We manage our memories the best way we can, and for me that has always been a process of careful editing in which the hard parts are weeded out like something unwanted in the garden. But sitting with Shipley was bringing things back, such as a particularly hot summer day some 45 years earlier when police were summoned to the public pool at the white park in Opelousas after three young black men walked up to the counter, plunked down 15 cents each and asked to be let in.
I must've been six or seven years old when it happened. I was swimming in the shallow end of the pool, and suddenly the old lady who ran the place started blowing her whistle and yelling for everybody to get out of the water. We were hysterical, slipping and falling on top of each other as we scrambled for the safety of the dressing rooms. The way we carried on, you'd have thought the head of Godzilla had appeared in the sky above the trees. The girls went to one side of the building, the boys to the other. I heard the police sirens. Then I heard the screams of the troublemakers when the police subdued them with clubs and handcuffs and dragged them away.
Like everybody else, I whistled and applauded when we were allowed to go back in the water. What is wrong with those people? I wondered then. They have their own pool in their own park on the north side of town. How come they need to swim in our pool?
I'm all carved to pieces," Shipley was saying to me. He'd suffered two heart attacks 25 years before, and in the last year he'd had surgery for an aortic aneurysm that put him in the hospital for seven weeks. His fingers moved up to the buttons of his shirt, as if he meant to open it and show me his scars, but finally he thought better of it.
"You don't dye your hair, do you?" I said.
"I've been accused of that," he replied. "I still got a little red in it."
"You'd wear plaid sport coats and Sansabelt slacks to the games."
"That's right," he said. "I did all my own shopping. And I liked a white shirt and a necktie. You wouldn't catch me wearing the same shirt two nights in a row, like some coaches were known to do."
Shipley's former players still argue that his demise as a coach was punishment for standing up to segregationists and defying an unwritten law keeping blacks and whites from playing together. "Coach Shipley gave up his life for us," says Marvin Winkler, one of the first three black players at USL. "They went after him because he was the forefather—the first to walk through the door. He did it even though they kept telling him, 'No, we're not going to integrate yet,' and he said, 'Yes, we are. I don't care what you say. I'm going to get them, I'm going to sign them, and I'm going to see to it that they come to school here.'"
LSU, the state's flagship university, wouldn't sign its first black player until 1971, five years after Shipley broke the color barrier at USL. "You have to understand, when you're winning with black ballplayers, and you're the first one to win with black ballplayers, not everybody is going to take kindly to you," says Elvin Ivory, another in the first group of African-Americans to play at USL. "Coach Shipley wasn't just going against the smaller colleges in the state, he was going against LSU too. He suddenly found himself dealing with something he had no control over, because it wasn't just about basketball anymore.