The thing I love most about writing a book is the research. To me, the research is like mining for gold. Occasionally, you come across a nugget as good as gold. That happened in the book I just released, I’m Not Irish – The Incredible Journey of Wilson Fitzpatrick.
Wilson Fitzpatrick is 86 years old. He is in great health and living in Boulder, Colorado. I went out this past summer to interview Wilson. One story he told me was an encounter with one of the greatest basketball players to ever live, Oscar Robertson.
The Big O as he was known, was voted one of the best 50 NBA players of all-time. During his first five years in the NBA, the Big O averaged a triple-double. Last year, Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder averaged a triple-double. It took 57 years for someone to match what the Big O did five straight years.
Oscar Robertson was born in the south but had moved to Indianapolis by the time he entered high school. He played at a basketball rich and all-black high school. Its name was Crispus Attucks High School. Crispus Attucks was the first man killed in the Revolutionary War. He also was African American.
When Oscar was a sophomore at Crispus Attucks, his team was beaten in the quarterfinal round of the Indiana State Tournament. The team to beat them was Milan High School. That was the team played in the movie Hoosiers. One of the Big O’s teammates that year was freshman, Albert Maxey.
In 1958, Albert Maxey was playing on the University of Nebraska freshmen team. Herschell Walker, another player from Indianapolis, was a sophomore on the Nebraska varsity team. They were joined by one other black basketball player, Wilson Fitzpatrick. The three Cornhuskers became best friends. Both Maxey and Turner call the older Wilson their mentor. Both told me they would not have stayed at Nebraska if it were not for Wilson.
In 1958, Nebraska had a memorable basketball season. However, it wasn’t good enough to make the NCAA Tournament that consisted of only 24 teams. Four regions had six teams. One team would emerge from each region.
The NCAA Midwest Regional Tournament was held in Lawrence, Kansas that year. In the first-round game, Big 8 powerhouse, Kansas State, would face the University of Cincinnati. Kansas State was led by All American, Bob Boozer. Cincinnati had a star of their own. His name was Oscar Robertson, a sophomore.
Wilson, Albert and Herschell all piled into Wilson’s car and drove to Lawrence for Cincinnati’s first-round game. Oscar scored 30 points, but it wasn’t enough as Kansas State advanced in overtime to the regional finals. After the game, Albert and Herschell went to the team hotel to talk to Albert. Wilson was tagging along.
Albert and Herschell talked the Big O to go with them to Kansas City. That was Wilson’s old stomping grounds. Wilson took them to a jazz club in the famous jazz district of Kansas City on Vine Street.
As Wilson tells the story, the Big O was immediately recognized when he walked into the jazz club. The spotlight went on the four young African Americans. Everyone assumed the other three were Oscar’s Cincinnati teammates. Everyone had a great time.
When they returned Oscar to his hotel in Lawrence, Albert and Herschell said their goodbyes to Oscar and got in the car to return to Lincoln. Wilson, who hardly knew Oscar, rolled down the window to give Oscar some parting advice.
“Why do you pass the ball to players that can’t even catch it?” Wilson asked. “Shoot the ball.” The Big O just turned and walked away. As Wilson was backing the car out of the parking spot, he heard a knock on his window. The Big O had come back.
“Arkansas may beat us tomorrow,” Oscar said, “but it won’t be because I didn’t shoot the ball.” Oscar turned and went into the hotel.
The next day, the Big O kept his promise. He scored a regional record 56 points in a blow out win over the Razorbacks. Back in 1958, the regional tournament played a third-place game.
Did Oscar follow Wilson’s advice that day? That’s one nugget of research you’ll have to figure out on your own.