LAST WORD: Jumpin’ Johnny Wilson: Another Hoosier basketball legend leaves us

Kerry Hubartt

The sportswriter in me can’t resist this opportunity to make sure acknowledges a second Indiana high school basketball hero who passed away this month.

In an editorial last week, we lauded the life and career of the “Splendid Splinter” from Kokomo, Jimmy Rayl, who died on Jan. 20 at age 77.

But we must not overlook another star from an even earlier era, whose impact on Indiana sports was also legendary — Jumpin’ Johnny Wilson of Anderson, who died in Virginia on Jan. 11 at age 91. He was the oldest living Indiana Mr. Basketball and oldest living former Harlem Globetrotter.

As was Rayl in 1989, Wilson was inducted into the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame in 1976. And, like the Splendid Splinter, who beat South Side with a last-second, half-court shot in the Fort Wayne Semistate in 1959, Wilson left his own mark on Fort Wayne fans’ memories of Hoosier Hysteria. He broke a 34-year-old state championship game scoring record with 30 points, to lead Anderson’s Indians over Fort Wayne Central, 67-53, for the 1946 state title.

And, like Rayl, Wilson was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball.

Wilson earned the moniker “Jumpin'” for an obvious reason. He was state champion in the high jump in track and field. And, though barely 6 feet tall, Wilson could outjump much taller players on the basketball court, and was said to have earned his nickname by being the only player on his team who could dunk the basketball.

Wilson quietly blazed a trail for African-American athletes in Indiana and beyond, with his success in sports at a time when segregation was still ingrained throughout the country. After graduating from high school, he went on to play basketball at Anderson University, “in which all aspects of student life were fully integrated,” according to a tribute story in the Anderson Herald-Bulletin after Wilson’s death.

Wilson earned 11 letters in four different sports at Anderson. In basketball, he was named an All-American twice, all-conference three times and was third in the nation in scoring.

After leaving Anderson College following his junior year, Wilson played baseball, his favorite sport, for one year with the Chicago American Giants in the Negro Leagues. His childhood best friend Carl Erskine, who was a year older, went on to become a pitcher for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. (The Erskine-Wilson duo, by the way, led Anderson to the state high school basketball semifinals in 1944, where the Indians lost to Kokomo after Wilson had been injured in the semistate.)

Wilson, meanwhile, left baseball after one year and went on to play basketball for the Harlem Globetrotters in 1949, where he perfected a comedy routine of kicking the ball football-style into the basket. He had been a place-kicker at Anderson.

After leaving for a term in the Army, Wilson returned to the Globetrotters before retiring in 1954.

Wilson returned to college to earn his teaching degree, and took a job coaching at Indianapolis Wood High School. Still at Wood in 1959, according to the Herald-Bulletin, Wilson “became the first African-American to be named a head coach at an integrated school in Indiana.” His record over eight seasons as coach at Wood was 139-59.

Wilson left Indianapolis to take a position as athletic director, and eventually head basketball coach, at Crane Community College in Chicago, a junior college that was renamed in honor of civil rights figure Malcolm X. Wilson’s record over 16 years was 378-135.

After several years of other coaching opportunities, Wilson eventually returned to Anderson to live in his 80s, before moving to Virginia to be with his son. A sculpture of Wilson in his Globetrotters uniform was unveiled at Anderson High School in 2016.

I liked Erskine’s quote at the end of the Herald-Bulletin story: “He accepted his station in life and elevated himself. He lived out his lifestyle. He was not flamboyant or braggadocious. And I never heard him utter one word of profanity.”

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.