Shake . . . Or Not

October 8, 2008
Posted by Jay Livingston

It was on YouTube minutes after the debate ended, and liberal bloggers all over the Internet were linking to it. It appears that McCain refuses to shake hands with Obama. In the video, McCain taps Obama on the back, Obama turns and offers his hand, but McCain, rather than shaking hands, points to his wife, and Obama shakes hands with Cindy. Just at that moment Wolf Blitzer is saying, “It’s apparent that Senator McCain has some disdain . . . for Senator Obama.”

The clip is misleading. It’s taken out of context. The candidates had already shaken hands, and McCain was trying to get Obama to shake hands with Cindy as well, not instead of.

But the canard reminded me of another interracial failure to shake. This one was real, and it had consequences for winning and losing.

In the NIT basketball tournament in 1950 at Madison Square Garden, the University Kentucky Wildcats played the team from City College. Kentucky, under legendary coach Adolf Rupp, was the number three ranked team in the nation. It was also all white. In fact, Rupp had been quoted as saying that a black would never play on one of his teams.

The CCNY team was made up mostly of blacks and Jews. The coach, Nat Holman, was Jewish. As Marvin Kalb later characterized it, “It was not a basketball game. It was a cultural war.”

CCNY wasn’t given much of a chance to win. Kentucky had just taken the SEC championship, beating Tennessee 95 - 58. But after the warm-up, as the teams gathered at their benches, Coach Holman had an idea. He told his team that, you know, fellas, just for the sake of sportsmanship, why don’t you go over to the Kentucky bench and shake hands with their guys. Holman knew what was going to happen, but apparently his players didn’t. As Kalb tells it,
I watched as Floyd Lane put his hand out and this tall, blonde, gorgeous giant turned away from Floyd, which is exactly what Holman wanted...... to get Floyd very upset..... to get all of the other players upset. And Floyd hissed out at the guy, “You gonna be picking cotton in the morning, man!”
Nobody on the Kentucky team would shake hands with the black CCNY players.

Holman’s strategy worked. At halftime, CCNY led 45 - 20 and went on to win the game 89 - 50.

Hat tip: I myself was not at the Garden that night – I’m old, but not that old. This story was first told to me by my friend Dave Fleischner, a grandnephew of Nat Holman.

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