Fifty years ago, on Saturday, March 22, 1969, Proviso East High School in Maywood won the first of its four state championship basketball titles — a feat that transcended sports and unified a community that was becoming more and more divided against itself, buckling under the weight of racism and prejudice.
Recently, three members of that historic 1969 team — captain and star center Jim Brewer, guard Walt Williams and sixth man (“Mr. Everything,” Williams calls him) Ira Carswell — sat down to talk about the significance of that win.
“Nineteen-sixty-nine became such a big year, because of 1968, when King was assassinated,” Williams said. “That changed all the dynamics.”
“At the time, there was a tug-of-war going on in people’s opinions, between Malcolm X and King,” Brewer said. “Both of them were villains. People think it was all smooth and it wasn’t. It was like, ‘Who are you with?'”
King’s assassination also effectively laid to rest the notion among many young, black activists like classmate Fred Hampton that racial progress would be won nonviolently. And so the tension that had been building within the high school between whites and blacks, more and more of whom were moving into Proviso Township, only grew.
“All of the conflicts we were having — the fights in the hallway or cafeteria, and the protests on certain issues like the homecoming queen and somebody getting kicked out for no reason — that wasn’t the total student body.”
According to news reports at the time, a large fight broke out in the cafeteria in September 1967, when all five of the finalists for homecoming queen, all of whom were chosen by school officials, were white. After extensive property damage, more than 100 members of the National Guard were called into the school.
“They had this camera system back in 1968-69 that was centrally located in the dean’s office,” Brewer recalled. “And that camera was equipped with mace spray.”
Williams remembers walking from one class to another through a sharp, stinging mist, his eyes covered, the darkness symbolizing what at the time was a systematic void, a grand absence of opportunity for blacks who wanted to be more than manual laborers.
“In the community, there were no activities for blacks,” said Carswell.
“You have to understand the time period,” Brewer said. “You really didn’t have anybody on TV who was black — other than, maybe, Nat King Cole, and we didn’t really see him that often.
“And in the course of going to school, we didn’t understand it ourselves. All of the clubs in the place didn’t necessarily exclude us, but you had to really reach to get involved with all of that stuff. Unless you were somebody who had, as parents, professionals who understood the worth of that kind of stuff going on your resume so that you could go to college, you didn’t know that you needed to be involved in this club and that society.”
In a 2018 interview with the Forest Park Review, Doug Deuchler, who was a rookie English teacher at East in the fall of 1968, recalled the lack of black presence within the school’s administration and curriculum.
“Proviso was packed with over 4,000 students and Doug estimated about a third of the student body was black,” wrote Review columnist John Rice. “He believed these students felt disenfranchised. The administration and staff were mostly white. There was no black history being taught, or black literature being studied. The white students seemed to be in control.”
“There was racial tension, because the neighborhood was changing,” Brewer said. “Black students at the time were becoming aware of the history and things that they just hadn’t discovered in their elementary education,” he said. “There were a lot of books coming out by people like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison. There was a lot of history we weren’t exposed to. It was kind of like an awakening. We were like, ‘Hey, we got rights.'”
If Brewer and his teammates were beginning to realize racial inequality, they were nonetheless able to focus on a space where the playing field seemed more level, where black students could exert a degree of autonomy, and where black athletes and coaches went to war alongside their white counterparts — the basketball court.
A community first, then a team
The 1969 Proviso East team was a tightly knit unit, Brewer said, adding that most of his teammates were either his relatives or longtime friends.
“Walt and I are related,” Brewer said. “Ira is a first cousin. Walt is my nephew and our best friends, collectively, were Harvey Roberts, Billy Allen and Ralph Sykes. I knew all of those guys since at least the first grade and our parents knew each other.”
The team was led by Coach Tom Millikin, who in 1948 played on a state championship team at Pinckneyville High, located in downstate Illinois. Millikin fueled the team’s drive to win by taking them to the state championship tournament in Champaign during the 1967-68 season.
“We were the only team to have beaten Evanston and that year we saw them win it all,” Brewer recalled. “We were like, ‘If they can do it, we can do it, too.’ So, the next season, in 1968-69, we were on a mission and we didn’t want to lose.”
Proviso East was 27-1 and ranked No. 1 in the state heading into the 1969 Illinois High School Basketball Association Tournament.
“In 28 games, no team has scored over 60 points against Proviso East!” touted the Alton Evening Telegraph in an article published March 21, 1969, just as the tournament was picking up steam.
“We held about eight opponents under 40 points,” Brewer recalled. “Our mission was to hold you to your lowest score. Every time we did that, coach would reward us with pizza or a social night. We were very defense-oriented. We had probably the best defenders at every position just about.”
Along with team captain Brewer — (a highly recruited “6 foot 7 inch, 210-pound” defensive prodigy who played “defense like Bill Russell,” Millikin once told a reporter) — East’s starting lineup included Roberts, Pete Boozeos, Williams and Allen.
In addition to Carswell, other players included Keith Rash, Ralph Sykes, Howard Godfrey, John Munchoff, John Nagle and Forrest Coburn, Brewer and Williams recalled.
“Harvey and I were the Washington School boys, Pete was from Jane Addams,” Brewer said, recalling his teammates’ elementary schools, which were all-important at the time.
“Billy and I went to Irving,” Williams said.
“Of course, Walt started off at Washington, which is the only school that matters in the story,” Brewer joked.
Back then, the state championship “was the only game in town,” Williams said. “Now you’ve got four and five different classes. Understand, we were one of the last Class A winners before they broke it down into A and AA. The second state champion was Class 2A. We had to beat some 714 schools by my recollection. I might be wrong, but we were the only game.”
The team beat Champaign Central 37-36 in the semifinal. Carswell said he still hears the roar of some 19,000 people in the stands at Assembly Hall, where the Pirates beat Peoria Spalding 58-51, to win the title.
Carswell also keeps an article clipping announcing that more than 125,000 people lined the parade route the Sunday following the Pirates’ win. A roaring crowd met the large motorcade at the Eisenhower Expressway.
“It was unbelievable,” Carswell said of the crowd.
In an article published March 24, 1969 in the Alton Evening Telegraph, a reporter wrote that Proviso East Principal Hubert Pitt “ended Sunday’s wild celebration in honor of the returning heroes by announcing there would be no classes at either Proviso East or Proviso West high.”
Pitt’s announcement received “the loudest cheer,” but “previous to that Capt. Jim Brewer, who presented the championship trophy to Pitt, had garnered the loudest cheers. Brewer wore a slipper-like shoe on his sprained left ankle, a memento of Friday night’s battle with Waukegan [in the tournament’s Elite Eight contest, which East won 52-44] but an injury which did not prevent him from leading his club to the championship.”
The victory helped usher in a moment of healing for Proviso East and the wider community, the players recalled 50 years later, and served as a model for East’s future title runs.
“I think about how Proviso East, which is dictated by borders because you had to live in them to play at the school, and yet we have four state championship teams,” Carswell said. “You look at all the schools and how they’re recruiting. Look at all the schools around who have yet to win state championships and we won four. How did that happen? Why? And we started it.”
“As people get older, things diminish in importance, because they’re not current,” Brewer said. “But at that time, [the state title victory] was a big deal and we don’t want to minimize it. It’s still a big deal. It meant a lot to people, because there was an evolution of ideas during that time and that’s how we really helped other folks. People felt, ‘Well, if they can do that, we can, too.’ That, they can’t take away.”