Frightfully poor and backward a half-century ago, the state of Mississippi was a racial battleground.
Coming out of the 1950s, it was 45 percent black with only 5 percent registered to vote. It would soon be the site of sit-ins and marches, violence and arrests, lynchings and beatings, not to mention bombings and assassinations (Medgar Evers qualified on both counts).
If you were black and wandered into a white Mississippi community, or if white and in a black neighborhood, safety was a concern.
The Ku Klux Klan was very much in evidence.
So it was that Mississippi State's 1959-61-62 Southeastern Conference basketball champions declined NCAA invitations because of an unwritten law that forbade the Bulldogs from competing against integrated teams. And when they finally participated in March Madness in 1963, they did it by narrowly outrunning Sen. Billy Mitts' injunction that would have prevented them from leaving the state. While coach Babe McCarthy and athletic director Wade Walker drove away as a decoy, the team slipped to the Starksville Airport and flew to East Lansing, Mich., where the Bulldogs lost a 61-51 game against predominantly black Chicago Loyola, the eventual national champion.
It was in this atmosphere that a youthful Lou Henson began to build his basketball coaching reputation.
No, Henson didn't coach in Mississippi, but he used it as his favorite recruiting ground because, in his words, "There were a lot of athletes there, and we didn't have to go up against Mississippi and Mississippi State."
On to the college level
Henson, who had no black teammates during his playing days at New Mexico State, ran a fully integrated high school program that won three state championships at Las Cruces. When he received an offer to take over a troubled program at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas, in 1962, he hesitated.
Said Henson: "I had an offer to join Bob King as an assistant at New Mexico. So when I was contacted by Hardin-Simmons, I said no. But eventually I agreed to meet with the board, and I told them I'd consider it if they would allow me to integrate the team. I told them there was no way we could be successful if we couldn't recruit black players. The board met the next morning and agreed, and I took the job.
"I had a recruiting budget of $1,000 and a Volkswagen with a Texas license which, with the marches and all in Mississippi, wasn't good. It was a hassle just to get them to sell me gas. And I stayed overnight with coaches just to be safe."
Henson struck Mississippi gold immediately, landing several prospects, including high-scoring Nate Madkins, who later tallied 54 points in a single game.
During Henson's first practice in Abilene, a longtime member of the department watched practice for about 10 seconds and told him the next day, "I can't stand to watch our players with them."
Racial feelings were that extreme, even in Abilene. And when Henson took his team on the road, there were restaurants in Texas that would not serve them.
"We took sack lunches and went to drive-ins," said Henson. "We lost eight of our first nine games, but we improved. And in the last three years, we had good teams (20-6, 17-8 and 20-6)."
Hardin-Simmons had never won 20 games previously. That led Henson back to his alma mater, where he continued to use Mississippi as a recruiting ground in the late 1960s.
"The previous coach (Jim McGregor) at New Mexico State had left the team in the middle of the season," said Henson. "We had no players. And Williams Gym was a rundown place that seated 1,800 on concrete bleachers.
"When I got there, it was dusty and sandy from the windows being left open. I almost left before I started, but (wife) Mary reminded me that 'You accepted,' so overnight I decided to stay."
New Mexico State and Illinois
Texas-El Paso, which is now attached to Las Cruces via the Lou Henson Highway, was the darling of the nation, having shocked Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team in the 1966 NCAA finals. The Miners had most of their star players returning.
Somehow, Henson pieced together a Miracle Midget lineup (6-2 forwards, a 6-5 center) that beat UTEP twice and split with New Mexico. A year later, Sam Lacey from Indianola, Miss., and Jimmy Collins from Syracuse moved into a lineup that posted consecutive 23-6, 24-5 and 27-3 records, contributed to a nine-game win streak over Texas-El Paso, and lost to John Wooden's great UCLA champions all three years in the NCAA tournament, the last year in the Final Four.
"When I went to Indianola, I stayed with the coach, Andrew Brown," Henson recalled. "Lacey was about 6-8 and 180 when I met him, and came without ever seeing the campus. The same was true of Collins. He had been recommended to me at Hardin-Simmons, but I didn't take him the first time. He rode a bus for four days to join us.
"And then there was Charlie Criss. The coach (in Yonkers, N.Y.) said I could check him out if I didn't measure him. He was no more than 5-6 and he had no grades. So we put him in Hobbs Junior College, and he joined us later. Charlie was a battler and made it to the NBA eventually."
For all his success at New Mexico State, Henson's problems with race relations were not over. When he took the Illinois job, the program was just one year removed from having no black squad members. The 1974 club had a crack guard in Duke transfer Jeff Dawson, but was composed mostly of area players: Brad Farnham and Otho Tucker (injured) from Paris, Rick Schmidt from Royal, Dennis Graff from Gibson City, Donn Deputy from Pekin and Tim Bushell from Lincoln.
In his lone year at Illinois, coach Gene Bartow and recruiter Tony Yates changed that with Audie Matthews from Bloom, Rich Adams from Cincinnati and junior college transfers Mike Washington and Nate Williams. But it was left to Henson to crack the talent-laden Chicago Public League when he arrived in Champaign in 1975. Henson had no idea how difficult it would be.
"It wasn't just the Public League," said Henson. "We had a major problem with veteran coaches throughout the state. They controlled the state, and they just didn't like the University of Illinois.
"Nobody was supportive. So we met as a staff and decided to hit 400 schools personally, whether they had players or not. We wanted to get to know the coaches."
The breakthrough came with Levi Cobb, a Morgan Park star, but Henson was obliged to fight through a period where the state's blue-chip players, black and white, tended to look elsewhere – Larry Williams to Louisville, Jay Shidler to Kentucky, Isiah Thomas and Glen Grunwald to Indiana, Doc Rivers to Marquette, Russell Cross to Purdue.
Henson and Yates landed a big fish in Eddie Johnson from Westinghouse, though his running mate, Mark Aguirre, joined the then-potent forces at DePaul. Johnson was a breakthrough, and the strong relationships with King coach Sonny Cox (Efrem Winters, Marcus Liberty) and Simeon coach Bob Hambric (Nick Anderson, Deon Thomas) kept the Illini rolling through the 1980s and well into the 1990s.
It took a while, but Henson cleared the racial divide and, while recruiting in Chicago is forever challenging, he created better circumstances for the coaches who followed.