Part Three: A Team Divided

With the decision to build in the Carillon district the university was stepping away from a partnership with city. It was a bold move. The answer to the question of how construction was to be financed was far from settled. [51] Frericks appeared to be contemplating a plan that did not require the city’s financial backing. He seemded to feel the university was in a position to go it alone. Over the next few months his optimism would be tested. Unfortunately the challenges to come were even bigger to surmount that those he had already faced. Behind the nuts and bolts tasks of deal-making and political maneuvering lingered much larger social problems that threatened the project. At its conception the arena had been imagined by some as a means to heal the city, but as it turned out, the injustices and inequalities within society became a part of the arena’s history.

The Disastrous Beginning of the 1967-1968 Season 

The Flyers’ remarkable run at the end of the previous season had certainly given Frericks reason to be hopeful that the public would financially support his efforts to build the arena. His strategy of shifting the university’s post-season play to the NCAA had been a remarkable success, as it generated public enthusiasm for the team that had made it all but impossible for university administration and the city officials to make reasonable efforts to build a new arena. There was good reason to believe the team would build upon that momentum in the coming season, and hopes for 1967-1968 were extremely high.

“1967-1968 Flyers” Source: “Daytonian 1968” (1968). University Yearbooks. 23. https://ecommons.udayton.edu/archives_yrbk/23

Returning to Dayton after their NCAA defeat to UCLA, Waterman shared with the crowd that gathered to greet the team that Alcindor, Waterman’s childhood friend from New York City, sent a message to the Flyers that they belonged in that game, and that Alcindor both expected and hoped to meet them again in next year’s finals. [52] Like Alcindor, many believed the Flyers were going to make another run at the national title. All of the major contributors who had carried them to the brink of the national championship were returning. The stars of the previous year—Hooper, May, Torain, and Waterman—were not only back but also a year older and more experienced. [53] Not surprisingly, they began the season ranked fifth in the nation. It was no wonder that Frericks might have been anticipating on-court successes that would generate the funds needed to finance the new building.

The season did not go as expected. Fans were shocked when the Flyers stumbled in a 0-2 start. Victories over the next two opponents, including the perennial power Louisville, gave the faithful reason to hope again. But once more the team faltered with two more losses in rapid succession. By January 6th, only ten games into the season, they had already reached last year’s total losses. Matters went from bad to worse as they dropped three of the next five games. With a disastrous 7-9 record they would not even make the NCAA tournament, let alone contend for the title.

As the losses mounted the team’s problem remained a mystery to most of its fans. Don May’s explanation that unlike the year before opposing teams “were shooting at us,” undoubtedly had some merit. [54] But this was a challenge all good teams faced, it could not account for the significant decline in Flyers’ competitiveness. Examination of the team stats suggests another answer: two of the critical players on last year’s team were missing in action. The production of the third and fourth leading scorers on last year’s team declined by more than half. Rebounding also dropped. Part of the problem was playing time; they were seeing less of the court. But their field goal percentage, a stat less directly tied to playing time, also eroded significantly. The heroes of the Flyers’ dramatic overtime victory against Virginia Tech had all but disappeared. Many of the Flyers losses had been by just a few points. It is not hard to imagine that if Waterman and Torain were playing as they had last year the teams record would have been stellar. Though it was hidden from the public at the time, racial tensions were the source of the problem. Torain and Waterman were the only two black players on the team.

“Northern Michigan vs. Dayton at the U.D. Fieldhouse” Source: Official Program, December 2, 1967.

According to the longtime sports editor and columnist for The Journal Herald and Dayton Daily News Ritter Collett (1921-2001), who wrote the most comprehensive history of the UD basketball, both Torain and Waterman had returned for their season different people. It was “the consensus of the white Flyers then, and again 20 years later,” he explained, “that their teammates were strongly influenced by sources outside the basketball program and possibly off campus as well.” That is, both “were caught up in the militancy of the time.” Collett suggests this had caused them to develop a newfound sense of “racial pride” and an “awareness of the existence of prejudice.” He then claimed that “there had been no such real problems during [Torain and Waterman’s] early years on campus.” Readers are left to wonder whether Ritter meant the two men had previously simply not encountered racism, only recently became “aware of it” or simply kept quiet about its existence and dutifully played basketball. Ritter’s account of the situation is unambiguous about one point: Torain and Waterman were at fault. Torain underwent a “change in life style and moral beliefs,” and lost his starting forward position as a result of “moodiness” and “lethargic” play. Waterman is described as having suffered from the same fundamental problem: despite his “great natural athletic talent” he was “a moody young man.” [55]

Certainly Torain and Waterman saw the situation differently. Both later explained that they had experienced “discrimination and prejudice” on campus, from their teammates, and from members of the athletic department. Today neither Torain or Waterman are present to tell us what happened and it is impossible to judge their claims. They were not, however, the first African-American players at the school to have leveled that charge. A decade before, Charles Benjamin Jones, who played for Blackburn in his first season as coach, found Blackburn unsupportive about the discrimination he faced when playing other teams and, if not openly hostile to his presence on the UD squad, then prone to forget to play him. Jones explained, “I encountered a great deal of discrimination in my years at UD.” “It was very plain to me,” he continued, “I was in a white man’s world and lots of people told me that.” [56]. The absence of further complaints might be explained by the fact Blackburn’s subsequent teams were notable for their absence of black athletes.