The first time Jumpin’ Johnny Wilson felt the unfairness, it was blatant. A coach made things crystal clear to the 10-year-old basketball player.
“Johnny, you know in order for you to ever play ball at the high school, you’ve got to be twice as good as any white boy on the team,” the coach told Wilson.
To Wilson, those words just didn’t make sense. He was already a standout for the city of Anderson in fifth grade. He’d made the sixth-grade team as a fourth-grader.
So, the next year, Wilson tucked the coach’s words into his head at every game and kept silent. No back talk. No asking why. He just played.
When the season ended, Wilson was the leading scorer in the city, with more than twice the points of the boy who came in second, 240 points to the other boy’s 99.
“So I took the paper, the only clipping I ever cut out of the paper in my life, I cut it out and I took it to that coach,” Wilson told IndyStar in 2016. “And I asked, ‘Am I good enough now to make it?'”
Wilson, time would tell, was more than good enough.
The Indiana basketball legend who used athletics to shatter racial barriers died Friday in Virginia at the age of 91. He had been the oldest living Indiana Mr. Basketball and oldest living former Harlem Globetrotter. After his playing days, Wilson became the first black head coach of an integrated high school in Indianapolis and as coach of Malcolm X College in Chicago for 16 years, Wilson compiled a 378-135 record.
He did all of it quietly, without boasting, without fanfare.
“Looking back, he was the perfect role model,” said John Wilson, Jr., Wilson’s son. “He never talked about everything he had done. He was just dad.”
‘That’s one kid saved’
Wilson first made his mark at Anderson High School, standing just shy of 6-feet tall, dunking the ball, winning a state title his senior year, scoring 30 of his team’s 67 points in its victory over Fort Wayne Central, and being named IndyStar Indiana Mr. Basketball in 1946.
A statue of Wilson — who was nicknamed Jumpin’ because he was the only player on his high school team who could dunk — was erected in front of Anderson High in 2016, a tribute that Wilson hoped would make an impact on future generations.
“If at least one kid can look at that monument and say, ‘Hey, I can do that,’ that’s the thing that I want,” Wilson said. “Because that’s one kid that’s saved.”
Wilson had moved to Virginia to live with his son and daughter-in-law, Jackie, three years ago. He was doing well as late as Christmas Day, Wilson, Jr., said, but got sick and then got pneumonia.
“He wasn’t scared. He said he acknowledged he lived a long life,” his son said. “His mom passed away when she was 90. He always said he wanted to live one more year past her. And he did it.”
In addition to his son, Wilson is survived by daughters Sherri and Gena Wilson, brother Gene Wilson, seven grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by his former wife, Norma.
“He was my uncle, but he was also a legend and so I always looked up to him,” said Leisa Richardson, Wilson’s great niece. “He’s been the epitome of a role model for generations.”
One of Wilson’s most notable impacts was on his best friend growing up in Anderson, a white boy named Carl Erskine. The two were joined at the hip, an unlikely pair in the 1930s. They walked to school together every day in elementary school.
The two had remarkable chemistry as they played basketball in the historic Wigwam gymnasium at Anderson High. It was a magical place that seated nearly 5,000 people at the time. When they played in the 1940s, every game sold out at the Wigwam. Season tickets were coveted and passed down through families.
Erskine and Wilson led the team to the state semifinals in 1944, but Anderson lost to Kokomo after Wilson was injured in semistate.
“We just couldn’t make up that 25 or 30 points Wilson usually scored,” Erskine said. “Boy did we have teamwork going for the two of us.”
Erskine didn’t realize it at the time, but Wilson would shape his views on race and blur black and white into a color that Erskine didn’t even see. And later in his life, someone would notice that. Inside the Brooklyn Dodgers locker room, Erskine heard a guy come up behind him.
“Hey Erskine, how come you don’t have a problem with this black and white thing?” The voice belonged to Dodgers teammate Jackie Robinson.
“I said, ‘Well, I grew up with Johnny Wilson,'” Erskine told Robinson. “‘I didn’t know he was black. He was my buddy. And so I don’t have a problem.'”