The 1950’s were a turbulent time in American history, anyone can tell you that, but without living through those Civil Rights days, it’s sometimes hard to put a perspective on just how difficult a time it was for African-Americans, and since this is a sports website, how difficult it was for African-American athletes. Imagine today’s KU basketball team struggling to find a hotel for their first games of the tournament because blacks weren’t allowed in the hotel. It’s a horrifying thought, but there were times when that exact thing happened to the Kansas basketball team.
Maurice King was the first African-American starter in the storied history of the University of Kansas. He played his first game for KU in 1954, fifty-six years after the first ever game was played at the University. While we can all agree that it atrocious and pathetic on many levels, KU was actually ahead of many U.S. colleges as far as integration went (North Carolina didn’t have a black scholarship basketball player until 1967, Kentucky “featured” a black player first in 1969). Maurice King held the torch on this front for KU with greats like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Bridges, and Walt Wesley following in quick succession.
But it is always important to remember the first. Maurice King was born in 1934 in Kansas City, Missouri. He made the trek to KU and made history as the first black starter in his first season of 1954-55. He averaged a modest 3.6 points that year as a sophomore, but with prejudice and racism everywhere he went, any production from this pioneer can be seen as a success.
His junior season was better statistically as he averaged 14.3 points per game, but he still saw the effects of decades of institutionalized racism all around him. Despite the addition to the team of a star in Chamberlain, there were still places around Lawrence that he and his black teammates could not go because of their skin color.
The 1956-57 season was King’s senior campaign, and he tossed in 9.7 points per game that season. It was also a banner year for KU. The Chamberlain-led Jayhawks went all the way to the national title game that season and on that tournament adventure, KU had to make different lodging arrangements because the owners of many Dallas hotels would not let Chamberlain and King stay in their hotels. Terrible.
After that senior season, King was drafted into the NBA by the Boston Celtics. He played there briefly (with Bill Russell) but also spent time serving American in the Army. He played professionally after that for various defunct teams and leagues, and eventually took a job at Hallmark in his native Kansas City in 1966.
He died of cancer in 2007, but the story of Maurice King should never die at the University of Kansas.