The Big O
Last year, Disney released "Glory Road," about the victory of Texas Western and its all-black starting five over all-white Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championship game.
In 1955, more than a decade before Texas Western beat Kentucky, all-black Crispus Attucks High School broke through to win the state title in basketball-mad Indiana. Behind its star player, Oscar Robertson, Crispus Attucks repeated the trick in 1956. (The film "Hoosiers" is based on the exploits of Milan High, which won the state title in 1954.)
Now, filmmaker Betsy Blankenbaker has produced "Something to Cheer About," a documentary about Crispus Attucks' historic hoop wins. The film opens in limited release on Friday; it's scheduled for a week-long run at Laemmle's Grande 4 in downtown L.A.
I spoke with Blankenbaker from her home-base in Miami.
LA Observed: How did you get interested in this subject?
Betsy Blankenbaker: My father was best friends with the coach at Crispus Attucks, Ray Crowe, and I grew up knowing the players, the coach, and the story. When the movie "Hoosiers" came out, I thought it was a great, feel-good movie, but I couldn’t understand why they didn’t do the Attucks story. That's an even better story. I thought, "Some day, someone's going to make this film," and I kept waiting and waiting.
After my father died, I went out to visit Mr. Crowe. I realized that he was getting quite old, and if I didn't start making the film, an important part of history was going to be lost. I started in 2000 and finished a pretty final version in 2003 that Mr. Crowe was able to see. The last four years, I spent raising money for archival footage and a soundtrack and racking up credit-card debt.
LAO: How segregated was Indiana after World War II?
BB: The heart of the Ku Klux Klan was in Indiana during the 1940s and 1950s. The school in the film, Crispus Attucks, was founded by the Klan to segregate blacks from whites. The Klan helped build Attucks because they didn't want their children going to school with black students. So, I love the irony of it that the school the Klan built to segregate blacks ended up rising above everybody else.
LAO: We've heard a lot about Texas Western's victory in 1966: why was Crispus Attucks' victory so important?
BB: The players there helped to integrate the sport. Not just in high school: some of these players went on to integrate college athletics. Beyond that, their games brought blacks and whites together for the first time. A lot of white people hadn't had the experience of being around black people. So, when fans started coming together, they're not only coming together to watch sports, but they're accepting these athletes – not just as black athletes, but as athletes. I had more white people in their 60s and 70s come up to me and say, "We used to love to see Attucks play – they were so incredible."
LAO: In his autobiography, Oscar Robertson wrote that the team didn't get a victory parade in Indianapolis after they won the title. Is that true?
BB: Two years in a row they didn't get a victory parade. The year before they won, which was the year Milan won, people lined the roads to see the players. Downtown Indianapolis was shut off, and everybody stood around this beautiful circle they have downtown and cheered the team on. They did this every year, but when Attucks won they decided not to do it there -- even though they were the first team from Indianapolis to win the state title. They moved it to the black community because they felt there'd be trouble.
LAO: There've been several excellent documentaries about high school basketball, including "Hoop Dreams," "The Heart of the Game," and "Through the Fire." What makes these stories so compelling and were you inspired by these docs?
BB: Any story of overcoming adversity can be inspirational for all of us. Even though they seem to be the same story, they're all different. And, I think it's important that they all be told.
The documentaries that really inspired me were Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls" and "When We Were Kings" [about Muhammad Ali's fight against George Foreman in Zaire]. Those were defining for me about the power of documentaries.
LAO: The poster for "Something to Cheer About" shows Oscar Robertson leaping high in the air: was that image from his high school days or from college?
BB: The photo is actually from his college career [at the Univ. of Cincinnati]. I had used a team photo [from Crispus Attucks] for my poster, but when the distributor bought it, they chose that one. It's a team story, but we're also trying to sell a film, and that's an amazing photo. People really identify with it.
LAO: Why didn't Robertson go to Indiana University?
BB: Because the coach at Indiana University [Branch McCracken] was not known to put black players on the court. So, Oscar went where he felt comfortable.
LAO: What was it like to work with Oscar Robertson?
BB: I had known him since I was a little girl. I thought it was important to have him attached to the film because it's his story and it's his team's story. He was a little hesitant to give me the rights as a filmmaker, just because it's such an important story. But he's been very supportive of the film, and today we're working together on the feature film.
LAO: So, you have plans to turn the doc into a feature film?
BB: I've been developing the film for eight years. It's a combination of getting the right actor attached and finding funding. I've gone through that process three or four times already, so I think the documentary will help put that deal in place.