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Ex-Terps player Billy Jones reflects on breaking ACC's color barrier in basketball

On occasion, Billy Jones' granddaughter reminds him of what he'd as soon forget.

"Pop-Pop, you are old," Cleo Pounds will say. That's Jones' cue to dig out his scrapbooks, curl up on the sofa and regale the 8-year-old with sporting tales of yore — from the time he led Towson High to a state basketball championship in 1963 to his college days at Maryland to his run as men's basketball coach at UMBC.

"Because I'm a senior, my grandchildren struggle imagining me to be very active," said Jones, 67, who lives in Orlando, Fla. "They love hearing stories, and I love sharing them. It's important that they know their history."

Grandpa wasn't just any player. When he signed with the Terps 50 years ago Monday, Jones became the first African-American to earn a basketball scholarship in the Atlantic Coast Conference. A year later, on Dec. 1, 1965, he broke the league's color barrier by playing in a game at Penn State. Three days after that, the 6-foot-1 Jones scored his first basket on a running layup in a victory over Wake Forest as 11,300 fans in Cole Field House — then the largest crowd ever for a Maryland home opener — saw history made.

Off the court, he faced blatant racism on trips down Tobacco Road. More than once, the Terps walked out of hotels and restaurants that refused Jones service.

"One night we were to take a late train home from Durham, [N.C.], after a game at Duke," teammate Gary Williams remembered. "At the station, we all piled into the snack bar to eat before boarding. But when they wouldn't serve Billy, we all left."

Such walk-outs became common for Maryland, said Williams, who'd later coach the Terps.

"The guys looked out for me," Jones said. "In Columbia, S.C., [teammates] Gary Ward and Joe Harrington invited me to a pool hall down the street from our hotel. I thought, 'Hmmm. Beer, pool sticks, balls and a black kid. It doesn't mix.' An alarm went off in my head. I told them, 'Thanks, but I need to go study.' I studied a lot on the road, not so much because I wanted to, but because it was the best thing for me."

There were poignant times as well, societal hiccups in the deep south in the 1960s that reminded Jones of his pioneering achievements.

"We were sitting in a hotel restaurant in New Orleans when a black chef came out of the kitchen, shook my hand without saying a word and walked away," he said. "Or I'd be walking through the Charlotte, [N.C.], airport with the team when a bellhop tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a wink as if to say, 'Hey, black guy, keep doin' what you're doin.' "

Those are the stories Jones shares with his heirs.

"I tell the kids, 'Be selfless. Do things that have social impact. Leave a mark that people will remember,' " he said.

His family is fiercely proud of his past. Some years ago, Jones' daughter, Billye, heard a sports talk show host say that Charlie Scott of North Carolina blazed the trail for African-American basketball players in the ACC.

"She pulled her car off the road, phoned the radio station and set them straight," Jones said.

Scott entered North Carolina in 1966. It would take five more years for ACC basketball to fully integrate.

A star in high school

Jones arrived at Maryland prepared for the worst. Discrimination was old-hat for one raised in the black enclave of East Towson.

"I'd already dealt with social issues," he said. "To see a movie, we had to walk past the Towson Theater [on York Road] and catch a bus downtown to the Boulevard [at 33rd and Greenmount]."

While attending Towsontown Junior High School, Jones befriended several white classmates who chose to sit beside him in seventh grade science class.

"The teacher didn't like that," he said. "My buddies caught hell, grade-wise, until they changed desks and moved away. That's kind of hard to deal with when you're 12 years old."

At Towson High, things changed. Black athletes buried any prejudices by leading the Generals to a state title in Jones' junior year.

"Basketball united our school," he said. "It gave us all a rallying point."

In the state tournament at Cole Field House, Jones scored 58 total points in back-to-back victories that gave Towson the Class AA crown. As a senior, he averaged 20 points and carried Towson to wins over Calvert Hall and City, the private and city public school champions, as the Generals, with five black players suiting up, earned the area's No. 1 ranking.

He starred in the state semifinals, a 77-74 win in overtime against Surrattsville in which Jones totaled 41 points, 15 rebounds, 7 assists and 6 steals. Despite his 32 points in the title game, Towson lost to Allegany and Steve Vandenberg, who'd later captain Duke.

Afterward, Towson coach Randy Walker called Jones "the finest ballplayer and gentleman I have ever come in contact with in my coaching career."

A two-time All-State selection in basketball, Jones also played lacrosse and started as a senior at midfield for Towson's Baltimore County champions. Cheap hits, he endured.

"You might get hit in the crotch with a stick once a season, but I got it three times in one game at Dundalk," he said. "I limped off the field, and twice came back to score. They hated Towson, anyway, and they really hated me. It's the world we lived in; people didn't know any better."

