He remembers how excited the five of them were to come to Dayton.
Wil Haygood was just 17. One of his pals was able to borrow a car, all of them pooled their money for gas and they headed from Columbus to UD Arena to see their hero.
It was Feb. 26, 1972 and Southwestern Louisiana, the No. 10 team in the nation, was playing the Dayton Flyers.
The Ragin’ Cajuns were led by Dwight “Bo” Lamar, the leading scorer in the nation and a hoops legend back home in Columbus. That’s where — known as “Bo-Pete” — he and Eddie Ratleff and a cast of other talented players had led Columbus East High to the state basketball title at the end of the 1968-69 season.
And some six weeks later — in an unprecedented feat for Ohio’s big schools — Ratleff and Garnett Davis had helped lift the unheralded East baseball team to the state crown, as well.
The triumphs had provided some tonic for the troubled times that plagued Columbus, like Dayton and the rest of the nation.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated in 1968. There was racial strife and riots, and the Vietnam War was widely unpopular and terribly deadly.
Although many people were angry and sad and hurting, the East High Tigers – especially in the black community – had become an uplifting presence, something to rally around and make people feel proud.
The teams overcame the systemic racism that persisted, the poverty of their neighborhoods, the tough times that could weigh down most families.
Of the 12 players on East High’s basketball team, eight had mothers who worked as maids for wealthy white folks in other parts of town.
“They worked on their hands and knees so their children would be able to eat and have decent clothes to go to school,” said Haygood, who’s now 64. “I know some of those mothers had come from the American South and too often had seen the worst of this country down there. They wanted their kids to thrive here.”
The championship Tigers — especially the high-profile basketball players — had done just that.
“Because East was the all black school in the community, the team had established almost a cult following,” Haygood said. “Their winning brought smiles to people’s faces and, in the way sports so often shrewdly navigates through racial waters, they got blacks and whites sitting together and watching them.”
Although Lamar had graduated and gone to college, the allure remained and it drew the teenage Haygood to UD Arena, where he was part of a sold-out crowd of 13,458.
“For us five teenagers in the car, going to see him was like going to see Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones if you were a rock and roll fan,” Haygood said.
But while Mick might sing he “can’t get no … satisfaction,” the Columbus kids got plenty that night.
Bo-Pete scored 42 points in a 103-86 thumping of the Flyers.
On Tuesday night, Haygood — the man who would become a basketball player, 1976 graduate and then visiting distinguished professor at Miami University as well as an award-winning journalist and a New York Times best-selling author whose work became the basis of the celebrated film “The Butler” — is coming back to UD.
And he’s bringing the stories of Bo-Pete Lamar, Ratleff, Davis and the other East High players with him.
His latest book — “Tigerland: 1968-1969, A City Divided, A Nation Torn Apart and A Magical Season of Healing” — was released last Tuesday.
As part of UD’s Fall Speaker Series, Haygood will appear in the Kennedy Union Ballroom at 7 p.m.. He’ll be interviewed on stage about his book and the social issues around it by Michael Carter, the Springfield and Wittenberg product who coached basketball at Springfield South and Trotwood-Madison before becoming the Chief Diversity Officer at Sinclair Community College.
Carter — who said the 1968-69 Tigers are “arguably the best team in Ohio high school history’’ — said Haygood’s book is “more than just a sports story, it’s a history lesson, a social study, a physical and human geography.
“Wil is one of the best storytellers I’ve ever met.”
Haygood, who now lives in Washington D.C. and is just embarking on a national book tour, will be back in Dayton two more times next month.
On Oct. 11, he’ll be at the Dayton Metro Library at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s Community Conversation. The panel discussion will be led by former UD athletics director Ted Kissell.
And on Oct. 26, Haygood has a 7 p.m. appearance at Books-A-Million in The Greene.
Late last month, he was the featured speaker at the Miami University Convocation. At that time, all incoming freshmen received an advanced copy of “Tigerland,” which is part of their school reading program this year and will be augmented by other teachings on race and opportunity.
Haygood also spoke to the RedHawks basketball team and thinks “Tigerland” will interest the general populace, as well:
“It’s a story that will resonate much the way ‘Remember the Titans,’ ‘Blindside,’ ‘Friday Night Lights,’ ‘The Great Debaters’ and ‘Hoosiers’ all did.
“These guys remained class acts in a very turbulent time, and they beat the odds.
“We are a nation who likes an underdog.”
Inspiration for a city
Haygood grew up in Columbus, one of five siblings raised in a single-parent home by his mother, who had come from Selma, Ala.
A few years younger than those trumpeted East players, he remembers them well.
“I was 13 years old, an eighth-grader at Indianola Middle School on the North Side,” he said. “We lived near the Fairgrounds Coliseum, and that’s where I saw Ratleff and Nick Conner and Roy Hickman (all East starters) in person.
“They were mythical to us. You’d see this all-black team jaunt out onto the court, and they just looked so sure of themselves. They looked so smooth and elegant. They knew they were a marque attraction. Blacks from Steubenville, Dayton and Cincinnati, they all came to see them play.
“I remember they’d come out in their warmups — top and bottom — which were white cotton with orange stripes, and they looked really fashionable.
“Back then, almost every little boy dreamed of going to East someday, making the team and coming out in those warm-ups.”
