Archdeacon: Recalling a national championship team — 50 years later

Bookended by National Guard troops marching across campus with bayonet-affixed rifles and tear gas canisters in November and five months later the entire student body left numb, angry and in tears over the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, the basketball season at Central State became an oasis for communal pride, much-needed escape and lots of joyous, rollicking fun.

It was 50 years ago and the 1967-68 Marauders team was the talk of small college basketball around the nation and a tough ticket back home.

“Everybody ate early on the evenings we played and then came straight to the gym or they wouldn’t get a seat,” Roy Hinton, the team’s 6-foot-8 center and leading scorer and rebounder said as he sat the living room of his Clayton home the other day.

“It wasn’t just all the kids from campus,” said Robert Moore, the team’s stellar 6-foot-3 guard who is now retired in Springfield after a career in education. “People from Xenia all came to our games, too. There were a lot of whites in the audience when we played. The place was always packed.”

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In the seasons right before this, one of the biggest attractions had been the pregame dunkfest the Marauders put on, said Hinton:

“We’d play this song by the Impressions – ‘We’re a Winner’ – and give ‘em a show.”

But in 1967, the NCAA and the NAIA, which sanctioned CSU games, banned dunks, in part because of the above-the-rim dominance Lew Alcindor, soon to be Kareem Abdul Jabbar, had brought to the game when he joined UCLA.

The stuffed shirts of basketball’s hierarchy may have banished the slam, but nothing deterred the crowds who flocked to what is now called Beacom-Lewis Gym. The Marauders started three players who were 6-foot-8, they had Clarence Lane, the lone holdover from the 1965 team that had gone 30-0 and won the NAIA title and they had a bevy of talented new freshmen players.

And that wasn’t the only draw.

“They used to play music and you could hear it outside. It was like going to a dance,” Allen Thigpen, a freshman guard on that team, said as he reminisced at his kitchen table in Xenia alongside his wife Gloria, who he met at CSU that season and married the following December.

“The place was jamming,” said Gloria. “We had the Marauderettes.”

“And the F-Troop Band,” Allen added. “All that made you want to play when the music got going and the kids were up in the stands going crazy. It was electric.”

Gloria nodded and smiled: “Everybody had to come see this unbelievable team.”

And the Marauders were unbelievable that year.

Although some of the early part of the season was curtailed by the “riot,” as the Thigpens called it, that eventually caused the CSU president to close the campus from just before Thanksgiving until after the New Year, the team picked up real steam in January, February and early March.

CSU topped 17 of those 20 opponents, holding them to an average of just 55 points a game, lowest in the nation.

The postseason began with two games in the District 22 Tournament, the first against Defiance, which took the Marauders into overtime before being dispatched.

Once the Marauders got to the 32-team NAIA national tournament in Kansas City, they needed to win five games in six days to take the crown.

Besides skilled players and an astute coach in Bill Lucas, the Marauders had a secret weapon.

They were in great shape.

Lucas was obsessed with fitness.

“He was carried away with it,” laughed Moore. “For most of the month of September, all we did was run the Wilberforce-Clifton Road behind campus. We ran 16 miles a day, five days a week.”

“We’d keep making a five-mile loop on the road,” Thigpen remembered. “Then we’d run the steps in the football stadium.”

CSU won the first four games of the national tournament – against Milliken, Valdosta State, Central Washington State and Westminster (Pa.) College – by an average of 16 points. Each night a different player starred.

In the final, the Marauders met Fairmont State, a West Virginia team they already had beaten early in the season. With 29 seconds left and CSU leading by a point, Fairmont had the ball.

Twice in those waning seconds, the Marauders forced a turnover and each time they were fouled and added a free throw.

Hinton finished with a game-high 17 points and 13 rebounds. He ended up the top rebounder in the tournament and he, Lane and Chris Buchanan each received all-tournament recognition.

“I’ll never forget it, when they handed us our national championship trophy, it was in two pieces,” Thigpen said. “They broke it before they gave it to us.”

Yet that’s not be the most indelible of his postgame memories.

“We stayed at the Continental Hotel and the Playboy Club was all the way upstairs,” Thigpen grinned. “The Playboy Bunnies lived on all the floors and we’d just sit there and watch ‘em.

“Well, after the game, me and Roy thought we’d go upstairs to the Playboy Club. We just got there and here comes Coach Lucas and Coach Ward (assistant Norman Ward).

“They took one look at us and said, ‘You get back on that elevator and go back downstairs.’

“All I know is that they didn’t follow us down.”

‘This may be the place for me’

Thigpen grew up in Alliance, one of 12 kids who was raised by his mom and later a step dad, too.

“I was the first one in our family to go to college and it was a big thing for us,” he said.

Hinton, who is from Saginaw, Michigan, and Moore, a product of Gary, Indiana, both said they were the first in their families to go to college, too.

Each of them learned about CSU through word of mouth.

Coach Lucas’s son was a teacher of Moore’s at Froebel High School.

After high school graduation, Hinton said he planned to work at a foundry and “make some money.” But then Jerome Tillman, who’s also from Saginaw and was part of CSU’s 30-0 team, convinced Lucas to recruit him.

Up in Alliance, Thigpen said he ran into a guy who played football at CSU:

“We saw each other at a dance and he said, ‘Why don’t you come and check the school out. You are gonna love it.’”

Back then CSU had a vibrant campus with 2,700 students. And that’s just what Thigpen found:

“Coach met me in the cafeteria and we sat and talked. I started meeting some of the students and I saw a lot of pretty girls and I said to myself, ‘This may be the place for me!’

