Bryant Built a Legacy Like No Other
He was a Mr. Basketball from Crispus Attucks High School, then a starter at Indiana University and later a Harlem Globetrotter.
That should be enough to fill the resume of any basketball player from any era but it's an incomplete curriculum vitae for Hallie Bryant, whose popularity and influence has ranged far beyond playgrounds and hardwood courts.
Bryant, who will be honored at the Pacers' game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday in the first Hickory Night celebration of the season, stands alone in the history of Hoosier Hysteria for the unique combination of his experiences. Several high school players have been voted Mr. Basketball since the award's inception in 1939. Many have played collegiately in the state. A few have played for the Globetrotters.
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Bryant alone, however, claims that particular trifecta. Tack on the career he's built away from playing the game as a lecturer, motivational speaker, and author — an "edutainer," as he puts it — and his singular status is secure for the ages.
Singular, but universal as well. He can relate to virtually everyone. Maybe that's because he's seemingly met nearly everyone. When he glides into poetry and philosophy in his conversations, it comes across as naturally as breathing.
"I see myself in any living person," he says. "Somewhere along the way, I've been there."
Bryant's path goes back a long way, to a distant place. He's a byproduct of the "great migration" in which an estimated 6 million African-Americans fled the Jim Crow era of the South to seek a better life in northern cities. He isn't alone among those who had a substantial impact on Indiana's basketball heritage. Oscar Robertson was born in Tennessee. George McGinnis was born in Alabama. Their fathers moved their families to Indianapolis just as Bryant's did from Calhoun, S.C. when Hallie was eight years old.
Life there had been good for Hallie, filled with fishing and hunting and roaming the countryside while his father and grandfather worked the farm owned by his namesake grandfather. But his mother had passed away when he was five and his father decided to move his five children to Indianapolis, where his second wife's sister lived, and take a job at Riley Hospital as a custodian.
The Bryants' first residence in the city was on Hiawatha Street in an area since been bulldozed to clear space for the IU medical center north of the IUPUI campus. Theirs was a shotgun house typical of that era, consisting of two bedrooms, a living room with a sofa that doubled as a bedroom and a kitchen. It was heated by a potbelly stove, fueled by coal. It didn't have running water at first, but the backyard contained the other necessities: an outhouse and a water pump.
They got by. Got by just fine, in fact, because Bryant's father, Calvin, made sure of it. As a child, Hallie didn't know what he was missing. As an adult, he appreciates what he had.
"To me, it wasn't a house, it was a home," he says. "You can be in a mansion and it wouldn't be like being in a home full of love and care and guidance. It's a mental thing as far as I was concerned."
Bryant now lives in a modern, custom-built home on the near north side of Indianapolis, no more than five miles to the east from where he first lived in the city. But the roundabout road from one house to another — one home to another — was a long one.
Hallie knew nothing of basketball in South Carolina, but quickly made its acquaintance in Indianapolis. Sitting inside his grade school classroom at School 24 on the near west side, he could stare right onto the weathered outdoor court at Lockefield Gardens, popularly known as the "Dust Bowl" because its original surface was dirt. It played a siren song for him.
"You heard kids having fun there," he recalls.
Bryant wanted in on it. He started by throwing tennis balls through the iron hoops. As he grew taller, he began shooting basketballs or "anything that was round." He had to practice at odd hours when the older guys weren't playing games, which often meant taking the court late on summer nights under the illumination of moonlight. On the occasions he couldn't see the rim, the swish of the net provided all the necessary feedback.
He went to bed at night looking forward to every sunrise so he could get up early and shoot some more. James "Bruiser" Gaines, a local police officer for whom a park on Tibbs Ave. is named, would have a ball waiting for him by 7:30. Gaines also patrolled the area and made sure the park was a safe haven for kids in the neighborhood.
Bryant began getting into the Dust Bowl games as he approached high school age, and it wasn't long before he was dominating them. By the time he was a senior he was showing the ropes to an eager, talented freshman kid, Robertson. The two spent many late-night hours shooting or going one-on-one, with the older Bryant knocking the future legend around a bit to give him an idea of what was coming. The residents in the apartment buildings nearby offered mild complaints about the noise of the bouncing ball but maintained perspective.
"They wanted to go to bed, but they could see we were good kids and not causing any trouble," Bryant says. "They knew we were better off being there than out in the streets."
The time Bryant put into basketball was reflected by his career at Attucks. He had grown up listening to state tournament games on the radio, before the family could afford a television, with announcer Luke Walton painting a picture with words amid screaming fans. It instilled dreams in boys all over Indiana, none more than Bryant.
