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The story behind breaking the basketball color barrier in Kentucky during the 1940s

The story behind breaking the basketball color barrier in Kentucky during the 1940s

On the same day we recognize Juneteenth, the oldest national holiday commemorating emancipation from slavery in the United States, Seldon Wiggins, a 94-year-old Army veteran of World War II, is inspired by the movement of young people across this country protesting social injustice.

“I’m glad to see the young kids both Black and White being able to speak out, and not hide behind," Higgins told NBC Sports Washington. "This seems to be real, I don’t think it’s a fake thing. And I think my generation can look at it with mixed emotions. We weren’t organized enough to do what’s being done now, we were isolated.”

To say Mr. Higgins has lived a full life would be an understatement. He was born before the Great Depression, served our country honorably, marched during the Civil Rights Movement and saw a Black man become President.

But in 1943, Mr. Higgins made history of his own. Playing varsity basketball for Booker T. Washington in Ashland, Ky., it is believed Higgins was part of the first interracial basketball game in the South between Black people and white people.

The journey to Olive Hill to play the all-white team started with a pair of flat tires, a trip that took 150 miles. Just 60 miles into the trip, the Booker T. team called ahead to say they wouldn’t be able to play the game due to tire issues. However, instead of delaying the game, members of Olive Hill staff drove to pick up Higgins and his teammates to make sure the game went off without a hitch.

Unfortunately, racism reared it’s ugly head once they arrived in town as Mr. Higgins recalls.

Said Higgins: “There was a sign in the city that read, ‘N****** after 6 o’clock, move away.’”

Higgins later explained that Black people didn’t live in the town, they only worked in that community.

According to the 2010 U.S. census, Olive Hill, a mountainous city in Kentucky, has a population of 1,599.

Once Higgins and his teammates arrived at the gym something unthinkable happen.

“As we walked in they started saying, ‘hey let us see your tail,’” Higgins said.

“They assumed we had black tails because they thought we were monkeys.”

Despite the awful treatment before the game, what happened afterward was truly remarkable.

“After the game, we were prepared to go back [to Ashland], and they said, ‘No, you going to stay here all night in the gym. We’re going to take care of you,'" Higgins said. "So the next morning, we got up, they got us breakfast, saw that we had gasoline in the car and pulled off.”

In case you were wondering, Booker T. Washington lost that game to Olive Hill on Dec. 3, 1943, 34-22.

It was at that point Higgins says he realized that sports can help integrate society.

Higgins, an accomplished high school player, is the first Kentucky player -- white or Black -- to be selected All-State for three consecutive seasons.

Higgins, a retired Army veteran, offered an opinion on Colin Kaepernick, who protested by taking a knee during the national anthem against police brutality in 2016.

“I was shocked and the reason I was shocked is because he was doing the things we did going down to Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia," Higgins said. "He would of been right in that march, he would of been not a supporter but a leader. And when I saw that, I smiled. That took a lot of courage, a lot of courage and now people been listening and stuff is beginning to change.”

Despite being shocked and angry by the events of George Floyd’s death, Mr. Higgins believes that actually prompted Black people and white people to not only talk to one another but more importantly listen and respond to police brutality.

“I saw a mixture of White and Blacks joining together and it shows how much time has changed," Higgins said, "when you saw maybe a majority of whites, young Whites involved in this, and that is very encouraging.”

Higgins moved to Washington D.C. in 1951 to start working for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. One of his first initiatives was to create an internship program for African Americans attending historically Black Colleges.

Oh, and by the way, when asked who in the NBA plays as he did back in the day, Higgins quickly said, “LeBron James.”

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Pelicans' star rookie Zion Williamson out vs. Wizards

Pelicans' star rookie Zion Williamson out vs. Wizards

The Wizards will have to wait until next year to face Zion Williamson for the first time.

The Pelicans' star rookie will sit out on Friday night as the Wizards face New Orleans at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports Washington. Williamson is resting on the second night of a back-to-back. The Pelicans played the Kings on Thursday night.

