The Story of Basketball Star and Civil Rights Pioneer Perry Wallace

Andrew Maraniss, author of “Strong Inside,” shares the untold story of the first African-American basketball player, Perry Wallace.

By Andy Uhler April 1, 2015 10:29 am

Perry Wallace’s life includes basketball dunks and final-second shots, but perhaps most importantly, his life tracks so many significant events and people in the history of civil rights. Andrew Maraniss thought so much of Wallace’s story that he wrote the man’s biography, Strong Inside.

“He said that he felt like the country was opening up and changing at just the right time for him and for people in his class and in his generation. The country was changing and that there would be opportunities for his friends that hadn’t been there for their older siblings or their parents and that he needed to be prepared for that.”

Wallace grew up in Nashville and was an outstanding student his whole life. He had four older sisters who all went to college. His dad was a brick layer and his mom was a cleaning lady. He was also a star basketball player on a three-time state champion team. Maraniss says Wallace was the type of athlete Vanderbilt was looking for if they were going to desegregate.

“On a high school team where every single player, even the smallest guard, could dunk they would save Perry Wallace for last in the layup lines. And he would slam it home with a reverse dunk or a tomahawk or a swiss swash.”

Regardless of his dunking repertoire, Wallace couldn’t escape some racism – even on the court.

“They changed the rules on him. He was an outstanding dunker as we talked about. So was Lew Alcindor (who became Kareem Abdul Jabbar) out at UCLA and for a period in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s the slam dunk was banned in college basketball. And it was seen by Perry Wallace, Kareem, and many others as a obviously aimed at the new wave of African Americans players who were changing the way that basketball was being played at the time.”