He started for Attucks as a sophomore, scoring 10 points in an afternoon semifinal game of the state tournament when the Tigers lost to Evansville Reitz. He didn't get back to the finals as a junior or senior but put fresh chapters in the records book for single-game, season, and career scoring along the way. He scored 43 points in his final regular season game, 36 in the final game of the sectional, and 37 in the final game of the regional.
Attucks was eliminated by Shelbyville, 46-44, in the semistate in Bryant's senior season. He scored just seven points in a slowdown game against a defense designed to contain him, a stunning and inappropriate end to his high school career. That blemish, though, wasn't nearly enough to prevent him from being voted Mr. Basketball for the annual All-Star game with Kentucky by a runaway voting margin.
Bryant scored 21 points to lead Indiana to a 71-66 victory on a 93-degree day before more than 10,000 fans at Butler Fieldhouse, earning the "Star of Stars" award as the Most Valuable Player. The wife of The Indianapolis Star publisher Eugene Pulliam presented him with a watch on the court after the game.
Bryant was a good student who had received an award for perfect attendance at Attucks and was said to be a favorite of coach Ray Crowe for his earnest and positive demeanor. But he was painfully shy, too, and had little to say to strangers.
A paragraph in the Star's coverage of the game speaks volumes, both about Bryant and the racial climate of the time.
"The modest, quiet Negro athlete who has reflected great credit on his race while cracking almost every Indianapolis high school scoring record received the award modestly."
Bill Shover, the director of the All-Star game from 1952-62, recalls Bryant's reluctance to even speak into the public address microphone upon accepting the award.
"He was supposed to say something, but he barely stammered out a thank you," said Stover, who at 91 lives in Phoenix and still talks with Bryant a couple of times per month. "With all the adulation he got, he was very quiet and showed no ego. Just a very good young man."
Bryant's standout performance is practically a footnote to the game now, however, because of the typed threat he received at team headquarters at 5 p.m. the day before the game. It warned that either he or a member of his family would be injured if he played in the game — but added he would receive $500 via mail if he sat out.
In the context of its time, the threat was taken more seriously than it might have been otherwise. Just a couple of months earlier the Indianapolis Olympians, the city's first NBA franchise, had gone out of business because their star players, Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, had been banned for taking money from gamblers while playing at the University of Kentucky. Sports gambling was rampant at the time — one lower-level corner seating area at Butler Fieldhouse was well-known as the gathering place for bettors — so it wasn't considered unrealistic that a threat would be made against a high school player.
The Star certainly didn't take it lightly. Immediately underneath the banner headline ROSENBURG SPIES EXECUTED, it ran another all-caps banner header: HALLIE BRYANT THREATENED.
Bryant shrugged off the threat without much concern, but the team was moved from the Central YMCA to the Claypool Hotel for safety purposes and added police officers were assigned to the game to protect Bryant and his family members.
All these years later, the matter is a safe source of comedy. Shover often teases Bryant for writing the note so the team could be moved to a better hotel.
Bryant was likely the most heavily-recruited high school player in the state's history to that point. He had received countless offers, including one from UCLA's young coach, John Wooden, but confined his serious interest to Indiana, Michigan State, Michigan, and Purdue before choosing IU. There was immense pressure on Bryant to stay close to home and the Hoosiers had won the NCAA tournament that year, so it seemed logical.
Whatever his decision was going to be it qualified as big news, as evidenced by the story in the Star two days after the All-Star game.
"Hallie Bryant, Indianapolis' fabulous 'Mr. Everything' in the high school basketball line, has decided to drag his gear down to Indiana University for perhaps another direct onslaught on whatever unused records happen to be lying around," Bob Collins wrote.
Collins later added, "No youngster around these parts ever stomped on the record books in quite the fashion Hallie did," and made the point Bryant "could rattle off 20 points with a rapidity and ease that never failed to startle even the folks who had watched him do it time and again."
Bryant's career in Bloomington didn't work out as hoped. He played mostly off the bench as a sophomore and was shuttled back and forth between guard and forward. He averaged 14.4 points as a junior, a solid number in that era, but dropped to 11.1 as a senior. He did set a school record for free throw accuracy, and the Hoosiers tied for the Big Ten title with Michigan State his final season. Only one school from each conference could go to the NCAA tournament in that era, though, and IU lost out because it had competed in it more recently than the Spartans.
Bryant holds firm to a positive outlook in his daily life and doesn't like to dwell on negative events. He earned a degree and has been inducted into Indiana's Athletics Hall of Fame, and is satisfied to leave it at that.