The Wizards also missed Williamson last July in the Summer League after he suffered a knee injury in his first game in Las Vegas. They also had one of their games this season against the Pelicans cancelled due to the NBA's long hiatus because of the coronavirus outbreak.

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Someday, the Wizards will see Williamson and when they do, it will be interesting to watch him match up with Rui Hachimura, who was in the same draft class and plays the same position. Williamson was the No. 1 overall pick and Hachimura was picked ninth.

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For now, the Wizards will battle a Pelicans team headlined by Brandon Ingram, Jrue Holiday and Lonzo Ball.

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As he prepares to back up Bradley Beal, Jerome Robinson improving in key area

As he prepares to back up Bradley Beal, Jerome Robinson improving in key area

Jerome Robinson has been one of the most pleasant surprises on the Wizards roster so far during their time in Orlando. With increased minutes, Robinson has been able to play more freely and not wonder when All-Star Bradley Beal was at the scorer's table ready to check-in and take his place.

Through four games, Robinson is averaging 17 points while shooting 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from three on 6.3 attempts per game. His 55 effective field goal percentage is second only to Thomas Bryant among the Wizards' regular rotation members.

Most noteworthy has been Robinson's overall consistency, as that has eluded him so far in his career. In four games at Disney World, Robinson has reached double-digits in scoring each time. He had never scored 10 or more in consecutive games previously.

"That's something that we've talked about with Jerome and we're working on with him," head coach Scott Brooks said. "I like his approach. In order to have a consistent game, you've gotta have a consistent approach going into a game. I think he does a pretty good job. As a young player, he has a pretty nice routine that he sticks with."

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Producing on a regular basis next season could be difficult in the role Robinson is expected to serve. He will be behind Beal, who plays a lot of minutes (he led the league last year) and who holds a very large share of duties on offense. Brooks mentioned the chance Robinson plays some small forward next season, just to make sure he gets on the floor.

Backing up Beal is important, as the Wizards know full well. They have had some trouble finding a solution at that spot on their depth chart. Those personnel issues may say as much about the difficulty of the role as the players they have tried in fulfilling it.

Brooks knows from experience as a player and coach how tough it can be in general to thrive as a bench player.

"You have to be able to do it. To stay in this league and stay in rotations and get consistent playing time, you've gotta perform consistently," Brooks said. "That's the hardest thing. That's why you see a lot of role players get moved around and role players that don't end up staying for a long time. It's hard to stay in this league if you're not consistent."

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Robinson, 23, said he has been in contact with Beal throughout his time in Orlando. Beal has told him to be aggressive looking for his own shot. So far, he's been able to do that. Robinson is averaging 12.5 shots per game in Orlando after taking only 6.2 shots per game in previous 13 games with the team since coming over in a February trade.

Scoring, though, isn't necessarily what Robinson will need to focus on. He has one of the higher ceilings defensively of any player on the Wizards. His physical defense on the perimeter stands out, partly because that isn't a forté for many of their players.

Robinson is committed to getting better on that end of the floor.

"If you can't guard your guy or help the next man, you won't play. Defense is huge for me. From a personal standpoint, I would love to be All-Defense someday," he said.

Point guard Ish Smith has been around long enough to spend plenty of time both as a starter and a reserve. He understands the challenge of playing on the bench, and has even backed up stars. But for him, the best approach is to keep it simple and just strive to leave the game to the starters in a better place than it was when he checked in.

Smith is seeing good signs from Robinson and believes he can make the most of what will be a very different role next season than he is serving in Orlando.

"I know for Jerome, the consistency he's playing with by knocking down shots in Orlando, he's going to do the same [in D.C.]. He just needs to continue the way he's playing and his confidence will grow with each shot," Smith said. 

"So, he'll be fine. Just don't worry about the 'I'm playing behind a star, so don't let me mess up' kind of mentality."

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