“I went back home, talked to my mom and said, ‘I’ve made up my mind. I want to go to Central State University.’”

Hinton, who had gone to an integrated school in Saginaw, felt something special going to a historically -black university (HBCU):

“I was in awe of all the people there and we were all the same color. It was eye opening and it was just what I needed.

“When I came to Central, I was an introvert. I grew there and began to appreciate who I was. It gave me an identity I had never paid attention to. It made me real proud of who I was and where I’d come from. I learned about my heritage, my history. I learned about myself.”

As for the basketball, after going 30-0 and winning the NAIA crown, the Marauders graduated players and finished the 1966-67 season at 12-14.

The next year Lucas added several freshmen, including Sterling Quant, a 6-foot-8 standout from Nassau, Bahamas.

But early in the season, Quant severely burned his foot in an accident with a heat lamp in his room and never came back full force that season.

“I think he fell asleep and it burned him,” Thigpen said.

“You can’t get the kid out of the Bahamas,” Moore said with half-laugh. “He didn’t understand the idea of winter up here.”

As the young players tried to adjust to college, the entire team found it wasn’t immune to the volatile times beyond their small campus surrounded by the farmland and woods of Greene County.

The turbulence of 1968 reached all across America.

It was the deadliest year of the Vietnam War. The Vietcong and North Vietnamese regulars launched the Tet Offensive and 16,592 American soldiers were killed in ‘68. In the My Lai Massacre up to 500 unarmed Vietnamese men, women and children were killed by U.S. Army troops.

With each incident America became more divided over the war and unrest soon swept many college campuses.

Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis in April and riots followed in many American cities. Two months later Democratic presidential candidate, Bobby Kennedy, was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Muhammad Ali refused induction into Army and was stripped of his heavyweight crown. U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave their black-gloved salute on the medal podium at the Mexico Olympics and Sports Illustrated ran a July 15 cover that proclaimed: “The Angry Black Athlete.”

Meanwhile, the violence against blacks continued. Three South Carolina State students were killed and 27 were injured when police shot into a group of demonstrators. A church parsonage was bombed in Laurel, Mississippi.

The black power movement grew and that produced more confrontations around the country, many of them deadly, as well.

It was against that kind of backdrop that the two days of confrontation began at CSU in November of 1967. An expelled student and 50 supporters barricaded themselves in Wesley Hall and soon drew a crowd of students outside. When the Greene County sheriff and Ohio Highway Patrol officers lost control of the situation, the Guard was called in.

“We didn’t know what was going on except that our school was surrounded,” Thigpen said. “We were chased to our rooms and then they came in made us sit on the floor while they searched for guns and stuff, I guess.”

As Moore remembered it: “We understood it was very dangerous because there had been kids killed on other campuses. We were worried.”

According to newspaper reports, 94 people were arrested and taken to Xenia, where a couple of hundred Antioch students protested outside the jail. Back at CSU, President Harry Groves closed the campus down.

Although the CSU players were secluded from much of this, they were not immune to the racial strife in the nation.

“We played a game in West Virginia and the fans there called us every name under the sun,” Thigpen said. “When we won, they began throwing stuff at us. Coach didn’t want us to get in fights, so he rushed us onto the bus.”

Hinton said the Marauders had one surefire comeback for those kinds of taunts:

“You’d just go in there and beat them. That was the biggest cure all there was. Beat ‘em soundly.”

‘I love the place’

After college, a few of the players got looks from the pros.

Moore was drafted by the NBA-expansion Buffalo Braves, went through preseason drills and then came back to Springfield to begin a teaching career that would eventually see him become the assistant state superintendent and later the Dean of the College of Education at CSU.

Hinton and and the late Clarence Lane had tryouts with the ABA Denver Rockets and made it to the last cut.

Returning to Dayton, Hinton got a job at the Boys and Girls Club and then worked 42 years as a recreation therapist and supervisor at the VA Medical Center. Retired, he now teaches ceramics and leather tooling at the Trotwood YMCA and, as an avid gardener, runs the big gardening project at the VA each year.

Thigpen taught industrial arts at Keifer Junior High in Springfield. Dr. Joe Morris is a professor at Western Michigan University. Quant is an attorney in the Bahamas. Paul Bullard is a musician in Cleveland.

Thigpen talks to Hinton by phone and every now and then meets Moore at Sid’s Barber Shop in Xenia. On occasion he chats with some of the current Central State players who get their hair cut there.

Although the school displays a plaque and banner recognizing the 1965 and 1968 teams, their trophies are in the Hall of Fame room at the gym and the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame inducted both teams a decade ago, the current players don’t know much about their legacy.

And yet they run up and down the court, quite literally, thanks to a contribution from that past.

“I decided to try to raise enough money before this season to get the team new shoes,” Hinton said. “I sent out a letter to 100 people I knew and we raised $3,000. We got the players two pairs of shoes each and a projector for the program.”

Like several of the former players, he feels a special affinity for the school that so lifted him when he was a young, awestruck kid just out of Saginaw.

Moore feels the same: “I love the place. And that Saturday night when we won the tournament, I remember thinking: ‘We’re forever going to be in the history books around school.’”

And that’s not all he got out of that championship season.

That same year he met Mary Gassaway in the CSU library. Today, she is his wife of 47 years.

“In ‘68 we won the title and I met the girl I was gonna marry,” he laughed.

“That was a great year for me. A great year.”

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