Adjusting to college

As a Maryland freshman in 1964, Jones stood out — one of about 250 African-Americans among 13,000 students. Two years earlier, the school had rattled the ACC by integrating its football team. Darryl Hill, a wide receiver for the Terps, led the way.

Jones lived in Cumberland Hall among the smattering of black athletes. He shared a room with Pete Johnson, a freshman guard from Fairmont Heights who'd followed him to College Park. Across the hall was Ernie Torain, a first-year fullback from Poly.

"We studied together and ate together," Jones said. "There were always three or four of us around, so we were never afraid on campus. Besides, we all looked like we could take care of ourselves, which might have been a deterrent to some."

Torain remembers walking to classes with Jones and attending college dances and movies with a man whose self-assurance showed.

"I didn't look at him as a protector, just as one with whom I had a lot in common," Torain said. "Once you left an atmosphere where you were the distinct minority, you could laugh and talk to someone just like you. And he seemed so comfortable in who he was.

"I know this: without Billy, it would have been much tougher for me to have made it through Maryland."

His teammates took to Jones immediately.

"Billy fit in from day one," said Williams, then a sophomore guard. "I don't remember an awkward situation with the players. The tough part was that Billy always had to be on his guard. I'm sure there were things said by people around campus that really bothered him, but he never showed it — and by doing so, he paved the way for other [ACC] schools to recruit black players."

In three seasons (freshmen couldn't play varsity at the time), Jones averaged 9 points per game for the Terps, an undersized bunch that went 33-41 despite having beaten Houston and Elvin Hayes. Strong on the boards, Jones played forward for coach Bud Millikan's team, to his chagrin.

"At 6-1, I was out of position, but I didn't argue because then I'd have been 'a complaining black kid who only thinks about himself,' " Jones said. "I sacrificed what I thought I should be doing, but that's OK. I knew people were watching very closely, and that I was carrying a banner for those who never got an opportunity."

Nor did he react during a game his sophomore year at South Carolina when, chasing a loose ball out of bounds, he landed at the feet of a fan he'll not forget.

"The man had shiny shoes, his legs crossed and a cigar in his mouth," Jones said. "I went to pick up the ball and this sterotypical Southern bigot said one word, [the n-word], and then looked at me like he dared me to do something about it.

"I stared at him. I wasn't shocked that he said it, only at the ease and confidence with which he spoke. I'd never had anyone say that to me without them running or ducking, but I was the only black in the building, and he knew I wouldn't throw the ball at him."

Jones returned to the court and bore down.

"If I'd needed outside motivation to play hard, that was it," he said.

The response was typical Jones, teammate Neil Brayton said.

"Billy wasn't aggressive at those times — he wasn't out there marching — but he had a quiet strength about him," said Brayton, a guard for the Terps. "His first game in Chapel Hill, every time he drove for a layup, the fans tried to hoot him out of the gym. But the fact that we all united behind him, I think, gave him a bit of confidence. He knew he didn't have to go it alone."

In 1967, Jones was to be named a team captain, an honor that fell by tradition to seniors. He initially declined.

"I told them that I didn't want a title based on seniority, that it should be put to a vote," he said.

It was. He won.

Making 'a positive impact'

After graduation, Jones became an assistant coach at American, California-Santa Barbara and Stanford before arriving at UMBC in 1974. In 12 years, he coached the Retrievers to five of the 10 winning seasons the team has had in its 47-year history.

Private industry beckoned. He worked awhile in human resources for Lockheed and Tupperware. In 2011, Jones retired after 15 years as manager for cast services at Walt Disney World.

Life now is far from those taxing times in College Park.

"I work out daily, ride my bike and do yoga," he said. "I'm learning Spanish and how to play the guitar. If I fall asleep in the afternoon, that's a good thing; I don't have to fight it."

As for the game that defined his life, Jones hasn't played in nearly 20 years.

"The last time, my ego got in the way," he said. "A trash-talking colleague challenged me, and I went to do a finger roll and tore up my ankle. I decided if I couldn't play at the level I used to, then I'd walk away."

He's saddened by Maryland's exit from the ACC, where Jones left his mark. The Terps officially join the Big Ten in July.

"You get this empty feeling. There's so much history there," he said. "Ten years from now, we'll be ranting and raving about Big Ten rivalries, but for now, there's a void."

Half a century later, Jones still gets calls and questions from students writing theses on those turbulent years. How should he be remembered?

"As one who took on a challenge and didn't back down," he said. "I went to college, did as asked, got my degree and moved on. I made a positive impact and — if you understand the time we were in — you know the complexities that were involved."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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