Behind the Stats: A Tribute to Maurice King

by Matt Fulks,

This is a strange business, the media, when it comes to people.

Maybe ancillary relationships, if you will, are similar in other professions, too.

Or maybe it’s just the nature of the interviews I do for the “Where Have You Gone?” articles and the “Behind the Stats” radio show, where I’m talking with the subject — oftentimes older guys — for at least 30 minutes usually, and occasionally more than an hour. Then I’m on to the next story or project.

However, since the person just gave me a good snapshot of his life, including many anecdotes and opinions that he knows I won’t repeat, it’s common for us to form a unique bond.

So, when a person with whom you’ve worked closely on a book or an article or a book, or interviewed on a radio show, dies, it tends to hit you in the gut. Yes, it’s a part of life. But depending on the person and his story, it makes you more thankful — even if it’s too late — that you had a chance to get to know them.

That’s the way it is for me with Maurice King, a lifelong Kansas Citian, who passed away on Monday, Sept. 17. He was 72.

King will be best remembered as a senior on the University of Kansas team that lost the triple-overtime NCAA championship game to North Carolina in 1957 at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. That year Kansas featured a dominating sophomore center named Wilt Chamberlain. Because of Wilt, the Jayhawks likely will be the only No. 2-ranked team to go into the title game as the favorite ... against the country’s No. 1 and undefeated team.

“(That’s) not a game I like to remember,” King, who averaged 14 points per game as a junior and then 9.7 points per game as a senior, told me last year. “I was called for the last foul of the game (with six seconds left), even though I didn’t touch (Joe Quigg), and the film shows I didn’t. We were up by one and he hit both shots.

“After the game, we went back to KU where they had planned a party for us. Louis Armstrong was entertaining in the main ballroom of the student union, so we all got to meet Armstrong and then addressed the students. But I certainly wasn’t in very good spirits after the game.”

King’s importance and influence, however, go beyond his scoring averages and the national title game at KU. More importantly, King was a trailblazer. As a sophomore at Kansas, he was the first African-American starter in the Big Seven.

A few years earlier, during his junior and senior years at R.T. Coles High School in Kansas City, some of the historical black colleges recruited King, as did a few big schools, such as UCLA. Although he didn’t really think about college until later in his senior year, King was set on going to either Tennessee State or Lincoln University. However, “Phog” Allen, KU’s coach at the time, began recruiting King as the potentially first African-American star for the Kansas basketball team. LaVannes Squires was on the squad earlier in the 1950s, but he didn’t play much.

“I had no knowledge of Kansas. I didn’t even know who Clyde Lovellette was,” King said, referring to the national Player of the Year who led the Jayhawks to the national championship in 1952.

But, King’s high school coach, James Wilkerson, and the editor of the “Kansas City Call” newspaper, “started talking to me about what my going to Kansas would do for the ‘colored race,’” King said.

He acquiesced. And went through hell. The distinction of starting in the Big Seven — and the 1950’s social repercussions that followed — isn’t something many players could handle, especially on road trips to places such as Dallas, Houston and Oklahoma City. But King did.

“Our coaches and players had to go through quite a bit with me on that team because they hadn’t had to deal with it before,” he said. “My junior year, we took a road trip to Texas to play SMU and Rice. ... That whole trip was a pretty bad situation.

“I had situations come up in (train station) waiting rooms in Oklahoma City where the conductor called the police on me because I wouldn’t leave the white waiting room. I didn’t see the signs, but I went to the white waiting room with my teammates. That was the first time I wouldn’t budge. If I had been a little wiser and more mature, I could’ve made an issue of these things, but I didn’t. I went with what was happening.”

Because he was from this area and somewhat because of what he went through at Kansas, King cared about helping this community.

After a career in the NBA and the American Basketball League, King became a teacher and guidance counselor at the former Northwest Junior High School in Kansas City, Kan. He also had a long career at Hallmark Cards, including managing a training center with the purpose to make job-ready inner-city people who might not have graduated from high school or had some minor difficulties with the law or other issues that might not have made them acceptable in the job market.

During recent years, since retiring from Hallmark in 1991, King worked at an alternate school in the KCMO School District and with youth in group homes.

Maurice King and I weren’t good friends, but he left an incredible impression. It had been more than a year since I last saw him. During that conversation he asked if I’d help him write a book.

“I’ll probably just be writing it for my four grandkids because nobody outside my family would really care about my story,” he quipped.

We never talked again. I wish we would’ve. His story is worth telling.