though he played in the shadows of Brutus Wilson and Tank Conrad, Richard Sorrell, a former teammate said of Otis, "he was one of the greatest all around running back  the game of football has ever had and I have seen them all."  He added, "Otis could not only run the football, but he could catch like a wide receiver, and he could be a devastating blocker for a team.  He also averaged 60 yards per punt."  Troupe also was the team's extremely accurate place kicker.

In 1936, Fritz Pollard of the Negro Football League's New York Brown Bombers selected the triple-threat Troupe to play in the backfield with Joe Lillard and Tank Conrad, two of the league's best backs.  The Bombers were named after the country's great boxer Joe Louis.  In the second year of the NFL's existence in 1921, Pollard became the league's first African-American head coach.  In 1933, the league banned the use of black players, denying Troupe, Lillard and Conrad the opportunity to play.  The ban lasted until 1946.

Troupe played for the Bombers, the most successful professional Negro League team,  for two years.  In 1938, while a coach at Howard University, Otis played part time for the Bombers, who changed their name to the New York Black Yankees to avoid confusion with the Chicago Brown Bombers.  He was selected to play for an all star team in a preseason game against the Chicago Bears in 1938, but couldn't obtain a leave from his coaching duties at Howard.

After his football days were over, Otis Troupe joined the District of Columbia Police Department.  He spent 18 years on the force before taking a job as an officer and counselor with the Federal government.    But Otis couldn't shake sports from his blood. He was a member of the Eastern Board of Officials and served as a referee for high school and college games in Washington and around the country.

Otis married Carolyn Holloman, a daughter of Rev. John L.S. Holloman, a North Carolina circuit rider and pastor of the Second Baptist Church of Washington, D.C. for 53 years, and his wife Rosa.  Carolyn Troupe was a well-known Washington, D.C. high school principal.  

Their only child Otis Holloman Troupe, a former football player at Yale, held an impressive resume' with a bachelor's degree in English from Yale University, a master's degree in Business Administration from Columbia University, and a law degree from Boston College.  The younger Troupe was appointed Auditor of the District of Columbia for two terms, after serving as a market analyst with Exxon Corporation.   His zeal for exposing fraud in city government prevented the completion of his third term in office.  In 1994, he was an unsuccessful candidate for Mayor of Washington, D.C..  He died in 2001 and was considered a lonely voice for honesty in a hive of corrupt D.C. government officials.

Otis Troupe died on August 31, 1994 in Washington, D.C. just two days before his 83rd birthday.   For his outstanding exploits as a star and team player, Troupe was inducted into the Black All-American Hall of Fame, the Morgan State Varsity M Club Hall of Fame, Eastern Seaboard Officials Hall of Fame and the Inside Sports Hall of Fame.  And now you know the story of Otis Troupe.  Try not to forget him. 


"The Black Boxcar"

In this corner from Cochran, Georgia, Obie Walker!  He was big. He was strong. He jabbed his opponents with machine gun like speed.   Obie Walker thought he could whip every boxer in the world.  But, the Georgia Goliath never got the chance to fight the world champions Max Baer or Joe Louis.  This is the story of a local man, who once reigned as the Prince of boxing in Europe and among his race, was considered a world champion.

Obie Diah Walker was born in Bleckley County, Georgia on September 19, 1911. Before the age of nine, Obie was living with his maternal grandparents, Frank and Elizabeth Powell of the Frazier community.

Obie moved to Atlanta  as a way  to increase his chances for success as a boxer. His first of 100 professional fights took place some eighty five years ago  on February 16, 1929  against "Battling Connell"  in the Auditorium in Atlanta, Georgia.  The hometown fighter had little trouble against Connell, who lost all three of his career professional fights, two of them to the Brute from Bleckley.

Walker won four straight bouts, some people say eighteen,  until his first loss on points to Happy Hunter on February 3, 1930.  