Although the 1967-68 team — which went 25-0 for coach Bob Hart and also won a state crown — had graduated some key players, the Tigers got an unexpected boost when Bo-Pete Lamar joined them in the fall of 1968.
At Columbus North the year before, he had led the City League in scoring, but as the postseason tournament was to begin Coach Jim Kloman told him he had to cut the Afro he had so proudly worn all year.
According to Haygood, Kloman told Lamar that some white boosters and fans had complained that they saw the Afro as “an expression of militancy.” The coach said if he didn’t cut it, he would not play.
Lamar had not been in trouble and was getting good grades, and the request stunned him. The Afro was a sign of pride and identity to him.
He talked to his mother, who told him she had left the south for more freedom, so her kids could stand up for themselves in times of misunderstanding and misrepresentation.
The next day, Lamar, saddened but resolute, quit the North team.
Lamar’s mother moved the family to the Poindexter Village housing project near East High, and her son met with Jack Gibbs, the city’s first black principal, as well as with Hart and his assistant coach and the head baseball coach, Paul Pennell.
Along with tough love and high expectations for his students, Gibbs used behind-the-scenes advocacy for them.
“He knew his kids needed him,” Haygood said. “A lot of them came from single family homes. This was the lowest-income area of the city, and it was a tense time with a lot of rioting and rebelling going on. He was going to protect them.
“His own life was tethered to his sister, who died when she was an infant. She was buried on a segregated hill of a cemetery in Harlan, Kentucky and his mother’s heart broke over that.
“It became a great metaphor for him. He would do everything he could to keep a child’s dream alive and not leave any of them on a segregated hill.”
Hart and Pennell, both white, were men far beyond their time when it came to racial issues and injustice, Haygood said.
“Those two guys really had a passion and a love for the kids,” Carter agreed.
Serving in World War II, Hart landed on the beaches in Normandy and was later honored for his bravery. Having fought alongside black soldiers, he returned home with a strong social consciousness and expressed his views about equal rights and opportunities for blacks in a thesis he turned in at Ohio Wesleyan University.
Haygood said Pennell grew up in a home where his father instilled certain values.
“His father said, ‘There will be no racial epithets, no racial slurs in this house,’” Haygood said.
Hart molded his team around Lamar and the 6-foot-6 Ratleff, who would go on to Long Beach State and become a first-team All-American, as was Lamar, making them the first college players from the same high school team to do so.
Early in the season, East came to Dayton twice — first romping over Dunbar, 92-69, at the sold-out Fairgrounds Coliseum, and then handling Chaminade — a team that later would make it to the state tournament — 78-65.
The East baseball team had mismatched uniforms, no ball diamond at the school and no fans — except for Pennell’s wife — on the road.
The team lost five games in a row during the season and finished third in the City League, but come tournament time — with Ratleff pitching and Davis, who’d later sign with the New York Mets, catching — the Tigers won eight straight games for the state crown.
The two titles that year buoyed the entire school, Haygood said.
“That year East sent more students to college than in any year before,” he said. “The students wanted to prove something to the outside world. They wanted to show that they could hold on and fortify themselves against the national tragedy.
“And in the process it was a way to pay tribute to Reverend King and all he stood for.”
An accomplished career
When we met the other day, Haygood — dressed in jeans, untucked shirt, red Chuck Taylors and his usual black rim glasses — chose the perfect setting.
We settled into the East High auditorium, where, before renovation a decade back, the shiny wooden stage had been the upraised basketball floor for the 1968-69 team, he said.
Haygood actually spent his sophomore year at East and played on the junior varsity team. His final two years were spent at Franklin Heights, where he played basketball.
When it came time for college, he was sold short by an advisor.
“My high school guidance counselor told me she didn’t think I could get accepted at Miami, that I wasn’t smart enough to succeed there,” he said. “I was insulted, and that drove me more.”
He applied anyway, and after a few weeks, when he hadn’t gotten a response, he wrote a letter.
“I just feared they were getting ready to say, ‘No,’ so I wrote a letter to the admissions office,” he said. “I told them, ‘If I’m accepted, I can make you a promise: I will do things in life to make Miami proud.’”
And he has lived up to his vow ever since.
He played a year of JV basketball at Miami as a walk-on, and when he got a degree in urban planning, he became the first in his family to graduate from college.
He went on to an impressive journalism career including stints as a national and foreign correspondent at the Boston Globe and Washington Post.
An article he wrote in 2008 — “A Butler Well Served by This Election” — was made into the 2013 award-winning film “The Butler” starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
He has now authored several critically acclaimed books on subjects like Thurgood Marshall, Adam Clayton Powell, Sammy Davis Jr. and Sugar Ray Robinson.
He said “Tigerland” is one of his most rewarding efforts ever:
“When I first started, I didn’t know the story was as rich and complex as it was. But the deeper I dove into it — like diving into the ocean you might say — I started finding all these pearls beneath the sand.”
That bejeweled effort became the book he first gave to Miami students last month and now brings to the UD stage Tuesday evening.
So far, he said he has had just one complaint with the book.
It comes from some of the former East High players, who now are all in their mid to late 60s
“The book just came out last Tuesday, so they’re just getting their hands on them,” Haygood said with a growing smile. “Several of them told me they haven’t been able to sleep because they’ve been really taken by it and they keep reading it late into the night.”