Cincinnati Bearcats NCAA Championship teams: ‘We’re a family’

George Wilson sits in a dark mahogany leather chair in his Fairfield home, reflecting on the bond he built with a group of men 60 years ago.

He smiles.

In his basement, Wilson is surrounded by shelves full of hundreds of photos, books and memories of those men, those teams.

“It’s special,” he said. “Ain’t nobody else going to do what we did. That’s affirmative.”

What they did

On March 24, 1962, less than two years after traveling from where he grew upon the west side of Chicago to the University of Cincinnati, Wilson and his UC teammates defeated Ohio State to win basketball’s national championship. Wilson scored six points, including a perfect 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, and had 11 rebounds in the victory.

It was the program’s second straight national title.

Cincinnati starters from 1961-1962 team
standing up: Coach Ed Jucker. kneeling left to right: Ron Bonham, Capt. Tony Yates, George Wilson and Tom Thacker. They were the 1962 NCAA championship team.

Wilson, now 78, grew up an only child. He didn’t know how it felt to have siblings. Those men changed that.

Though some of the men are white and some are Black, they are all Wilson’s “brothers,” he said.

And not just when they were young and freshly minted champions.

“We’re a family. We all called each other when we had kids. We all got married. We all showed up at the weddings, showed up at the funerals,” Wilson said. “That’s what we did for each other.”

It almost didn’t happen

Standing 6-foot-8 and boasting both an inside and outside game, Wilson was the best high school basketball player in Illinois in 1960. He signed a national letter of intent to play for the University of Illinois. But after meeting with one of his heroes, Oscar Robertson, and then-Bearcats coach Ed Jucker, Wilson changed his mind.

“I called Illinois and told them, ‘Nah, I won’t be coming there,'” said Wilson, who would’ve been the Fighting Illini’s lone Black player at the time. Cincinnati had just completed a season with five Black players in its program: Robertson, Paul Hogue, Tony Yates, Tom Thacker and John Bryant.

Robertson was the first player to lead the nation in scoring in three straight seasons, but had just graduated from UC, never having won a national championship for Cincinnati. 

They’d come close. The Bearcats advanced to the Final Four in 1959 and again in 1960, only to finish in third place both years.

Robertson’s coach, George Smith, had stepped down to become the school’s athletic director.

“Oscar was a great player, the best,” Wilson said. “But Oscar needed one more guy.”

Earning their stripes

Jucker, who was an assistant under Smith, took over the program and brought in star recruits Wilson and 6-foot-5 swingman Ron Bonham, the best high school player in Indiana.

Per NCAA regulations, freshmen were ineligible to play on the varsity team until 1972, so Wilson and Bonham had to earn their stripes against other freshman teams and on Cincinnati’s scout team.

Kansas City, March 26, 1961: Trophy of Victory - The Cincinnati Bearcats coach and players hold aloft their trophy after defeating Ohio State, 70-65, in the NCAA championship game. In foreground, from left: Coach Ed Jucker, Tom Thacker, and Bob Wiesenhan (21), captain of the team.
AP Wirephoto
University of Cincinnati/Provided
University of Cincinnati basketball, UC basketball

“I take pride in that,” Wilson said. “Whatever team they were playing, they would get me and Bonham and a couple others to (pretend to) be that team.”

With two of the best freshmen in the country challenging the varsity team in practice, the Bearcats rallied from a 4-3 start to win 21 straight contests and advance to the national championship game. Their opponent: Defending champion and top-ranked Ohio State, complete with Jerry Lucas and John Havlicek.

The Bearcats defeated the Buckeyes 70-65, an overtime upset, to capture the program’s first-ever national championship.

That group was led by senior forward Bob Wiesenhahn, Carl Bouldin, Yates, Hogue and Thacker.

The Choice

In the early ’60s, UC, the school Wilson had chosen, had about 6,000 students. Today, the university welcomes more than 40,000.

The choice worried Wilson’s stepfather, “Mr. Henry,” if only a little.

Mr. Henry told Wilson what to expect in a city that was just a stone’s throw over the Ohio River from the segregated South.

