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Fame Still Bypassing 'The Machine'

Jan 5, 2010 – 5:30 PM
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David Steele

David Steele %BloggerTitle%

The National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame has only been in business for four years, so it didn't completely defy logic that Travis Grant was just getting in this fall. A player with his stats, his championships, and especially his nickname -- whichever one you know best, because he prefers one but answers to both -- should never have to wait long to be enshrined with the legends, as Grant was last month with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

But how long did Travis Grant, his 4,000-plus career points, his three national championships and his multiple nicknames ("Machine" and "Machine Gun"), have to wait to get into the other older, prestigious Halls of Fame?

"I'm not in any of them,'' Grant said at his induction ceremony in Kansas City. "I'm not in the Naismith, I'm not in the NAIA.''

Odd. Grant, who turned 60 on New Year's Day, is still listed as the No. 1 scorer in NCAA history, all divisions, with 4,045 points. His school, historically black Kentucky State in Frankfort, was part of the NAIA when he was piling up more points than the widely recognized major-college leader (with whose career he overlapped), Pete Maravich and his 3,667. Kentucky State won three straight national championships from 1970-72, still one of only four programs in history to win a national tournament more than twice in a row. (The others are UCLA's seven straight in the 1960s and '70s, Tennessee State's in the NAIA in the 1950s, and North Park in Division III from 1978-80.)

Forty seasons after Grant -- a 6-foot-8 forward who is still described as one of the best pure shooters of all time by those who watched him -- and the Thorobreds first stormed the national stage, his name is still all over the small-college record books (and record books, period; as a current member of Division II, Kentucky State's marks are listed in the NCAA records).

He averaged 39.5 points a game in his senior year (1,304 total, with only Maravich and Earl Monroe scoring more in a single season at any level), and 33.4 in his career (trailing only Maravich, Austin Carr and Oscar Robertson). He scored 60 in a tournament game and totaled the most points in one tournament and in a postseTravis Grantason career. He shot 63.8 percent as a collegian, unheard-of for what would later be called a small forward, certainly for someone who was a jump shooter relieved to be moved out of the post by his high school coach. He scored 75 in a game as a sophomore; to this day, only 11 players have ever topped that total at an NCAA institution, and only one did it since he did.

Yet Grant has been overlooked in Springfield -- where a movement has grown the last two years to recognize more of the names from the black colleges, propelled by last year's Black Magic documentary. (In an ironic twist, the widely-praised four-hour film devotes only about two minutes to Grant and his team.) Even more inexplicably, the NAIA Hall of Fame, inducting figures at that level of sports since 1952, also has bypassed him, and that shrine is right in Kansas City, not only the location where Grant received his honors last month, but where NAIA's headquarters are located and where his team took those three straight titles, at the tournament's longtime home of Municipal Auditorium.

Grant's teammates, and at least one alumnus, has taken up the cause for him. Grant himself appears unbothered by the snubs.

"Well, it's been 40 years,'' he said. "The Black Magic documentary shed a light on a lot of the HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). And you look at my entire career -- it's really second-to-none in terms of championships and in individual statistics. The most important thing was that we were winning. A lot of people have individual records, but they weren't winning. But all the years I was setting records, our team was winning.''

Not just winning, but once again making onlookers wonder how differently the history of the game would have been had segregation not altered it. A case could be made that Maravich, in his years at LSU in a Southeastern Conference that had just begun admitting a handful of black players, did not face the competition Grant and his NAIA (and black-college) contemporaries did. All the major conferences had gotten around to integrating by the time Grant left the grinding poverty of Clayton, Ala., in 1969 to play college ball -- and to follow the former coach at Alabama State, Lucias Mitchell, to Kentucky State. While Kentucky had signed its first African-American recruit, center Tom Payne, that summer, and Louisville had been integrated for years, by the likes of Wes Unseld and Butch Beard, neither program was exactly opening its doors to that pool of talent.

For that and other reasons, Grant's frontcourt mate William Graham said he and his team had no reason to be in awe of the traditional powers in the basketball-rich state. "I tell you what, those schools -- we sat right between Louisville and Kentucky. They knew what we had,'' said Graham, who later coached the program and now teaches at the school. "But they would never have played us. (Kentucky) played Kentucky State (in 2001-02, winning 118-63), when we had no team. They wouldn't even have thought about playing us back then; it wouldn't even have been a game.''

