By NICO VAN THYN, Special to the SBJ
Melvin Russell was a two-time state champion in basketball at Woodlawn High School — the first time as an All-State point guard in 1969, the second time as a head coach, the Class 4A state “Coach of the Year” in 1980.
Quite an achievement for a trailblazing student at Woodlawn.
In the fall of 1967, Melvin made a courageous and challenging choice: He was among six kids — and the only athlete — who transferred from all-black Union High School to almost all-white Woodlawn.
It was a monumental “freedom of choice” move and a historic one, the start of integration in Shreveport high schools.
The challenge was to become accepted in a changing world, and it was a learning experience, both for him and for everyone.
Waiting to play basketball wasn’t easy; ruled ineligible as a transfer — despite the “majority to minority” rule — he had sit out his junior season, limited only to practicing with the team. But once he began playing, in the 1968-69 season, it was the start of a legend.
He was the 6-foot-1 floor leader of the first Woodlawn basketball team in the school’s nine-year history to make the state playoffs. The Knights then won four close playoff games for a final 33-3 record and the Class AAA state championship. (That was four months after the football Knights had won the state football championship.)
He was the first black player from Shreveport-Bossier to 1) play in the Top Twenty state tournament, 2) be an All-State selection on Louisiana High School Athletic Association team, and 3) play in the LHSAA All-Star Game.
He did it confidently, which is why he chose to move from Union — less than a mile from Woodlawn — after the disappointment of not lettering in basketball as a varsity sophomore.
“My personality was that if you didn’t bother me, I wouldn’t bother you,” he recalled a few years ago. “I was laid-back, I felt I could get along with anyone, black, white; I tried not to let things get to me. So I thought I would be OK going to Woodlawn.”
The six transfer students — three boys and three girls — “had been handpicked because we had the right credentials and temperament,” Russell said, and one of the Union counselors had encouraged him.
“I wasn’t sure I wanted to go,” he said. “My mother didn’t really want me to go; it didn’t matter to my dad, and my grandmother (who had worked in the cafeteria at Woodlawn) wanted me to do it.”
What the transfers from Union had been counseled on, warned about, and maybe even worried about, wasn’t like the reality when school began.
“I was 16 when we walked in to register, and we’re among (about) 2,000 white kids, so we stayed close to each other,” Russell recalled. “You could hear the buzz and I heard some kid say, ‘black sheep go home’; that’s what it sounded like. I’m thinking, ‘That’s your thing.’ I held my head high and I registered.”
Early on, there were “racial comments every day … I had the kind of temperament that allowed me to work with it; I didn’t react to everything little thing,” he said. There was taunting, resentment, defiance, alienation, and for Russell, one memorable time when he had to fight to prove himself.
One day in the cafeteria, he sat down at a table and “20 kids got up and left,” he said. “I’d get in line, and people didn’t want to stand next to me.”
But he had some allies — especially in athletics. When Coach W.B. Calvert, overseeing a physical education class, saw Russell in action, he quickly realized this was a player.
“They wanted me to play football,” Russell said, because Woodlawn at that time was very much a football school, a state power. “But I wasn’t going to do that. So he (Calvert) told (head football) Coach (Ken) Ivy about me. … I met Coach Ivy for the first time in front of the trophy cases (in the gym foyer). They had those pictures up there; I asked him, ‘How do you get your picture up there?’ “
He was told you had to be an All-State selection.
Two years later, that’s what he was.
Ivy, building a perennial basketball power, would become his biggest influence at Woodlawn. Soon Russell was practicing with the team. He was switched from a regular P.E. class to sixth-period athletics.
Here he found a distinct difference from Union. “I was given my own basketball to use, a leather basketball, and three pairs of shoes — Converse,” he said.
“At Union, we only saw a leather ball on game days; we only got one pair of shoes on game days. We practiced with rubber balls and we had to use our own shoes. That was some of that separate but unequal crap.”
He also had a friend on the Woodlawn basketball team — Mike McGovern, also then a junior and a year later the senior class president and one of the stars on the state championship team. Melvin’s grandmother had been the McGovern family’s maid and she also cooked at the family’s church, Sunset Acres Baptist (one of the most popular churches in the Woodlawn area).
After some time, Russell found friends on the football team, too — “I was cool with [quarterback] Joe Ferguson and [linebacker] Clinton Ebey, and others,” he remembered, “so that helped me assimilate with the rest of the student body.”
With Russell running the offense, and leaping forward Larry Davis as the team’s top scorer, Woodlawn rolled past everyone, except Captain Shreve, a second-year school with a talented team which beat the Knights in their two district meetings to win the district championship. Shreve also had a talented majority-to-minority transfer, junior forward Jeff Sudds.
But Shreve lost a state quarterfinal game to St. Aloysius (New Orleans) on the same night when Russell, in a dominating fourth-quarter performance, carried Woodlawn past perennial power De La Salle (New Orleans). The next week, the Knights beat St. Aloysius in the state championship game before a Top Twenty-record crowd of 12,640 in Alexandria.
Russell’s role was passing the ball, getting it in the right spots, lining up his teammates, and when needed, scoring on jumpers or penetrating drives. His 13.4 points per game didn’t keep him from being an All-State selection.
“He does it all,” Ivy told Jerry Byrd for a 1969 Shreveport Journal story. “He’s a great all-around basketball player.”
“The system was a perfect match for my game,” Russell said of Ivy’s basic 1-4 offensive set (Melvin was the “1”) and the matchup zone in which the guard up top was a key. “… I knew that offense and defense like the back of my hand.”
Talking about the “good influences” he had at the school, he said, “Coach Ivy screened a lot of things for me. If we had to eat at a restaurant or stay at a hotel, he checked ahead and made sure it would be OK for me.”
What Ivy said more recently was, “He didn’t go out to score a lot of points or show off; he was just playing team ball.” He pointed out that if fans watched Melvin long enough and often enough “he made believers of those who questioned him being on the team.”
Russell, not sure if he would attend college when he moved to Woodlawn, signed a scholarship to play basketball at Centenary College (so did three other Knights from that team).
Teaming with Davis, they played three varsity seasons, and Melvin set career and single-season records for assists, thanks in part to teaming with a 7-foot freshman center named Robert Parish (also out of Woodlawn) in 1972-73.
He was drafted by the American Basketball Association’s Utah Stars, but a pro career did not develop and he returned to Woodlawn as a teacher and assistant coach to Ivy.
After two years, Melvin succeeded Ivy as head coach, but kept much the same system when he was a player and assistant coach. In his third season – just as Ivy had done — his team reached the state championship game (but lost). The next season, the 1979-80 Knights went 31-2 and won the Class AAAA state title. He was the state’s “Coach of the Year.”
In seven seasons as head coach, his teams had a 173-59 (.746) record, with four district titles and no losing seasons. He left in the spring of 1983, citing the low pay for coaches in Caddo Parish as a disappointment and not foreseeing much change in that.
He was involved in some business ventures, was an assistant basketball coach in college for four years and then settled for 27 years in Arlington, Texas, working in the transportation business. Now 70, he and Mary, his wife of 37 years, reside in New Orleans. They have five children, seven grandchildren and three great grandchildren.
“When you told him what we had to do, and why we had to do it, and what his role was, he just knew what do to, what everyone had to do to win a game,” Ivy said. “Melvin Russell understood what it took in basketball and in life. That’s what you’re talking about with him.”
Shreveport Journal photo by RALPH FOUNTAIN