The basketball season has been put on hold, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This postponement has stalled the continued tradition of great African American athletes from Chicago. However, in the spirit of the tradition established by so many great African American basketball players who have come from Chicago, I thought it timely to remember the great Paxton Lumpkin. Paxton was symbolic of so many great athletes who descended from this city.
In 1954, the cease-fire between the United States and North Korea was agreed upon. Also, in 1954, the great basketball team from DuSable High School inspired the African American community throughout the state with their dazzling display and execution of the game of basketball.
This team was led by one of the greatest basketball players that Chicago ever produced. His name was Paxton Lumpkin. On Thursday, January 19, 1991, I read in the papers that Paxton had died of cancer at the Lakeside V. A. Hospital at the age of 54.
I was tremendously saddened by Paxton’s death and began to call other athletes who had been influenced by Paxton and the DuSable 1954 team. From all the athletes I was able to contact, I could feel the profound respect they all had for the contributions Paxton Lumpkin made to the game of basketball in this city.
I was in the seventh grade in 1954 when DuSable played in what was called the Sweet Sixteen State Tournament, during that time, at the University of Illinois’ Huff Gymnasium in Champaign.
The entire Black community and particularly those participants and supporters of athletics, had their eyes, ears, and spirit fixed on the ‘54 DuSable team as they entered the state tournament.
Like so many other African American youth during this era, basketball was a game I was just beginning to learn to play.
Most of us admired the Harlem Globetrotters and their stars, Goose Tatum and Marquez Haynes. We all tried to emulate their styles of play in dribbling, shooting, passing and rebounding.
Some of us had an opportunity to watch some of the DuSable players on the playground, so we were somewhat familiar with the talent they possessed. We especially had great admiration for the skills Paxton exhibited in dribbling and passing the basketball and his overall leadership ability on the basketball court.
For those of us who were not able to go to the state tournament in 1954, we listened to the games on the radio. It appeared DuSable was on their way to winning the state championship with Paxton leading the way. They were literally “blowing out” their opponents in the preliminary, quarterfinal, and semi-final games. The championship game against Mt. Vernon was televised. Sitting in the living room with my father, I can’t ever remember pulling for an athletic team to win a game as hard as I pulled for DuSable.
That championship was one of the greatest basketball games I had ever seen. The DuSable players had so much impact on me that I can still remember the starting line-up of Charlie Brown, McKinley Cowsen, Carl Dennis, and Paxton.
DuSable lost to Mt. Vernon in a very close game—76 to 70. Ironically, it was an African American player for Mt. Vernon, Al Avant, who scored 30 points and provided the leadership for their winning the title game.
My heart, along with so many others, was broken as a result of DuSable’s loss to Mt. Vernon. Many of us felt the officials that called the game did it poorly and many of their calls were racially motivated. As I recall, Mt. Vernon had only one Black player and that was Avant.
Nonetheless, the DuSable team became the sports heroes in the African American community of Chicago. I can truthfully say that I idolized Paxton Lumpkin. Paxton and the DuSable team influenced a whole generation of aspiring basketball players like me.
As a matter of fact, in the summer of 1954, it seemed most of the youth in the Black community of Chicago were trying to learn to play, or trying to improve their game on the playgrounds throughout the neighborhoods. DuSable and Paxton were on the minds of all of us as we ran up and down the concrete playground basketball courts.
There were many great basketball players before the ’54 Paxton Lumpkin-led DuSable team and obviously there have been many more great players and teams to emerge from Chicago since that time. But, I don’t think there has been a player and team that so inspired a community like DuSable. Even though they lost, they were our heroes and champions in the fight against racism in sports.
From that moment on, African American teams and players from Chicago began to dominate the annual state tournament exhibition of the best teams and players in Illinois. Finally, the great John Marshall High School team of 1958 won the state tournament—the first time a Chicago high school accomplished this feat.
All of us who love athletics, and particularly basketball, should take a moment of silence and pay tribute to one of Chicago’s greatest basketball players—Paxton Lumpkin. We still miss you Paxton, but your spirit will live among us.
Dr. Conrad Worrill, Professor Emeritus, Carruthers Center for Inner City Studies (CCICS). New office location is at 1809 E. 71st Street, Chicago, Illinois 60649, 773-592-2598. Email: [email protected] Website: www.drconradworrill.com.