“He sat me down,” Wilson said of his stepfather. “He said, ‘I know you have never experienced this, but you’re going to Cincinnati. I just want to let you know that across the river is Kentucky.’ He said, ‘Kentucky is just like Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, etc.’ That was the first time he ever said anything (about Wilson’s recruitment).”

Wilson said because of that conversation, he knew never to go across the river. He said when his white teammates would go to Kentucky, he would not. He would only travel south to go to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport in Hebron, Kentucky.

Wilson said he personally rarely experienced racism. But it was there.

Wilson said his teammates, Fred Dierking, a white man, and Hogue, a Black man, would occasionally have a drink at a bar on Short Vine. Wilson said during one occasion when Hogue wasn’t there, the bar owner told Dierking, ‘I’m glad you’re by yourself. Next time, can you not bring that (N-word).'”

On the court, Wilson felt relatively safe.

“The only time I saw prejudice and racism was from the referees,” he said. “The players, we all got along. I never got called the N-word or called any bad things on the floor. Except one time, a guy slipped. I didn’t fight him or get mad. I just got on the free-throw line next to him and I said, ‘You know, before this game is over, I’m going to break your neck.’ He kept waiting for me to break his neck. I think I had 25 points that night.”

Jucker, ‘the perfect coach’

Public schools and universities in the South didn’t become fully integrated until the late 1960s. That included the University of Kentucky, which had an all-white basketball program until 1969.

But just across the river, the University of Cincinnati was different. Because Jucker was different.

Ed Jucker was the University of Cincinnati head coach from 1960-1964. He won NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962 and came up just shy of winning in 1963. He left after the 1964 season. He continually asked UC to retire the players numbers. None have been. George Wilson, who played for Jucker, said he deserves to get his #32 retired. No one has ever has done what we did, he said. Jucker also made history when he started four black players in 1962. Photo from February 6, 1964.

Wilson said Jucker saw race but didn’t care about it. Wilson said Jucker’s only concern was winning basketball games while helping to mold boys into young men.

“Juck was like a father for everybody,” he said. “He always had you first and he always thought about you. He was consistent all the time I knew him. He never switched. And that’s all you ask people to do: Just be straight up with me.”

University of Cincinnati basketball coach Ed Jucker, center, makes it clear just what he wants his second-ranked  Bearcats to be thinking about as they prepare for the NCAA Midwest Regionals. Sophomore standouts Tony Yates, left, and Tom Thacker lend Jucker assistance. Dated March 12, 1961.

Jucker didn’t get the credit he deserved on that front. The Texas Western men’s basketball team made history in 1966 by becoming the first team to win the national championship with an all-Black starting lineup. But it was Jucker’s 1961-62 team that made history of its own, winning the national title with four Black players in its starting five.

“He (Jucker) had already gotten some nasty letters and phone calls from that ’61 team because it was Tom Thacker, Tony Yates and Paul Hogue, the only three Black players on the big teams. But when they started winning, the phone calls stopped and the letters stopped. Now, here I come.”

George Wilson, now 78, talks about his playing days at University of Cincinnati in the early 1960's. UC broke barriers when head coach Ed Jucker started four black players in 1962. The team, under Jucker's leadership won back to back national titles in 1961 and 1962. Wilson wants to see his number, #32, retired before he dies. None of the players on those teams have had numbers retired.

During a holiday tournament in New York in the 1961-62 season, Jucker elected to replace Dierking with Wilson in the starting lineup, and with Thacker, Yates, Hogue, Bonham and Wilson leading the way, the Bearcats went on to win the program’s second straight national championship, again defeating Ohio State.

And they almost bagged a third, if it had not been for a 60-58 loss in overtime to Loyola-Chicago in the 1963 championship game.

That outcome still bothers Wilson to this day.

“Don’t get me started,” he said.

Jucker died in 2002. Eight years prior, he had written a letter to Wilson. The letter is framed in Wilson’s basement. Wilson calls it one of his “prized possessions.”

