You are currently viewing The backstory to two NC State athletes and Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers saving the 1958 Dixie Classic

The backstory to two NC State athletes and Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers saving the 1958 Dixie Classic

PHOTO: Jim King (R) and Bob Kennel (seated) met me at the Delta Sigma Phi house before a recent NC State basketball game they attended. I set up an empty chair at the dining table to represent the seat for Oscar Robertson or Johnny Green as King reenacted serving them 65 winters ago. The fraternity housed the Cincinnati and Michigan State teams when the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel downtown wouldn’t accept their Black players due to segregation.

By TOM SHANAHAN

RALEIGH — Sometimes we need to step back for another look at the history accepted in the mainstream media. Historiography, how history is written, often slants, omits, misinterprets or overlooks facts.

A good example is revisiting the 1958 Dixie Classic, NC State basketball coach Everett Case’s baby. An overlooked backstory sheds new light on viewing the segregated South as monolithic. There were good people willing to do the right thing.

The Dixie Classic from 1949 to 1960 matched the Big Four – NC State, North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest – with four schools invited from across the country. Case grew the event into the South’s premier holiday hoop tournament at the South’s basketball shrine, Reynolds Coliseum on NC State’s campus.

In 1958, Case hit the jackpot with a field that included No. 2-ranked Cincinnati, No. 4 North Carolina, No. 5 NC State and No. 7 Michigan State. The star power featured Cincinnati junior Oscar Robertson, the reigning national player of the year, and Michigan State’s Johnny Green, an All-American senior. Green was familiar to the Tar Heel state from the 1957 Final Four when UNC’s national champions defeated Michigan State in the Final Four semifinal.

But Case, a transplanted southerner from Indiana, underestimated Jim Crow’s segregated laws and customs. Management at the Sir Walter Raleigh Hotel, the downtown venue known for hosting and pampering the players, informed Case it didn’t care that Robertson and Green were basketball royalty. They only saw their black skin color – the U.S. Constitution or not.

Suddenly, Case was in damage control to save his tournament. For help, he turned to a pair of NC State athletes who also were Delta Sigma Phi fraternity brothers, Jim King and Bob Kennel.

The same Jim King, now 84 and living in the Charlotte area, whose name is on NC State football’s Close-King Indoor Practice Facility. The same Bob Kennel, now 87 and living in Cary, long active supporting NC State alumni and athletic programs.

PHOTO: Jim King donated one of the lead gifts for NC State football’s indoor practice facility.

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If not for their open-minded attitudes that defied their youthful times in the 1950s, Cincinnati and Michigan State might have stayed home.

Although Kennel had graduated in the spring of 1958, Case knew him from when he played on the freshman basketball team prior to focusing on his varsity football and baseball careers. He remembered Kennel had been President of the Delta Sigma Phi on Tryon Road. The house, of course, was largely vacant for the holiday break.

“Case wanted to know if Cincinnati and Michigan State could stay in our house,” recalled Kennel.

Kennel contacted King. As it turned out, King had plans to stay in town for the holidays to work the Dixie Classic as a program vendor.

“That guaranteed I could get in the building,” King explained. “The Dixie Classic was a tough ticket.”

King assured Case he’d prepare the house to welcome the two teams.

“I was doing back flips when I heard Oscar Roberston and Johnny Green were staying at our place,” King said. “I made sure everything was nice. We had new table cloths set out for each meal. We wanted everything to be nice for them. We had a chef that prepared our meals and a house mother. I remember talking to Oscar and Johnny. I think they enjoyed staying at our place.”

This was long before college basketball’s current one-and-done era. All-American players in their junior and senior year commanded far more national name recognition than today’s top-ranked teams with an NBA-bound freshman.

King also helped serve meals.

Kennel unfailingly likes to say, “King bowed to Oscar as he served him.”

King doesn’t deny it.

“I was amazed how muscular he was,” King said.

PHOTO: The Delta Sigma Phi Delta fraternity house on Tryon Road in Raleigh. The building opened in 1931 as the 33-room Carolina Pines Hotel.

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But the Jim Crow threat to the tournament wasn’t known in real time because the mainstream sports media avoided race into the late 1960s. Later it came out Robertson complained about the racial taunts from some fans and physical abuse from some opponents he endured as referees looked the other way. He wrote about it in his 2010 book, “The Big O, My Life, My Times, My Game.” His treatment also wasn’t reported in real time.

I quoted Green in my 2014 book, “RAYE OF LIGHT, Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the Integration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans.” Raye was from Fayetteville, an hour south of Raleigh, and in 1958 he was an eight-grader enthralled with Robertson’s proximity for three days. Raye went on to his own fame as the South’s first Black quarterback to win a national title – a fact overlooked by history by the same negligent 1960s sports media until my research was recognized by the National Football Foundation in a newsletter.

Green told me on Page 52, “I took a certain amount of punishment, but Oscar was the national player of the year. He was the target. He was really punished. One play he went up for a jump shot and was pushed so hard he fell into the stands. I just tried to move on to the next play, but Oscar was bitter. We used to talk about the Dixie Classic when we would see each other over the years.”

But if the games at Reynolds angered Robertson, the return to Delta Sigma Phi provided a safe haven that lived up to the Declaration of Independence.

Green’s recent death prompted me to revisit the untold story since I had gotten to know Kennel through the Raleigh Sports Club. Although the role of the fraternity emerged years later for housing Cincinnati and Michigan State, the full story of Case finding a quick solution added an untold dimension. Case was fortunate on short notice to track down Kennel, who was lucky to quickly get the message to King. And most importantly, King didn’t have to upend his holiday break to prepare the fraternity house.

The tournament, which drew 70,000 fans over three days, ended with NC State defeating Michigan State in the final, 70-61. NC State’s John Richter, an All-American center and Delta Sigma Phi brother, was named the Most Valuable Player. Richter, who was from Philadelphia, went on to play with the Boston Celtics.

Robertson, who is now 85, has apparently remained bitter. When I tried to call him for my 2014 book’s research, his representative declined my request for an interview.

With the new insight I gained from King and Kennel, I recently tried to call Green to ask him more about the Delta Sigma Phi experience. I was told he wasn’t feeling well. At his age, I feared what that meant. He died on November 17 at 89.

Johnny Green was a gentleman and businessman who made his fortune outside of basketball. He owned one of the nation’s busiest McDonald’s restaurants located near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. He had told me in the past how honored he felt when MSU coach Tom Izzo invited him back to campus and named the Spartans’ rebounding award for him.

PHOTO: I met at the Delta Sigma Phi House dining room for the photo session. L-R: The author, Jim King, Bob Kennel and Lyle Gardner, who serves on the board of NC State’s Golden Grads Forever and Delta Sigma Phi corporation board.

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His death meant I missed a chance to uncover more of the untold history about people in the South doing the right thing. What did he remember about staying at the fraternity house? It’s important to understand that throughout the Civil Rights movement Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often cited “the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say wait on time.” MLK would have admired Everett Case, Bob Kennel, Jim King and Delta Sigma Phi.

Kennel: “We didn’t think anything about it.”

King: “Their race was never a thought in my mind. I wasn’t raised that way.”

There’s always another untold backstory to history.

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Click here for my story on the 1962 Rose Bowl and Segregation awarded first place by the Football Writers Association of America. I tell untold stories on Michigan State’s leading role and the true pioneers of college football integration. Click here to read the summary as a first-place story.

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Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the 1ntegration of College Football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

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