Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

July 3, 2011

Omaha Basketball's Race Pioneers

In 1968, five black starters led Omaha Central to the brink of a state title. Then racial tensions exploded. Steve Marantz tells their story.

Larry Fleisher

Towards the end of the 1960s, the country was at its explosive peak with the escalation of the Vietnam War, the rise of the civil-rights movement, and outbreaks of racial strife in several big cities. If any year was the peak of the peak, it was 1968, and in that year in Nebraska, Omaha Central High School's boys basketball team made history with its first all-black starting five. They were destined to win the state title until fate intervened—in the form of segregationist George Wallace's presidential campaign and its appearance in Omaha. Wallace's rally occurred at Omaha's Civic Auditorium—two blocks from Central High, close enough for students and the team to catch a glimpse of history. Though Wallace later denounced his views, the visit ignited a race riot and changed the lives of many.

Steve Marantz. Photo by Hank Shrier.
"I wrote it because it was unwritten and unlikely to be written by anybody else."

Steve Marantz. Photo by Hank Shrier.

Star Dwaine Dillard was among the protesters inside the auditorium at what became the first of several racial disturbances through the turbulent year that saw the slayings of Martin Luther King Jr. in April and Robert Kennedy in June.

Eventually the riots reached the streets of Omaha, sparked by the killing of a young black man by an off-duty white cop. The turbulence changed Dillard and ultimately the fate of the team for the tournament and afterwards.

Steve Marantz, a researcher for ESPN Content Development and the investigative show E:60 as well as a co-editor of sportsmediaguide.com, grew up in Omaha and has told the story of Central High's all-black starting five in the new book The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central: High School Basketball at the '68 Racial Divide. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Marantz explains how he got this book done, speculates about what might have happened if Wallace hadn't come to town, and reveals what he learned in his research that surprised him about the city he grew up in.

Gelf Magazine: What factors led you to decide to write this, and in which ways is the story relevant to our present society?

Steve Marantz: I wrote it because it was unwritten and unlikely to be written by anybody else, and because it had the requisite dramatic elements. It's relevant because history, sports, race, and growing up always are relevant.

Gelf Magazine: During the late 1960s, stories about racial tension in other cities such as Los Angeles, Detroit, and elsewhere are well documented. Does it seem like Omaha's issues kind of flew under the radar or were ignored as time moved on?

Steve Marantz: Of course. Omaha was under the radar of national media in 1968 because national media was fixated on where it was headquartered—on the coasts and in major cities. However, the key event in this story was covered by ABC and CBS Evening News in March 1968.

Gelf Magazine: What was behind the name "The Rhythm Boys" for the team? In the book, it seems to be a racial stereotype, but did the newspaper writer of that nickname intend it in that manner?

Steve Marantz: I don't think so, but I could be wrong. He was an older man—and perhaps he was naïve about racial sensitivity—but he probably was thinking of it as a description of the movement and flow of the starting five on the court.

Gelf Magazine: Omaha is known for the College World Series and being the birthplace of Bob Gibson, and Nebraska is known for all things Cornhuskers, particularly the football program. But what kind of sports market is Omaha?

Steve Marantz: A good one. People support the local teams, and are knowledgeable about sports on a national and international level. The absence of major-league teams creates a diversity of interest and passion that makes for a lot of fun at an Omaha sports bar.

Gelf Magazine: Could any of the players have gone on to prominence in college basketball and eventually the pros?

Steve Marantz: The 6'7" center, Dwaine Dillard, was All-State and rated among the top 15 high-school players in the country. Almost everybody considered him likely to play at a major college program and then the pros.

Gelf Magazine: The race riots had a big impact on the team. I won't spoil the book by revealing what that impact was. What, though, would have changed, if anything, for the players, especially Dwaine Dillard, if George Wallace's presidential campaign hadn't stopped in Omaha and ignited a race riot?

Steve Marantz: Interesting to speculate. The Rhythm Boys probably win the state championship. Dillard probably plays at a major college and goes high in the NBA draft. The students at Central High postpone their racial awakening until later.

Gelf Magazine: Going into the writing process, what personal recollections of the team and Omaha did you have during that time? And as your research and reporting uncovered the story detailed in the book, did it differ from your recollections?

Steve Marantz: All of the portraits I drew of administrators, faculty, players, and students began with my own recollections. Interviews and archived records added to my recollections, and usually added information far beyond what I knew. For instance, I did not know that the principal of the high school considered African-American students intellectually inferior, but his own written records show that he did.

Gelf Magazine: Growing up in Omaha, how much interaction if any did you have with the members of the basketball team or any of the other major people in the book?

Steve Marantz: Well, the two white guys on the team were among my close friends. As for the black players, I did not know them until I started at Central High and became a manager of the junior-varsity basketball team. I had attended all-white schools and lived in all-white neighborhoods, so Central High provided my first contact with blacks as peers.

Gelf Magazine: What was the most surprising thing uncovered during the process of researching and reporting?

Steve Marantz: The diaries of Vikki Dollis, a classmate, revealed to me a biracial romance with one of the black basketball players. I knew nothing of this at the time, and I could not have imagined the stress, pain, and pleasure of such a relationship if I had not read her diaries, which, by the way, were exceptional for a 16-year-old.

Gelf Magazine: How long did the process of getting the book completed actually take, from pitching the ideas to publishers to turning the information into words?

Steve Marantz: The whole process, start to publication, took two and a half years. I researched it for a year and then wrote up a proposal to Nebraska Press. After they accepted it, it took about six months to write. The edit process took another six months.

Gelf Magazine: How many people were interviewed for the book?

Steve Marantz: Several dozen.

Gelf Magazine: Who were among the toughest to track down?

Steve Marantz: A couple members of the team were the toughest. The high school foundation helped by putting a small announcement in a newsletter with my email.

Gelf Magazine: Having worked in Boston for the Globe and the Herald, what comparison, if any, can you draw from racism in Boston to what occurred in Omaha in 1968?

Steve Marantz: Boston had its own race riot in 1967, and then in the mid-'70s racial strife broke out again over court-ordered busing. Racial tension was similar in every city. It had to do with racism, frustration, anger, and fear.

Larry Fleisher

Larry Fleisher is a freelance writer based out of New York who has covered Major League Baseball, hockey, and pro and college basketball.







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Article by Larry Fleisher

Larry Fleisher is a freelance writer based out of New York who has covered Major League Baseball, hockey, and pro and college basketball.

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