George Wilson, 78, talks about his most prized posession he keeps on his wall at his home in Fairfield, Tuesday, July 28, 2020. It's a letter from Ed Jucker, written in 1996, about the 1962 University of Cincinnati basketball team he coached to a national championship. Jucker coached back to back wins in 1961 and 1962 as a first time coach. UC broke barriers when Jucker started four black players in 1962. Jucker continually asked UC to retire the player's numbers from those teams, but now have been.

“You’re the only player I’ve ever coached that could play every position equally as well,” Jucker wrote in the Sept. 8, 1996 letter. “You knew how to win and how to use your outstanding skills to get the job done. I always looked forward to seeing you and your cheerful smile. Sincerely, Ed Jucker.”

Wilson said he and his “brothers” all cried when Jucker died. Wilson said it’s a loss that still hurts.

“Not only was he the perfect coach, he was the perfect father to everybody,” Wilson said. “He always listened to you. He never put you down. He always had a thing: ‘You’re a team player, now let’s get it done.’ That’s what he did. He would call your parents. He was such a wonderful guy just naturally. He didn’t put on.”

University of Cincinnati head coach Ed Jucker, is lifted high as the 1962 team celebrates a national title. It was their second in a row. George Wilson, #32, is at right. Now 78, he hopes his number can be retired before he dies. It was something Jucker fought for years after he left. Jucker was the first coach to ever start four black players.

‘I’m not going to be here forever’

Jucker is gone. Hogue died in 2009. Bonham died in 2016. Tony Yates died in May. Thacker recently suffered a stroke that makes it difficult for him to speak. Wilson said he knows he doesn’t have many days left.

“I’m 78 years old. I know I’m not going to be here forever,” he said. “I’m a 6-foot-8 Black man in America. I didn’t expect to get this far.”

The 1961 and 1962 national championship banners hang high at Fifth Third Arena. But there is no mention of who captured those titles, the only two in program history. Robertson’s No. 12 is retired, as are Jack Twyman’s No. 27 and Kenyon Martin’s No. 4. Wilson said it’s time to add a few more names and numbers to that list.

“I don’t know when they’re going to ever retire Tom Thacker (No. 25) and my number (No. 32),” said Wilson. “It’s great that Oscar is up there. He’s the greatest. And Kenyon and Jack, but Thacker and I did some things that none of them did.”

George Wilson, 78, talks about barriers he and other black players faced in the early 60's when he played basketball for the University of Cincinnati. Wilson and teammates made history when they won back to back NCAA championships in 1961 and 1962. They were the runner-up in 1963. UC broke barriers when head coach Ed Jucker started four black players in 1962. Wilson was also part of the 1964 US team that won gold at the Olympics in Tokyo. He played seven seasons in the NBA. Photographed at his home, Tuesday, July 28, 2020.

He wonders aloud, questioning again why “we can’t get our number up there while we’re still alive and look up there and see it?”

Thacker was a key member of both UC national championship teams, was a consensus first-team All-American in 1963 and won ABA and NBA championships. Wilson won a gold medal for an undefeated Team USA in the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, and was inducted into the UC Athletics Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Ohio Basketball Hall of Fame in 2010.

John Cunningham, who was hired as the University of Cincinnati’s director of athletics in December, said he admittedly is still learning about the history and the successes of the school’s athletic programs. But he said he would look into ways to better recognize the achievements of Wilson and the other members of those back-to-back national championship teams.

“It’s obviously some of our absolutely best history,” he said. “It’s been a history lesson for me over the last couple of months. So I certainly want to evaluate what Fifth Third looks like. I haven’t gotten there yet. … But with the anniversary coming up, it just makes complete sense that we would do that.”

John Brannen took over the Cincinnati men’s basketball program in April 2019. The 46-year-old Alexandria, Kentucky, native said one of the coolest moments of his first year on the job was having lunch at Montgomery Inn with the players from those teams.

“We walk past those two trophies every day walking into our offices at Lindner (Richard E. Lindner Center),” Brannen said. “So even before your day begins, you are reminded of our rich history. Our players know not only what an honor it is to put on that Bearcat uniform, but also the tradition we are called upon to uphold.”

The tradition is rich, but the men, the “brothers,” who created the most successful years of it have gone largely forgotten. It’s time to change that.

“It’s what Jucker wanted,” Wilson said.

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