Basketball great Maurice King dies

King was forerunner for African-Americans in sports

— Edited by Rachael Gray,, Friday, September 21st, 2007

Maurice King never earned All-American status like his teammate Wilt Chamberlain. Time and Newsweek never featured King in stories. But when it came to making life easier for black athletes, King was Chamberlain’s equal.

King became the first black starter in Kansas basketball history in 1954 and touched lives until his death Monday. Ronald Lindsay, the pastor at King’s church, saw firsthand how King could affect others. “A young man who had just spoken with Maurice once told me ‘Wilt may have been the face of KU basketball, but Maurice was the soul,’ ” Lindsay said. “In terms of facing the struggles of being an African-American in that time, he really carried it.”

King passed away at his home in Kansas City, Mo., after a bout with cancer. His visitation is at 9 a.m. today at Concord Fortress of Hope Church in Kansas City. Funeral services begin at 11 a.m.

When King arrived in Lawrence in 1953, he became the second African-American to play for the Jayhawks. Later in his career, he became the first black starter and played in the 1957 Final Four. King faced racism and prejudice but never responded with anger. Ron Loneski, a teammate of King at Kansas, said King provided an example for future black athletes. “It was sort of an evolution for everybody that followed,” Loneski said. “Maurice made it that much easier.”

Success in spite of obstacles

Dick Harp was ready to check his team into a luxurious Dallas hotel during the 1957 NCAA Tournament when he discovered the hotel staff had a problem. Actually, two problems. The staff wouldn’t allow King and Chamberlain to stay because they were black. Harp, Kansas’ coach from 1956 to 1964, had enough. Hotels had already turned down King before so this time Harp decided to move the whole team to a more modest hotel. It didn’t get any easier for King after that. He couldn’t even escape from prejudice on the basketball court. During a game on that same Dallas trip, fans held up a sign that read “Niggers Go Home.”

Max Falkenstein, who broadcasted for the Jayhawks from 1946 to 2006, witnessed all of it. “He endured a lot of tough times,” Falkenstein said. “But he was always very quiet and dignified — a humble person.” Racism didn’t just exist in the South in the 1950s. Loneski said King faced it in Lawrence. Restaurants and movie theaters often refused to let him enter. The culture shock was hard on King at first. He came from R.T. Coles Vocational High School in Kansas City, Mo., an all-black school. “He didn’t know what to expect when he came because he’d never played with whites,” Falkenstein said. He was apprehensive about the whole thing.”

The new situation and racial obstacles didn’t hold King back. He averaged 3.6 points per game his first year on the varsity team. The next season he scored 14.3 points per game, and he averaged 9.7 points per game as a senior in 1957. King’s numbers went down that year, but the team had more success. With Chamberlain dominating opponents despite facing triple teams, the Jayhawks made it to the national championship game against undefeated North Carolina. King had to guard Lennie Rosenbluth, the Tar Heels star player. North Carolina took an early lead, but Kansas jumped ahead in the second half. The Tar Heels tied the game late to send it to overtime. The teams scored a combined two points in the first two extra periods. Finally, after a third overtime, North Carolina defeated Kansas 54-53.

Chamberlain was named the tournament’s most outstanding player, but Loneski said King had an important role too. “His leadership is what took us to the Final Four,” he said. “He was just a team guy.”

More than basketball

The Boston Celtics made King their sixth round draft pick after his college career ended in 1957. King got the opportunity to play with another basketball legend: Bill Russell. He often told his daughter, Kimberly, about the experience. “It was just an honor for him to play with Bill Russell,” Kimberly said. “He had fun just knowing him. He was just Bill to him.” After an NBA title in 1960 with Boston, the Celtics traded him to the Chicago Zephyrs. He played with them for one year before moving back home to play for the ABL’s Kansas City Steers.

King gave up basketball after one season with the Steers. He retired and took a job for Hallmark in 1966. Family became an important focus. King settled down with his wife Jelena and two kids, Kimberly and Maurice III. The Hallmark job wasn’t enough for King. He was attracted to helping the youth in his community. He worked as a substitute teacher and wore suits to class “to show young kids how they should respect themselves,” Kimberly said. King provided an example for them just as he did for black athletes. “In his situation growing up,” Kimberly said, “he didn’t always make the right choices. He wanted to share his story of where he had come from to going to college to getting a degree to getting a good job. He let them know you can make good choices and bad choices, but you can’t let the bad ones stop you.”

After his retirement from Hallmark in 1991, King started to serve the community even more. He worked with kids at the Spofford Home, which serves Kansas City children with emotional problems. King volunteered more at Fortress of Hope Church. His presence was always felt at the church. He sang in the men’s choir and served as a trustee. Perhaps most importantly, Lindsay said, King acted as a mentor. He often brought seniors and teenagers together to discuss life. “He drew himself close to others by making himself available,” Lindsay said. “He had a great way of making himself available to the people he loved and the people he was concerned about.”

A role model forever

All eight blacks on this season’s basketball team will fly on chartered jets. They’ll eat meals Emeril Lagasse would approve. They’ll live a life King could only have dreamed of in the 1950s. Senior guard Jeremy Case knows how lucky today’s players are. “We have it great compared to him,” Case said. “I couldn’t imagine not staying with my teammates or having to shower in different showers and things like that. I’m thankful for what he did for us.”

King gave lots of people reason to thank him. He was a loving father and husband. He was a basketball player and Hallmark employee. He was a leader for equal rights and a mentor to kids. But Lindsay has another title for describing King: role model. “Out of all my travels,” Lindsay said, “I would go as far as to say he was one of the best and finest role models the country had to offer. He just had an amazing way of making sense out of madness.”