There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Warren Williams Sr. has found himself in the news a lot lately. And, good for him, not just in his hometown.
Around here, the Petworth native is wrapped up in the goings-on at Club U, the nightspot he owns inside the city-owned Frank D. Reeves Municipal Center. A man was murdered outside the club on Feb. 13, and if reports are to be believed, it’s long been a magnet for malfeasance and mayhem. The status of Club U’s liquor license, and, in all likelihood, the future of the business Williams opened more than a decade ago, could be decided this weekend after a hearing before the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.
Williams gets fairly irate when he hears that a government building is no place for his operation.
“Michael Jordan ran a business in a government building,” Williams says, referring to the ex-Wizard’s ex-eatery in the Ronald Reagan Building. “I don’t remember people complaining about that.”
But it hasn’t been all bad news for Williams. The same weekend that things went so terribly wrong at his D.C. business, Williams was feted in a gymnasium in tiny Caldwell, Idaho. His College of Idaho Coyotes basketball team from the 1954–1955 season was inducted into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame. That’s the most famous squad in the school’s history. Most of its renown comes from a brief and bizarre infusion of talent imported from D.C. playgrounds.
“It’s nice to be remembered in Idaho,” says Williams, 70.
Folks around here who care about this city’s reputation as a basketball mecca should remember Williams, too. He played a key role in establishing that rep a half-century ago. At the time, Williams wasn’t trying to do anything momentous. He just wanted to find a place for his playground buddies to play ball.
That place happened to be Caldwell. And one of those buddies happened to be Elgin Baylor.
“Over the years, a lot of people have asked me, ‘How in the world did Elgin Baylor get to this little school in Idaho?’” says Dick Spiess, a senior guard for the Coyotes during the 1954–1955 season, who now lives outside Walla Walla, Wash. “And I never had a clear answer for them. I still can’t believe it, either. I lay awake in bed and think about that and wonder: How did that happen?”
Well, Williams was how it happened. As a schoolboy at Dunbar High School (class of ’54), Williams was among the D.C. elite on both the basketball court and the gridiron. In his day, black athletes from this town didn’t get the scholarship offers that their white counterparts did. He intended to follow Baylor (Spingarn Senior High School, class of ’54) to college, and a report in the Washington Post during their senior year said the two were being recruited by Indiana University. They had also visited Virginia Union together.
But the Indiana offers never came through, and Williams says neither he nor Baylor fell in love with Virginia Union, a historically black college in Richmond. As fall approached, a neighbor’s brother, who played for the Western touring troupe of the Harlem Globetrotters, sent word that the football coach at the College of Idaho could use a talented body of any color. The college was an almost all-white school of about 500 students in the almost all-white town of Caldwell, in western Idaho near the Snake River and the Oregon border.
Williams had never attended an integrated school—Brown v. Board of Education was handed down during his senior year—or been too far away from home before. But before summer’s end, his dad dropped him off at Union Station to head west to a land he knew almost nothing about.
“I spent three nights and two days on a train,” Williams says. “I remember after switching trains in Chicago, the whole ride to Idaho I was looking at all the beautiful mountains and scenery. I had never seen anything like it. I was in love with all of it.”
Williams’ football coach at the College of Idaho, Sam Vokes, was also the school’s basketball coach. And Vokes told the football team he was short of hoops players, too. When a quick tryout by Williams brought compliments from Vokes, the player put in a good word for a friend back home.
“I said, ‘Coach, you think I can play? Well, I’ve got a friend who’s the best basketball player in the country!’” Williams says.
That friend was Baylor. As later proved by Baylor, Williams spoke the truth.
“You have to remember, this guy had hang time in the ’50s, when nobody had hang time,” says Spiess of Baylor. “He was way ahead of his time.”
While Williams was in Idaho, Baylor, who didn’t perform as nobly in the classroom as he did on the court during his days at Spingarn, was back in D.C. still trying to nail down what college he’d attend, if any. He wanted to get out of town to play ball, but no school was stepping forward to make that happen. He viewed Virginia Union only as a fallback. A report in the Washington Post after his senior season said the Boston Celtics were hoping to get Baylor to skip college and go pro.
“If he isn’t going to college, we want him with the Celtics now,” said Ralph Shaughnessy, identified in the piece as “chief scout for Red Auerbach’s Celtics.”
Though kids go from high school to the NBA every year now, such a leap was unheard of at the time, even for somebody with Baylor’s vertical jump. Auerbach, asked about his team’s recruitment of Baylor some 51 years ago, denies the Celtics ever made such a move.
