Before integration Part 2: The N.C. High School Athletic Conference produced basketball stars, legends and Hall of Famers

Before integration
(A series on the football, basketball and baseball exploits of African-American athletics before full integration came to North Carolina in the 1970-71 school year)

Part 1: The NCHSAC began crowning state champions in 1928 and featured memorable teams, coaches and players and 28 eventual NFL players, among them a cultural icon depicted in a Hollywood movie and some pioneers in more than just athletics. Link: https://carolinassportshub.com/before-integration-part-1-the-n-c-high-school-athletic-conference-produced-title-teams-acclaimed-coaches-and-nfl-talent/

Part 3: Baseball was considered one of the biggest passions in the African-American community for much of the 20th century. It was so big that many high schools did NOT field teams in order to allow their players to perform for the local teams. Here’s a look at some of North Carolina’s premier teams, coaches and players who attended and played for NCHSAC schools.

By Richard Walker

When William Partlow played basketball at Gastonia’s Highland High School, he helped the Rams to their greatest successes in the sport.

William Partlow was a basketball star at Gastonia’s Highland High School and Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University before going on to greater fame as a basketball coach and college administrator

Just a few miles away in Shelby, Bobby Bell was doing the same for Cleveland Training School.

Both became more known for what they would do after high school – Partlow as a coach and administrator and Bell as a Hall of Fame football player.

And in 1950s when they played, they were living through an era of N.C. High School Athletic Conference basketball that featured one of the key figures of the Boston Celtics’ 1960 dynasty and the most iconic Harlem Globetrotters player in history.

African-Americans like Partlow and Bell shined mostly out of the spotlight they would’ve enjoyed today as newspaper accounts of the 1950s wrote much less if anything at all about the all-African-American schools of that segregated era.

In Gastonia, Partlow was a standout for the first two of four straight Highland teams to make the eight-team state championship tournament.

That event was played officially from 1948 to 1970 at North Carolina Central in Durham, North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, Shaw University and St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh and at high school sites like Rocky Mount Washington, Winston-Salem Atkins, Greensboro Dudley, Burlington Jordan-Sellars and Wilson Darden from 1948 to 1970. State championship basketball games had been held as far back as 1930 but many records and title-game winners are incomplete for those years.

The first official state tournament in 1948 was open classification, then champions were crowned in two classifications from 1949 to 1954 and in the last two years of the NCHSAC in 1969 and 1970, three classification champions competed for titles from 1955 to 1961 and four champions were crowned from 1962 to 1968.

Highland’s Rams lost in the 1952 title game, the 1951 and 1954 semifinals and 1953 quarterfinal round.

The 1951 semifinal loss came against eventual champion Laurinburg Institute and eventual 10-time NBA champion Sam Jones.

After Jones led the Tigers to the 1951 state championship in a 52-50 victory over West Charlotte later that day, he went on to a standout career at North Carolina Central before becoming a 10-time NBA champion and five-time NBA All-Star for the Boston Celtics from 1957 to 1969.

The first of 17 NCHSAC alumni to play in the NBA, Jones became the first African-American inductee into the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame in 1969 and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1984.

An all-state selection himself and leading scorer for Highland’s 1952 state runner-up team, Partlow recalls hearing about another star player his age playing for Wilmington’s Williston High School.

His name was Meadowlark Lemon.

Meadowlark Lemon

While Lemon’s team never qualified for the state tournament, he went on to international fame for his role as a player and promoter for the Harlem Globetrotters. Lemon later was the central figure for the Bucketeers, the Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon’s Harlem All-Star – and he was eventually inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.

Partlow would go on to be a standout player at Johnson C. Smith University before becoming more acclaimed as a high school basketball coach and college administrator.

After coaching Columbia, S.C., Booker T. Washington High School to five state titles in nine seasons, Partlow was named head coach at Benedict College before becoming athletic director at San Francisco State University.

