He’d never stayed in a hotel, never been to a dentist and never ordered a meal from a restaurant menu. Could you find a modern college basketball recruit with such a trifecta?
Those were some of the circumstances when Maurice King enrolled at Kansas University as a 1953-54 freshman. He’d been recruited out of tiny all-black R.T. Coles High School in Kansas City by KU assistant Dick Harp and alumni powerhouse Roy Edwards Jr. Reece died this week at age 72, another victim of that damned cancer.
LaVannes Squires of Wichita in 1952 became the first black basketball player at Kansas, but Reece King was the most talented first arrival, sandwiched between the incomparable Wilt Chamberlain (1955-56) and Squires. King starred for three varsity years, made all-league and started on KU’s ’57 NCAA title finalist. He saw pro action, collecting an NBA championship ring as a Boston Celtic.
“I grew up in a pretty parochial atmosphere in Kansas City, and I really got my eyes opened,” King told me several years ago when KU was gearing up for the heralded return of Chamberlain for a jersey retirement. “We (African-Americans) had our own movies, pool, nice parks ... through high school I found anything I wanted in our own community. I came to KU and ran into things I wasn’t accustomed to. I didn’t like some of them, but I knew I couldn’t change much by myself; until Wilt opened my eyes, I did what I had to do to get through it.”
King’s first visit to a dentist was here after he suffered a broken tooth in practice. His first hotel stays were on KU trips as a sophomore; he actually needed coaching to handle a cafe menu. He’d never been to a place that had one. Yet he worked, learned, persevered, matured and wound up as one of KU’s most productive alums. He was in the Army, taught school in Kansas City, worked for years with Hallmark and handled such Jayhawk duties as helping hire coaches Larry Brown and Roy Williams.
“Along came Wilt,” Reece chuckled. “He was a wonder with a big-city background and lots of savvy. All sorts of things began to change with the aid of people like Phog Allen, chancellor Franklin Murphy, Dolph Simons Sr., Roy Edwards ... Wilt not only changed basketball but a lot of other things. After two years pretty much on my own, I saw a lot of changes, a lot pretty unfamiliar to me.
“With Wilt and with powerful people supporting us, we could go to restaurants, non-segregated movies, get barber work. Phog’s son Mitt was an attorney who told us to keep him informed, but nobody confronted us with much of anything. Students were especially supportive.”
Going on the road was a different story, and there was a lot of ugliness in Texas redneck country, Dallas, for the ’57 title quest. Lots of good changes have come, but King and Chamberlain didn’t create their progress without periodic static, some of it frightening.
“Wilt was a godsend,” Reece added. “Along with being the finest player I ever saw, he had that strength of personality and a surprising amount of innocence that anticipated the best. It helped break barriers, and he led a lot of changes for the better. He opened a lot of doors to help me grow and succeed. Nowadays there might be a lot of abrasive news coverage; Wilt did things quietly but effectively.”
Yet don’t sell King short for his role in making important racial strides in sports and society. He constantly praised KU and Lawrence for the fact he was able to serve his university so well as a player and alumnus after a rather modest start in life.
One more Jayhawk Jewel gone, dammit!