“That’s all a lie, total BS. Never happened. I don’t care what the [Post] story says,” says Auerbach. “At that time I was the general manager, the coach, the chief scout, the guy who arranged travel things, the marketing guy, everything. So I’d know if that was going on. Shag [Shaughnessy] was a friend of mine, and he might have said that to a reporter, but he wasn’t even on the payroll! As great as Baylor turned out, I didn’t have any time for high-school kids.”
In any case, Baylor, in a 1999 interview, told me he never heard from the Celtics. He did, however, get a call from the kid he called “WW.”
“WW says, ‘Come out to Idaho!’” Baylor said. “So I say, ‘Where’s Idaho?’”
Idaho wasn’t the big NCAA powerhouse that Baylor dreamed about. It wasn’t even an NCAA school: The Coyotes played in the lesser National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. But, after WW’s lobbying, Baylor took that same train trip to Caldwell. And once Baylor arrived, Williams says, he began working on his coach to make room on the team for another friend from the D.C. playgrounds, Gary Mays.
Mays lost his left arm in a shooting accident when he was 5 years old, but he went on to become a schoolboy superstar and D.C. playground legend. He shut down Baylor in the 1954 city-championship tournament on the way to leading Armstrong High School’s upset of Baylor’s undefeated, top-ranked Spingarn squad. Mays, who admits to not hitting the books as hard as he should have, spent an extra semester at Armstrong to get his diploma after Baylor and Williams went off to college.
“I told Sam that I had a great guard for him, but that he had only one arm,” says Williams. “Sam thought I was joking. I called Gary one day after he graduated and told him to come on out.”
Mays jumped a train and headed for the Great Northwest. “I’d never seen anything so beautiful,” says Mays of the terrain on his ride to Idaho.
Williams, Baylor, and R.C. Owens, a black teammate from California who would go on to star in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers, were at the station in Caldwell to pick him up.
To hear Williams describe the scene, excepting migrant workers in the fields, the quartet at that train station was one of the largest gatherings of nonwhites the town had seen to that point.
“But the people at the school, and the people of Caldwell, were never anything but great to us,” says Williams. “There was nothing racial that I remember at all.”
In return for their kindnesses, the out-of-towners showed the townies a brand of basketball they had never witnessed before.
“I know until that season we were always around the .500 mark in my years there,” says Spiess. “And then the whole world changed.”
The Coyotes went undefeated in Northwest Conference play; it was the first time in the history of the conference any school had accomplished that. The team won 18 games in a row—still a school record—along the way. Baylor, the freshman forward, once scored 53 points in a game, also still a record.
But not everybody at the College of Idaho was comfortable with having his world changed so quickly. At the end of the season, Vokes fought with school administrators about the direction of the athletic program and was told to look elsewhere for a coaching job.
“I think Sam might have been the first coach ever fired for winning too much,” says Spiess.
That squabble, Mays says, is all that kept the team from being inducted into the school’s hall of fame. (The name of the school was officially changed in 1991 to Albertson College of Idaho.) Vokes didn’t live to see the day: He died Dec. 7, 2004, in Santa Maria, Calif.
Vokes’ firing started a mass exodus from the basketball team. The D.C. trio came home for the summer, and all played in exhibition games together. But by the beginning of the next school year, they’d gone their separate ways.
Baylor returned to the Northwest and hooked up with Seattle University; he took that school to the NCAA Final Four for the first and only time. He was MVP of the 1958 NCAA tournament, and the 11-time NBA All-Star and Hall of Famer has been the general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers since 1986. His gifts caused scouts from nearly every major basketball school in the country to start trolling D.C. courts in hopes of finding the next Elgin Baylor. That hasn’t happened yet.
Mays, pleading homesickness, turned down offers to join the Harlem Globetrotters and stayed in D.C. He now runs a contracting business.
Williams went into the military, and after his service he played football and basketball at Virginia Union, the school he and Baylor had almost attended together years earlier. He moved back to D.C. after college and has owned several businesses in town over the years. One of them, Games Production Inc., gets credit for introducing scratch-off lottery tickets to the city in 1972.
Despite the recent troubles between his club and authorities, Williams remains a huge booster of D.C. He fondly remembers, however, the first time he ever left his hometown.
“For a black kid who grew up in a segregated system and a segregated city—and here I was going to an almost all-white college in a small town of white people—it was quite an experience,” he says. “But I loved everything about it. I loved my year in Idaho.” —Dave McKenna