At Booker T. Washington, among the players Partlow coached were future legendary high school coach George Glymph, future UCLA national champion Kenny Washington and future NBA player Leon Benbow. In 1974, Benbow became only the fourth S.C. high school product to play in the NBA.

At San Francisco State, among the many coaches he hired were future NFL head coaches Andy Reid and Dirk Koetter.

One of Partlow’s Highland teammates, Claude “Doc” Saunders, also has quite a post-high school career.

After high school, Saunders became the first All-CIAA basketball selection at Charlotte’s Johnson C. Smith University in 1955 and later spent 31 years as a teacher in the Charlotte Mecklenburg School system. Saunders became more famous as a longtime football official, most notably as the first African-American referee to work the prestigious Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas high school football All-Star game 1979.

Saunders started officiating in 1958 and would eventually work in the CIAA, Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference as well as becoming the first African-American football referee in the Southern Conference. Inducted into the CIAA officials Hall of Fame in 2000, Claude Saunders was approached orginally by longtime NFL official Johnny Grier in the 1980s about joining that league’s officiating crew.

Just 25 miles West of Gastonia, Bell was growing up in Shelby and starring for Cleveland Training School’s state championship football and basketball teams.

In football, where Bell eventually became a 1983 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee as a linebacker, he led Cleveland Training School to back-to-back six-man state titles as a quarterback in 1956 and 1957.

In basketball, Bell and his brother Pink Bell helped the Tigers to the 1957 district championship game (they lost to eventual 1A state champion Tryon Embury), the 1958 Class 1A state title and were favorites to win again in 1959 until being declared ineligible on the day of their district title game.

Bobby Bell, who played one season of varsity basketball at the University of Minnesota, once scored 46 points in a district tournament game, became the first 1,000-point career scorer in Cleveland County boys basketball history and averaged 33.6 points per game during the 1958 state title run.

A 6-foot-6, 230-pounder, Bobby Bell was fouled as time expired in the championship game and hit two free throws for a 56-54 victory over Southern Pines West in a game played at North Carolina A&T.

Bobby Bell

In 1959, Bell was averaged 27.5 points per game when NCHSAC executive director W.T. Armstrong sent a telegram to Cleveland Training School head coach John Winston on the day of the district final to inform him Pink Bell was 22 days too old to be eligible to play and the Tigers’ season was over.

Bell was hardly the only standout performer in state tournament competition.

In 1957, eventual Pro Basketball Hall of Famer Walt Bellamy scored 31 points in a 65-65 loss to Raleigh Ligon in the state semifinals at North Carolina Central; Bellamy was the No. 1 overall pick of the 1961 NBA Draft out of Indiana University and became the second North Carolina African-American to play in the NBA (behind Jones). A four-time NBA All-Star, Bellamy was a 1993 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

In 1961, Lou Hudson scored 19 points for Greensboro Dudley in its 63-56 Class 3A state championship game victory over Wilmington Williston at North Carolina A&T. Hudson, an All-American at the University of Minnesota, was a six-time NBA All-Star during his 13-year career.

In 1962, Henry Logan scored 21 points for Asheville Stephens-Lee in its 66-59 Class 4A state championship game victory over Winston-Salem Atkins at North Carolina A&T. Logan, a three-sport star for the Bears, became more famous two years later when he became the first African-American athlete in a Southern athletic conference at Western Carolina. Logan, whose high-jumping style is considered the forerunner to the way N.C. State’s David Thompson and North Carolina’s Michael Jordan would play in the coming years, set records that may never be broken in his four years at Western Carolina before he played two years in the old American Basketball Association.

In 1965, Lawrence Dunn scored 45 points for Raleigh Berry O’Kelley’s quarterfinal victory over Powellsville Central at Greensboro Dudley High School. Four days later, Dunn led O’Kelley to the Class 2A championship over Kinston Woodington 84-76. Dunn would go on to a successful high school coaching career, guiding Garner to the 1978 N.C. 4A girls basketball title before becoming the first boys basketball coach at Raleigh Athens Drive where he made that program a perennial power.

