When a white, Manhattan, Kansas, high school junior volunteered as a guinea pig for a university research project, he had no idea he would become caught up in the conflict between old- and new-style basketball, a clash permeated with racism. Ken Tucker failed to make his high school team. But participating in a Kansas State University Athletic Department project to develop a perfect jump shot, he would satisfy his passion for the sport, even if it meant working longer hours at his part-time job and having fewer dates with the most famous girl in Kansas.
The early ‘60s was a pivotal time for basketball, a sport then barely 70 years old. A point-shaving scandal abruptly ended the major influence Jewish players and coaches had on the sport. At the very same time, the game was transitioning from white to black domination. The old, methodical, feet-planted-to-the-floor style was giving way to more entertaining fast breaks, jump shots and slam-dunks.
It wasn’t just basketball being impacted by black athletes. Black artists were also transforming music. There was a common thread running through music and sport, a thread that emerged from deep within the souls of black athletes and musicians. It was a passion for music and sport had been bottled up during more than 240 years of slavery and another 90 years of discriminatory Jim Crow laws, including those in Manhattan, Kansas.
Sexual equality was also in play at Manhattan High School. Girls sought equal treatment and more athletic opportunities like basketball and dance drill. Cheer squads and pep clubs did not suffice. The dance drill rage that had already swept Texas and then California was inching its way into Kansas where Manhattan High formed the Rockettes, the state’s first girl’s drill team.
The first two years of the ‘60s was the lull before a series of storms: the Kennedy assassination, the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, the Vietnam War and the British Invasion—the onslaught of British music. But during that calm, Ken Tucker would soon face an unforeseen but simple choice: would he be playing white or playing black.