With so many black players still flocking to the black schools and to smaller programs that would admit them without controversy, the NAIA was stocked with talent during that era, so diminishing the level of competition is a leap. As a senior, in fact, Grant won the Lapchick Award and the Sporting News Player of the Year; no small-college player has won either since. Picking up most of the other player-of-the-year awards: Bill Walton. Also, in that final season Kentucky State was speculated to be a strong candidate for the NIT, when that tournament and its New York finale still drew top-notch fields because the NCAA tournament invited only 25 teams during its champions-only days. It eventually was passed over, however.

The entire front line ended up going to the pros -- Grant, forward Sam Sibert and a 7-foot raw talent named Elmore Smith, who went on to become the best shot-blocker of his era in the NBA. Smith's departure after the second title moved many to figure that Grant's and the Thorobreds' time in the spotlight was over, yet Grant simply threw it into a higher gear. By then, he was already answering to both nicknames: during his first game in his freshman year, when he came off the bench, hit 10 shots in a row and finished with 32 points, a fan had yelled, "He's a machine!''

When his reputation began growing nationally with the supersized numbers and the NAIA championships, outsiders erroneously began calling him "Machine Gun.'' "The right one is 'Machine,' but I don't mind, not now,'' Grant said.

Both names fit. "Have you ever been playing with someone and all you had to do was get him the ball?'' Graham said. "He was 6-foot-8, and you couldn't closely guard him, and even if you could, chances are you weren't going to be as quick as Travis was. All he had to do was see the basket.'' Reminded of the 75-point game, against Northwood College in Michigan, Graham said, "He could have scored 100 any time he wanted to. He was that accurate.''

Even the stories of how he became such a sharpshooter are the stuff of legend: Grant first played on dirt at his home, on a hoop his mother fashioned out of the bottom of a five-gallon can, and he did not play in an actual gym until eighth grade, when the high school he eventually attended built one. When blacks were allowed to attend predominantly-white high schools in his senior year, he chose to stay at his school rather than transfer to one where he might get more exposure, and he made the same decision about college, despite the trickle of integration into the major southern programs at the time.

"I don't regret the choices I made. It turned out to be good,'' Grant said.

Between that and the satisfying life he has led since his basketball career ended after four injury-plagued years in the NBA and ABA, Grant has had little reason to dwell on either getting belated honors, or none at all. Earlier this year, he also was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. His wife and two children were at the college hall induction ceremony, as were teammates Graham, Sibert and Albert Faniel.

While he said his old coach, Mitchell, was too ill to attend, Grant credited him as much with his post-basketball career as with the success of his playing days. "He made sure we went to school, and when I made the transition from the pros back to real life, I fell back on those lessons,'' Grant said.

Grant has spent nearly 30 years in education, as a teacher, principal, coach and administrator; most of it has been in the Atlanta area. "I retire in May,'' he said. "It hasn't been all bad. I've enjoyed the work I've done in education. It's been fulfilling, too.''

Yet one person, who was too young to have seen Grant's exploits in person, has pushed hard recently to get him his overdue recognition: Lacy Rice, an entrepreneur and a former official with Kentucky State's alumni association and entrepreneur. Rice has spoken up frequently on behalf of Grant to the various shrines that have left him out. His work paid off with the state hall of fame and the national honor of last month, and he has contacted both the Naismith and NAIA halls to push for induction there. Both have responded, he said, but nothing is imminent.

"It's a shame when you consider Travis Grant's accomplishments,'' Rice said. "The fact that Travis Grant still holds records, the fact that you will never see another basketball player, I believe, shoot (close to) 70 percent from the field, especially a jump shooter. As everybody has said in the past as I was going to school there, 'If they had a three-point line then, Pete who?' Because that's where all his shots were coming from.'' (In fairness, Maravich also did not play with a three-point line, nor did he play four years of varsity.)

Still, Grant refuses to dwell on the oversights, on the platitudes that have come late or not at all. He did notice how the fellow inductees in Kansas City who came after him, like Bird and Johnson, were very aware of him. "Larry got to see me in college when we played,'' he said. (Bird recalled thinking that he hoped to someday shoot as well as Grant did.)

"A lot of the players know. A lot of the coaches and fans don't, but it's not a problem with the players,'' Grant added. "They know.''
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