In 1966, Henry Bibby scored 43 points for Franklinton Albion-Person in a semifinal victory over Mocksville Central at North Carolina A&T. Albion-Person would lose the Class 1A state championship game 86-74 to Catawba Rosenwald. Bibby would go on to become a three-time NCAA champion at UCLA, one-NBA champion in nine seasons in the NBA before coaching more than 20 years of college and pro basketball with two CBA championships as a head coach.

Sam Jones

Other NCHSAC alumni who played in the NBA were Happy Hairston (Winston-Salem Atkins), Bob Warlick (Hickory Ridgeview), Willie Porter (Winston-Salem Atkins), Dexter Westbrook (Laurinburg Institute), Lee Davis (Raleigh Ligon), Willis “Spider” Bennett (Laurinburg Institute), Herm Gilliam (Winston-Salem Atkins), Charlie Scott (Laurinburg Institute), Charlie Davis (Laurinburg Institute), George Adams (Kings Mountain Compact), Hawthorne Wingo (Tryon Embury) and 1967 No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick Jimmy Walker (Laurinburg Institute).

Lemon wasn’t the only NCHSAC alumnus to eventually star for the Globetrotters as Fred “Curly” Neal (Greensboro Dudley) and James “Twiggy” Sanders (Raleigh Ligon) also were iconic members of that team. And former West Charlotte star Paul Grier played alongside former Globetrotter icon Goose Tatum for the Harlem Stars.

Wingo and Adams both came along at a time when they played at two schools due to integration.

Wingo played for Tryon in the 1964-65 season as the only African-American player on the previously all-white team. Wingo, who played collegiately at Friendship Junior College in Rock Hill, S.C., led Tryon to a Tri-County Conference title in his lone season at Tryon and would later play four years in the NBA, most notably as a member of the New York Knicks’ 1973 championship team.

Adams played for the previously all-white Kings Mountain High School in the 1966-67 and 1967-68 seasons, helping the Mountaineers to a 1968 runner-up finish in the Western N.C. Activities Association before setting virtually every scoring and rebounding record at Gardner-Webb College during a NAIA All-American career. He would play three seasons in the ABA.

The argument may never be decided about which school was the most dominant in the NCHSAC’s official 23-year tournament era of 1948 to 1970.

It’s because several schools can make a claim.

Winston-Salem Atkins appeared in 15 of the 23 state championship tournaments and the Camels won championships in 1952, 1953, 1954, 1957 and 1959 and had runner-up finishes in 1949, 1950, 1955 and 1962.

Durham Hillside made 13 state tournament appearances, including nine straight from 1961 to 1969, with a championship in 1965 and runner-up finishes in 1966 and 1967.

Wilmington Williston made 12 state tournament appearances with a 1956 title and runner-up finishes in 1959, 1960 and 1961.

George Adams

Burlington Jordan-Sellars made 11 state tournament appearances with championships in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1966 and runner-up finishes in 1954, 1955, 1959, 1965, 1969 and 1970.

Rocky Mount Booker T. Washington made 11 state tournament appearances and won titles in 1955 and 1960 and was runner-up in 1958 and 1969.

West Charlotte made 11 state tournament appearances with championships in 1963 and 1966 and runner-up finishes in 1951 and 1965.

East Spencer Dunbar made 10 state tournament appearances with a championship in 1959 and was runner-up in 1953, 1960 and 1961.

Hickory Ridgeview made 10 state tournament appearances with titles in 1948, 1949, 1950 and 1951.

Durham Merrick Moore made nine state tournament appearances with championships in 1965, 1967 and 1969 and runner-up finishes in 1951, 1962, 1964 and 1966.

And Greensboro Dudley made nine state tournament appearances and won titles in 1958 and 1961 and was runner-up in 1963.