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Could Gardner-Webb get national attention from ESPN’s “The Undefeated” for its pioneering role in 1960s?

By Richard Walker

Could Gardner-Webb University soon be getting some national attention for how was it one of the leaders in integrating its basketball program in the 1960s?

The 1966-67 Gardner-Webb basketball team with Laurence “Sonny” Jackson on the far right of the front row.

It’s a possibility as the first African-American player in Gardner-Webb history, Sonny Johnson, says the ESPN’s “The Undefeated” is working on a story on the Laurinburg Institute program that played a key role in many schools integrating their programs across the country.

The program that has produced 14 eventual NBA players, among them Hall of Famers Sam Jones and Charlie Scott and No. 1 overall pick Jimmy Walker, is being researched for a story on its role in integrating many schools.

A private African-American boarding school, Laurinburg Institute opened in 1904 and was run by the McDuffie family. The school provided industrial training and education to African-American students and also had begun developing into a basketball power when head master Frank McDuffie – the son of husband-and-wife founders Emmanuel and Tinny McDuffie – was coaching the team.

The Tigers played in four state championship games in the old African-American North Carolina Athletic Conference from 1947 to 1954 – with two titles.

In the 1964-65 season, Laurence “Sonny” Johnson was like many of Laurinburg’s basketball players who were New Yorkers who had come to the school to get their academics in line to attend colleges all across the country.

When Johnson came to Laurinburg Institute, among those he had previously played with or against were Walker and other basketball legends like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (he was known as Lew Alcindor in those days) and Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland.

The year then-Gardner-Webb coach Eddie Holbrook was recruiting Johnson, Laurinburg Institute had arguably its best team in history as the legendary Earl “The Goat” Manigault, future Hall of Famer Scott (who integrated the University of North Carolina’s program) and future Wake Forest standout Charlie Davis were among Johnson’s teammates. (Scott referenced Johnson and their time at Laurinburg Institute during his 2018 Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame speech.)

Johnson averaged 16.0 points and 3.4 rebounds per game for Gardner-Webb in the 1966-67 season as the Bulldogs went 25-5 overall and 11-1 in conference play before winning a third straight Western Carolinas Junior College Conference tournament title and second straight Region X runner-up finish.

Even after Johnson chose to leave the program following the 1966-67 season, his parting gift may have been the best ever given to Gardner-Webb, as he helped convince incoming African-American recruits Artis Gilmore and Ernie Fleming that Gardner-Webb was a good place for them.

Gilmore went on to become a NJCAA and NCAA All-American, an ABA and NBA All-Star and Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer.

“The Undefeated is trying to get photos and stories to do a documentary on the Laurinburg Institute and all of those who played there,” Johnson said. “The group I was involved with helped open the door for a lot of kids to play college basketball.”