The "Black Boxcar," built like a bank safe,"  would not lose again in thirty fights (28-0-2)  until he lost a close decision on points to Don "Red" Barry at the Arena in Philadelphia.  His last win in America came against George Godfrey, to capture the title of  the Colored Heavyweight Champion.  

That is when Walker's manager Jefferson Davis Dickson made the decision to take his fighter, with a record of 32-2-2, to take on the best fighters in Europe.  Some say that Walker had fought at least sixty other undocumented bouts with colored fighters in addition to his three dozen professional fights.     

The first European  fight came in Sallewagram in Paris, France.  Walker knocked out Belgian giant Louis Verbeeren in the last round of a ten-round match on Groundhog Day in 1934. Fighting primarily in French and Swiss arenas, Walker knocked out all of his first nine opponents. Only one of the ko's came after the third round.  After losing two of his next three matches, Obie, trained by former Argentine champion Norman Tomasulo,  won nine of ten before leaving Europe on a losing note in June 1936 with a defeat on points.

Named "Enfant Terrible "  by his adoring French fans who stormed the headquarters of Joe Louis following the defeat of Max Baer, Walker was praised  for his strikingly unorthodox and  innovative style.  

In commenting on a possible match with Lewis, Walker said, "I ain't been asked yet.  And, I ain't askin." 

Walker confidently  commented on a match with Lewis, the Brown Bomber, "There ain't no fighter in the world who doesn't make a mistake during a fight. Me, I just stand around and wait for that mistake.  

"I can take it.  And, when Louis makes that mistake, I'll swat him," the Georgia boxer proclaimed.  

As he traveled Europe and the states, Walker, a quiet man who could not write and could only read picture books,  showed off his strength by going to carnivals and picking up the strong men and their hefty weights - all at the same time. 

Obie Walker firmly believed that World Champion Joe Louis and he could beat any boxer in the world.  Walker  yearned to get his chance just to fight Louis or Louis' arch rival Max Schmelling, of Germany.  

"Let Louis clean up the states. I'll clean up Europe. Then we will get together and see what for," Walker once proclaimed. 

Walker's first bout upon his return to the United States came in Municipal Stadium in Philadelphia.  Walker had won a fight at Shibe Park, the home of the Philadelphia Athletics, in 1933. Municipal Stadium  was the same outdoor arena where Gene Tunney captured the world heavyweight boxing title from Jack Dempsey. The bout came at the home of the Philadelphia Phillies, where Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott in 1952 to win boxing's heavyweight championship.

Walker pulled himself off the mat and won six consecutive fights in his home territory of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina before losing half of his next eight fights.  Seven straight wins brought Walker to the climax of his career.  No longer the Cochran Colossus he once was, Walker, who had returned to his home at 514 Larkin Street,  lost four of his last six fights before the beginning of World War II.  Walker hung up his gloves after a failed comeback attempt after the war when he lost to Elza Thompson at Dorsey Park in Miami in March 1946 in a close 10-round decision. 

Atlanta Georgian sportswriter Ed Danforth wrote of Walker, "Walker became the toast of Paris.  He knocked cold every topnotcher he met on the continent.  Max Schmelling shrewdly dodged him, the best of the Englishmen too, sidestepped the squatty brown man who carried lightning bolts in both fists.  Competent critics say he could have knocked out Schmelling, Joe Louis and Jim Braddock in one night with the space of ten rounds. 

In the 100 recorded bouts of his twelve- year career, the five- foot nine- inch Obie Walker compiled a record of 77 wins, 16 losses and 5 draws. Walker's powerful arms knocked out 53 of his opponents.  Remarkably, Walker was never himself knocked out - a feat matched only by a few dozen American professional boxers in the history of the sport.

On May 4, 1989, at the age of seventy-seven, Obie Walker unceremoniously died in his adopted hometown of Atlanta.  There is no adequate marker to designate the  final resting place of this once proud and powerful Heavyweight Colored Champion of the World.  Maybe now, many more people will know his story, the story of the Black Boxcar, aka the Bleckley Behemoth, who in a  hundred fights never went down to the mat for the count.