What do you say to a guy who was on the losing side of three of the most celebrated battles in basketball history?
How about Congratulations?
Philip Raisor, Ph.D., is the author of five books and a slew of scholarly articles, a professor emeritus at Old Dominion University, proud builder of a half-century academic career, busy writer and speaker at the two-handed set shot age of 76.
So he’s not at all bothered to get a call at his home in Virginia Beach -– from Indiana, in March –- about three games of hoops that broke his young heart during the 1950s.
Not that his heart bears any scar tissue from those events or his memory much room for them. But he is happy to challenge the conventional memory.
In 1954, Raisor was a sophomore guard on the Muncie Central High School team that lost on a last-second shot to tiny Milan, enshrining one-class Indiana basketball for many years and inspiring the film Hoosiers.
In 1955, also at the buzzer, Raisor’s Bearcats lost in the Semistate to Oscar Robertson’s Crispus Attucks team, which went on to win the first of the all-black high school’s three state titles.
In 1957, Raisor was on a basketball scholarship at the University of Kansas (watching, because freshmen were ineligible then) when the Jayhawks were upset by North Carolina despite the presence of Wilt Chamberlain, perhaps the most dominating college basketball player of all time.
In poetry and prose, Raisor has written about all those dramas. His books include Hoosiers: The Poems, and Outside Shooter, a retrospective on the game as he witnessed it at midcentury. But his interest has been literary -- sport as metaphor -- and reportorial with basketball in the context of region, race and class. Reminiscence about the shot that might have gone in or might have missed -- not so much.
Frankly, folks, he finds a lot of hype in Hoosier Hysteria. And he’ll tell you, the Milan Miracle wasn’t really.
“(Milan stars) Ray Craft and Bobby Plump and I have met on different occasions, and we all know that was some manufacturing by you journalists. They were a much smaller school than we were, but it was not David and Goliath. Remember, Milan had been to the state final the year before. They were seniors. We had a couple of juniors and a couple of sophomores. I was the one who was in awe of the Fieldhouse. They’d seen it.”
Attucks the following year was another bitter defeat for a high school jock, but a gold mine of an experience for a future writer who would delve into the Klan-tainted origins of the iconic school, the excellence Attucks achieved under segregation and the often-ugly backlash its glorious basketball teams faced.
On to Lawrence, Kansas, like Indianapolis at that time, a city where custom, rather than law, decreed certain public accommodations off limits to African-Americans. Often asked what it was like to spend a season with Wilt, Raisor conveys not his athletic prowess or his presumed arrogance but rather his ultimatum.
As the story goes, Wilt learned quickly that people of his hue were expected to steer clear of certain restaurants and other accommodations. Just as quickly, Wilt went to the president of the university and declared that the color barriers would come down or he would take his coveted services elsewhere.
“Long before the civil rights movement hit full stride,” Raisor says, “he made a statement.”
The following year, Wilt turned pro and Raisor took his basketball talents and his new wife, Juanita, to Louisiana State University, where they met some sure-nuff segregation. They’d barely arrived when they nearly got busted for drinking out of a COLORED water fountain.
Raisor went on to earn a B.A. and M.A. at LSU and a doctorate at Kent State. He taught English at several universities and wrote voluminously on the likes of James Joyce, William Faulkner and Matthew Arnold. His oeuvre includes a critical study of the poet W.D. Snodgrass, Tuned and Under Tension.
The son of a teacher, always surrounded by books at home, Raisor says he loved reading and writing from an early age and savored his dual identity as a “jock/poet.” But it wasn’t until his academic career was well established that he turned to “my own writing” -- poetry especially -- in earnest. Sports figures strongly in his renderings of striving, disappointment and acceptance in an America that turns its lonely eyes to Bobby Plump and Wilt the Stilt.
“Sports is entertainment and I was all for that. I got to go out on the floor in front of 7,500 people and play the game. By the time I was a sophomore in college I was married and had a child and said ‘My goodness; there are more important things.’”
For a look at poet and nonfiction writer Philip Raisor’s poems, visit his website.