LSU's First Black Player Revels in Legacy's Growth
Thursday, March 30, 2006
Thirty-five years ago, the Louisiana governor persuaded Collis Temple Jr. to play basketball at Louisiana State University. After Temple enrolled at LSU, the National Guard had to protect the Tigers' first African American player from the threats of segregationists. But if Temple ever doubted the long-term effects of his own civil rights efforts, he need not look any further than his own sons and the LSU team that is two victories away from winning the national championship.
Garrett Temple, his youngest son, is a starting guard in LSU's all-black lineup that will play UCLA in Saturday's NCAA tournament national semifinal game at RCA Dome in Indianapolis. Collis Temple III, his older son, also played for the Tigers, and Collis Temple Jr. coached three of LSU's other players from Baton Rouge in summer basketball leagues.
"I'm fortunate to have a father that was the first African American to play college basketball at LSU," Garrett Temple said. "He's passed on a lot of stories and has given me a lot of advice not only about basketball but also on life. Being the first African American to do that meant he went through a lot of trials and tribulations. Hopefully, his strength has been passed on to me."
Collis Temple Jr. hopes he passed on those lessons to the rest of the Tigers, too. Along with Garrett Temple, LSU forwards Glen "Big Baby" Davis, Tyrus Thomas and Darnell Lazare attended high schools in Baton Rouge. Starting forward Tasmin Mitchell grew up in Denham Springs, La., a suburb about 13 miles away, and senior guard Darrel Mitchell is from St. Martinsville, La., about 60 miles to the southwest.
"These guys grew up together," LSU Coach John Brady said. "I think that's unique in college basketball. Maybe not as unique as it would be for New York or Chicago, where you have millions of people in a small area, but we don't have millions of people in our state."
But Brady and his coaching staff had a friend in Collis Temple Jr. He graduated from LSU with a bachelor's degree in secondary education and founded the Sports Academy in Baton Rouge, which offers sports and after-school programs. Garrett Temple and Thomas began playing in summer leagues there when they were only 3; Davis and Tasmin Mitchell began showing up about six years later.
By the time the players reached high school -- Davis and Temple attended University Laboratory School, which is located on the LSU campus -- they were among the most recruited players in the country. The Sports Academy AAU summer team Temple coached included his son, Davis, Thomas, Tasmin Mitchell and Early Doucet, a wide receiver on LSU's football team. In the spring of 2003, the Sports Academy team was ranked among the best AAU teams in the country.
"We never got much respect from the media guys on the East Coast," Collis Temple Jr. said. "But all of those guys we played that are in the NBA now, they knew our kids could play. They knew what we were capable of doing. We never won an AAU national championship or anything like that, but we're going to win this national championship."
LSU's players are so close that Brady said he often has problems communicating with them.
"A couple of weeks ago, they were in the locker room, and I thought they were angry at one another," Brady said. "I thought they were about to have some kind of meltdown, for what reason I had no idea. So I walked into the locker room and said, 'Hey, hey, guys, knock that off!' And they looked at me and said, 'What do you mean? Coach, we have been doing this since we were kids. You don't know what you're talking about.' So I said, 'Okay, maybe I don't,' and I left."
Collis Temple Jr. was more than a coach to many of LSU's players. Davis didn't know his father growing up and his mother is a recovering drug addict. Davis moved into Temple's home during high school while his mother sought help.
"It was great," Garrett Temple said. "We had already played together for a long time and to get him into a situation where he could thrive and become a man was important. He didn't have a father figure in his life at that time and my dad filled that role. We basically became brothers."
Davis's mother, Tonya Davis, attended the Tigers' games at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta last weekend. When LSU upset No. 1 seed Duke in the semifinals of the Atlanta Region, she was jumping up and down and hugging Collis Temple Jr. in the stands.
"Glen Davis loves his mother and she loves him," Brady said. "Trust me. I know them both well. Glen Davis's mother is as positive and as fun and you can tell exactly where he gets his personality, there's no question, when you're around his mom. But everybody has their shortcomings and we all have our cross to bear, I guess. There have been a lot of other people in Glen's life that helped him have the outlook that he has. It's a unique story and it's why I respect Glen so much -- because of what he's been through, what he's witnessed and all of that has helped him be the kind of young man he is today."
Collis Temple Jr. is among the people who helped shape Davis's life and he had a lot of lessons to share. When Temple enrolled at LSU in 1971 -- seven years after President Lyndon B. Johnson had signed the Civil Rights Act -- the school had only one other black athlete, a freshman sprinter on the track team. Temple said he was generally accepted by his teammates because his coach, Press Maravich, father of LSU legend "Pistol" Pete Maravich, made sure he was welcomed. But playing games on the road was often much more difficult.
During Temple's senior season in 1974, the Tigers upset No. 6 Vanderbilt, 84-81, in Baton Rouge. Temple spent much of the game guarding Jan van Breda Kolff, who later became a college coach. When a fight broke out late in the game, Temple punched van Breda Kolff and injured him. The Tigers played the Commodores in Nashville later that season and at halftime, police informed then-LSU coach Dale Brown that they had received a threatening phone call. If Brown and Temple returned to the court for the second half, the caller said Brown and Temple would be shot. Temple played anyway and the Tigers lost by a basket, 91-89.
"My dad said his coach was behind him 100 percent and kept encouraging him," Garrett Temple said. "My dad would get hate mail slipped under his dorm room door and there would be graffiti on his door. Through all that, he was able to stay strong and he's passed that down to me. I really can't imagine what it would be like to go through something like that."
Thanks to his father, Garrett Temple and his teammates didn't have to.