"I respect (coach) Branch McCracken and his family," he says. "I won't go there. My experience with Branch as far as basketball was OK. I let sleeping dogs lie."
Bryant was not drafted by an NBA team, but had a tryout with St. Louis. Hawks coach Alex Hannum praised him in a newspaper article for his performance in practice and he scored 14 points and hit the winning shot with a long one-hander in a low-scoring intrasquad game. He didn't survive the final cut, however.
It might have been the simple fact the Hawks were an outstanding team that would go on to win the championship that season and had precious few job openings. The NBA consisted of only eight teams at the time and rosters were limited to 10 players after December 1. First-round pick Win Wilfong was the only draftee retained.
It also might have had something to do with race. The Hawks had no black players on their roster the previous season when they won the Western Division title. They kept just one, Worthy Patterson, who was three years out of college and just recently out of the Army, at the start of the 1957-58 season, but he lasted just four games before being let go.
Doesn't matter now. Getting released turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Bryant.
Hawks management recommended him to Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein. Bryant's high school teammate, Willie Gardner, had played for the team and provided another connection. After a two-year hitch in the Army, one of which was spent in Korea, he signed on for what would become a perfect marriage. Hallie had been a dreamer as a kid. He let his imagination run wild amid the cadence of the late-night swish of the net on the Dust Bowl court, or while watching airplanes fly overhead or watching Hollywood stars in movies. There was a world out there he wanted to explore, and the Globetrotters provided the vehicle.
As great an accomplishment as playing in the NBA would have been, this was better. Rather than Detroit or Syracuse, road trips took him to 88 countries. He didn't have to worry about getting cut and injuries were rarely a factor. Best of all, he got to interact with people in far-flung places, some of whom had never seen a black person.
He recalls kids in some countries rubbing his skin to see if the blackness came off. One evening when he was walking the streets of a Communist country, he heard footsteps behind him. He thought about picking up his pace but decided to hold back. It turned out to be an older couple. They barely spoke English, but the three managed a pleasant conversation.
Over time, experiences such as those transposed his personality, dissolving the barriers of his introversion and remaking him as a communicator and entertainer with a worldly outlook.
"We don't know enough to be a pessimist," he says.
Bryant's specialty with the Trotters was as a long-shot specialist and participant in the Magic Circle, the pre-game ritual in which six players performed ballhandling and passing wizardry to the soundtrack of the Brother Bones version of Sweet Georgia Brown. It was a position of honor, one that enhanced his job security and became his calling card.
He played 13 seasons with the Trotters, then worked for 14 more in public relations. In the offseasons and in retirement he took a one-man ballhandling and passing act to television studios, corporate gatherings, charity functions, senior citizen centers, shopping malls, and camps. He was an institution at the Taylor University basketball camp in Upland for more than 50 years, "edutaining" the kids.
He considered his act a passport of sorts, a way to introduce the Trotters or himself to strangers and interact with them in a lighthearted, positive manner. He always made it a point to involve others as well, regardless of age or status. One time in Phoenix Shover watched him bounce a ball off the posterior of Ethyl Kennedy, widow of former Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, at a fundraising event. She loved it.
As performing became more difficult with age and parts replacement surgeries, Bryant turned to public speaking. Letters thanking him for his appearances from groups such as the NCAA and Cook Incorporated hang on the office wall in his basement. Lining the walls in the hallway and his man cave are photos of him with the likes of Robertson, Gardner, Wilt Chamberlain, Meadowlark Lemon, Ed McMahon, and various business leaders as well as framed newspaper clippings.
He's written a book, "Hallie's Comet: Breaking the Code" — Code being an acronym for coordination, organization, direction, and energy. In conversation he'll slip into poetry and drop pearls of wisdom or a joke at any given moment.
It's important, he says, to quiet the "static in the attic," to remember we're always prone to sending and receiving negative signals in our brain, not unlike a radio station. "Don't deny it, don't identify with it, get past it," he advises.
He learns best, he says, by TSL: "Tell me, show me, let me."
Crowe, his coach at Attucks, was a more polished version of his father, a man who personified "The Four F's" because he was firm, fair, flexible, and frank.
Indiana's basketball heritage laid down quite a path for the farm boy from South Carolina. It fueled journeys that took him around the world and a few miles across town, both reflecting a life he barely could have imagined on those moonlit nights when he made the Dust Bowl nets hum. And one that will forever remain unique in the annals of Hoosier Hysteria.
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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.
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