In the early 1960s, the varsity basketball team and the fraternities at George Washington University were all-white clubs, but change was in the air.
A lanky black kid who came to GWU from the District’s Dunbar High School was literally barred at the door of one fraternity but then connected with Jewish students who were ready to break the color line.
And that same black student, a fellow by the name of Vincent C. Gray who had a pretty layup, joined with other African Americans and Jews to make up an intramural basketball team that broke barriers and captured the imagination of fellow students.
On Wednesday night, Gray, now 68 and in his first week as Washington’s mayor, thought he was just stopping by the GWU basketball game against La Salle for a brief “attaboy” from his alma mater. But to his surprise, Gray — GWU Class of ’64 — found himself at the center of an elaborate “This Is Your Life” reunion staged by the university.
During a timeout in the first half, Gray was called onto the court, where he was met by four members of his 1964 fraternity team.
“Oh my God, what a shock,” a breathless Gray said as he left the court. “I love that GW did this for me. It brings back memories of the Tin Tabernacle.”
Gray hadn’t seen some of the teammates, two black and two Jewish, since the days when they dominated the intramural league as the Fighting TEPs from Tau Epsilon Phi, a Jewish fraternity of which Gray was the unlikely president. The university’s varsity team remained all white until 1967, and during Gray’s time on campus, it was the TEPs who boasted a powerhouse lineup that packed a shabby old gym, known as the Tin Tabernacle, with rowdy fans.
“Sometimes we would draw a bigger crowd than the varsity,” Gray said of his days as a forward on a team that routinely won games by 25 or 30 points. “There’s no question that everybody on our team could have played varsity, but that option was not open to us.”
After the surprise at center court, the old teammates retreated to a corner skybox to reminisce about a very different era at the university.
When Gray arrived at GWU, he found a tradition-bound urban campus of big sedans and Southern sensibilities. With few residence halls, fraternities provided much of the housing, fueling a robust intramural sports scene hotly covered by the campus paper.
But when Gray tried to join the Greek system, he found himself stopped at the door. “At one house, they wouldn’t even let me in,” Gray recalled of the formal rush process in which students were supposed to visit every fraternity. “They said: ‘Stay out here. We’ll sign your card.’ At another one, I just sat there the whole time and was totally ignored.”
But at the TEP house, he met a group of Jewish students, many from New York, who were willing to break the color barrier. Despite a clause in the group’s national charter that barred black members, the GWU brothers offered Gray a spot, and he became the university’s first African American fraternity member.
“We’d grown up and been to school with blacks and Puerto Ricans and just decided we wanted to be known as a melting pot,” said Stephen Haenel, 69, a onetime player for the TEPs who was flown in for the ceremony from New York with fellow guard Neil Hausig, 67.
Gray would go on to be elected for two terms as president of the fraternity, a post in which he faced the challenge of pulling the chapter out of debt. His first attempt, a plea to basketball star and chapter alumnus Red Auerbach for an emergency donation, flopped. But he eventually balanced the books by cutting meal service and raising dues.
As pledge director, Haenel subjected Gray to the standard indignities, including locking him and dozens of other newbies in a bathroom with a dead pig. “Vince was just a super-nice guy and a great ballplayer,” Haenel said.
Sports was serious business to the TEP players. Gray, a baseball standout at Dunbar who had been scouted by major league teams, said sports provided a crucial balance to academic demands and the racism he sometimes faced on campus.
Although GWU’s football team was integrated in 1963, the hoop dreams of Gray and other blacks remained limited to intramural ball. And they made the most of it.
“Yeah, we were a little cocky, but we did beat just about everybody,” said Garry Lyle, 65, one of Gray’s long-ago teammates, who flew in from Florida. “Vince had some moves. He’d kind of fake to the left and go to the right and usually get a layup out of that.”
Lyle, a forward who was at GWU on a football scholarship and went on to a career with the Chicago Bears, said he would sometimes hear racist comments from GWU’s gridiron opponents in the Southern Conference. But the intramural games were pure fun, even for the only integrated team on campus.
“Nobody seemed to have a problem with it,” he said.
At the time, the varsity team played its games off-campus (mostly at Fort Myer in Arlington County) and was suffering a string of losing seasons (it went 11-15 in 1964). By contrast, the TEPs’ boisterous series against teams from other fraternities, dorms and the law school were wildly popular.
“They were just stunning to watch,” said Mark Plotkin, a political commentator for WTOP radio who saw Gray’s team play often as a student at the university. “They played with such verve, such talent. I’m a basketball nut, and this is a team that I have remembered to this day.”
A section of center court from the Tin Tabernacle hangs on a wall of the school’s new arena. On Wednesday night, the former TEPs stood under it, finally appearing together on a Division I floor. Today’s varsity team, with black and white players and an African American coach, applauded from courtside.
“Things have vastly changed, and changed for the better,” said Norm Neverson, former chairman of the D.C. Democratic Party, who played alongside Gray as a center.
For his part, the new mayor said he was thrilled by the chance, finally, to stand on GWU’s varsity court.
“I made it to that floor,” Gray said with a laugh. “I may have been wearing black loafers instead of tennis shoes, but I made it.”