A former Indiana legend was recognized for one of the biggest accomplishments in Big Ten basketball history on Saturday. Bill Garrett was honored with an Indiana historical marker, recognizing him for becoming the first African-American basketball player in Big Ten history.
The marker was placed on Indiana’s campus in front of the Wildermuth Intramural Center, where the Hoosiers played basketball from 1928 until 1960. There was also a ceremony at Indiana Memorial Union, which included a recorded speech from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney.
Garrett, the Indiana Mr. Basketball coming out of Shelbyville High School in 1947, spent his first year at Indiana University on the freshman team, since freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back then. Garrett’s presence broke the “gentleman’s agreement” that previously kept African Americans from playing in the Big Ten.
Garrett helped break the divide, but it took a few years for the rest of the Big Ten to follow suit. Garrett didn’t play against another African American while in college, but there were six African Americans in the Big Ten the year after he graduated.
The first African American head coach in the conference came more than 25 years later, when Wisconsin hired Bill Cofield as it’s men’s coach and Edwina Qualls as it’s women’s coach.
Garrett suited up for the varsity his final three years at Indiana, playing under Indiana head coach Branch McCracken. The 6-foot-3 guard led the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding each season, earning two-time All-Big Ten honors. He was named an All-American as a senior and was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the second round of the 1951 NBA Draft, just the third African American to be drafted into the NBA.
However, Garrett would never play a game for the Celtics. Instead, Garrett joined the U.S. Army and spent two years there, during which time the Celtics cut him. Garrett stayed with basketball, spending three years with the Harlem Globetrotters before returning to Indiana to coach at Wood High School.
Garrett eventually became the head coach at Crispus Attucks High in 1957, winning a state title there in 1959. After coaching, Garrett took on a job as the assistant dean for student services at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
Garrett passed away from a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1974 and was named to the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame that same year. Garrett, who’s son is an assistant coach at DePaul, was added to the IU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984.