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I'd heard he wasn't doing well, so I got on the phone and called him and arranged to meet him at last. Beryl Shipley, former basketball coach at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, lived just down the road from where I grew up. The city of Lafayette has plenty of fancy neighborhoods crowded with people who made fortunes in the oil patch, but Shipley's wasn't one of them. He and his wife, Dolores, occupied a small brick house on a street lined with many a small brick house.
We sat in the living room and looked past a picture window to the backyard. He wore glasses with huge lenses, gray slacks, and a checkered shirt with long sleeves buttoned at the wrist. He looked less like an old coach than an old farmer who'd harvested his last crop a long time ago.
They'd found cancer in his lungs and soon they'd find more in his brain, and by mid-April, eight months from this day, he'd be dead at age 84, his legacy too confused for even those who admired him to figure out. I told him how much I'd enjoyed watching his teams play when I was a boy, and how he'd been one of my heroes and still was. "Why, thank you," he said.
Louisiana has always been football country, with LSU engendering the most devotion, but for a while Shipley definitely had our attention. In the 1960s and early '70s he assembled the most dominant basketball program in the state, and he ran it with equal parts guile and force of will, picking up as many enemies as fans along the way.
He twice led the Ragin' Cajuns to the Round of 16 in the NCAA tournament and finished with top 10 rankings. He ruled first the Gulf States Conference and then the Southland Conference. One of his players, guard Dwight (Bo) Lamar, led the nation in scoring in 1972 with an average of 36.3 points per game and started a heated in-state debate over whether he was better than former LSU star Pete Maravich, who had been the nation's scoring champ two years earlier with a 44.5 average.
Today people tend to remember how Shipley's high-flying program was twice busted for cheating and received the NCAA's death penalty after he resigned in 1973. They're less inclined to acknowledge a far more important part of his story: Shipley, a natural-born redneck if ever there was one, in 1966 became the first coach to integrate a major sports team at a large public university in the Deep South.
For those who would dismiss him, Shipley will always be the rule-breaking renegade whose outsized ambition wrecked a university's basketball program. For the rest of us, he's the flawed, doomed disciple of change ruined by those who did not want to change. He might've done wrong, but the wrong, I've always argued, was at the service of a greater good. At some point Shipley stopped being simply a basketball coach and became a player in the story of who we are as Americans.
You have to remember what it was like back then," he told me. We were quiet for a while, and I remembered my hometown, Opelousas, only about 20 miles north of Lafayette. I remembered public water fountains and bathrooms for whites only and lunch counters and restaurants that didn't seat blacks until the mid-1960s, when I was in elementary school. I remembered how blacks had their own entrance at the Delta Theater—one that led them straight upstairs to the balcony, at a safe remove from the rest of us. I also remembered how the n-word was regularly used by people even in polite society, not so much as a noun but as an adjective to describe everything from dogs and cars to hair and lips and certain parts of town.
"I always tried to treat the blacks the same as the whites," said Shipley. "I'd get mad at the whites, cuss a few of them out. But I'd do the same to the blacks. It wasn't any different."
He and Dolores bought their house in 1960, his third year at Southwestern Louisiana, and raised three daughters there. They had black recruits and their families over for visits when that wasn't what you did in the Deep South during the era of George Wallace and white citizens' councils and laws banning miscegenation. Shipley forced us to confront the soul-killing stupidity of segregation back when the only time I remember seeing blacks competing with whites in sporting events was on TV programs broadcast from other parts of the country or when the Harlem Globetrotters visited our area and performed against a bunch of bumbling stooges at Lafayette's Blackham Coliseum.