IN EARLY 1955 the basketball team from Indianapolis's Crispus Attucks High, a school created by segregation, lost to all-white Connersville High 58--57. The next day coach Ray Crowe told his players, who included a young Oscar Robertson, that not one of them was guaranteed a starting position. "From then on, we never lost another game," recalls guard Bill Hampton. A month later the Tigers became the first all-black team to win a state hoops championship. Over the next year they won 45 straight, an Indiana record that stood until last fall.
The Tigers and their legacy are celebrated in Something to Cheer About, a moving documentary that opens in theaters on April 27. Written and directed by Betsy Blankenbaker, whose father and Crowe were friends, Something is a one-hour love letter detailing how the Attucks team succeeded on the court while enduring the racism of the times off it.
At times the film's reverence for its subjects is a disservice; the background piano music is sometimes too somber for a squad that was, as Indiana senator Richard Lugar says on-screen, all "fluid motion" and "a breakthrough" in Hoosier basketball. But what Something lacks in pizzazz, it makes up for in the pleasure of hearing the players share their memories. Robertson and Coach Crowe, who died shortly after the film was completed, receive most of the credit for the Tigers' success. "Whatever we needed, [Robertson] would provide," says Willie Merriweather, who went on to be an All-America forward at Purdue. Future Harlem Globetrotter Cleveland Harp says that Crowe, who coached the Tigers from 1950 to '57, changed a "one-dimensional" team into a squad that played "a freer style."
But Crowe's greatest accomplishment was teaching his players how to deal with racism. According to his daughter Betty, Crowe warned the Tigers that "the referees are going to be against you. So don't look at me when you get a bad call. Keep putting the ball in the basket. The team that puts the ball in the basket most wins the game. We go in, we get the first 10 points for the referee. And then we start playing."