Clarence Wilson/Horse Cave
By Gary P. West
How could two Horse Cave, Kentucky kids wind up being stars for one of the most iconic sports team of all-time . . . The Harlem Globetrotters? You’re about to find out.
When Abe Saperstein came up with the idea for an all-black traveling basketball team no one could have ever dreamed that his efforts would lead to possibly the most well-known sports team in the world.
As a 24-year-old in 1926 Saperstein had set out to organize a team to help promote a nightclub, but three years later, realizing its potential, he renamed his local team, calling them the Harlem Globetrotters.
The name was all hype. They weren’t from Harlem and had never been outside of the United States . . . at least not yet.
Over the next 18 years he continued looking for the best black players he could find. The Globetrotters became so popular that in order to meet the demands Saperstein formed three separate squads playing throughout the country and overseas.
The Trotters were considered entertainment, pure and simple, and with the recent formation of the American Basketball League and its rosters made up of only white players, Saperstein was able to corral players whose showmanship included unbelievable shooting, fantastic passing, and even more amazing ball-handling.
By 1948 the Globetrotters were ready to prove, with all of those showtime accolades, they were the best basketball team in the world . . .
And they did just that.
In February 1948, they handed George Mikan, all 6-foot 10 of him, and his Minneapolis Lakers a 61-59 defeat in Chicago Stadium as 18,000 fans watched. The Lakers went on to win the ABL championship that year. The following year, again the Trotters beat the Lakers in front of 22,000 fans in Chicago 49-45. The Laker’s went on to win the inaugural NBA title.
By now the Globetrotters had become relevant as a “real” basketball team, and from 1950 through 1961 they played a multi-game, cross-country schedule annually against the College All-Stars. During that span the Trotters defeated the collegians 166 times while losing only 44.
While Reece “Goose” Tatum and Marques Haynes drew much of the team’s attention, it was a pair of Horse Cave, Kentucky boys who for several years became feature players on the team. With Tatum’s clowning and Haynes dribbling, they could entertain, but with Clarence Wilson and Carl Helem now on the team they could win.
Wilson and Helem led Horse Cave Colored to two straight undefeated seasons that included back-to-back state titles, sixty-five wins in a row. Along the way the tiny school had four straight wins over the powerful Louisville Central Yellow Jackets, and another legendary program, Lexington Dunbar.
Horse Cave’s 1943-44 team beat Louisville Central in the championship game 42-39 in Frankfort, and the proud Yellow Jackets were so caught up in getting revenge that they scheduled an early season rematch the following year. Central lost again, this time in Munfordville and later in Louisville, and then in the state quarter finals to make it four in a row.
Coach Newt Thomas had first arrived in Horse Cave in 1936 to become the school’s principal, and then reluctantly agreeing to coach a start-up basketball team. He quickly brought himself up to speed by attending an Adolph Rupp clinic.
Although there were often the smallest of newspaper headlines touting the successes of the all-black teams across Kentucky, real basketball fans knew just how good some of these teams were, and black or white, they wanted to see them play.
With Carl Helem’s strong inside play near the basket, and Clarence Wilson’s spot-on outside shooting, Horse Cave Colored many thought was the best team – – black or white in Kentucky. And when you consider that it was Louisville Male, led by future UK great Ralph Beard, the Horse Cave team must have been very good.
Right after the state tournament the Coach, Newt Thomas, took his team to Bowling Green and won a tournament featuring the best black teams from both Kentucky and Tennessee.
Two weeks later the team boarded a Greyhound bus in Horse Cave and headed south to Nashville to play in the first annual all-black national high school basketball tournament. Horse Cave Colored had already played at the tournament’s site, when earlier in the season they had defeated Nashville Pearl, the city’s largest black school, in their 4,500-seat gym.
Some recalled that Coach Thomas relished the talk that his Horse Cave kids were a clear favorite to win it all.
True to form, Horse Cave won their first two games, running their win streak to 65. Now facing Douglass High School, the state champion from Oklahoma, only seconds remained with Horse Cave up by one.
Here’s the way Dick Burdette wrote about it in his book “The Harlem Globetrotters”:
Douglas had possession directly under their own basket. As they had all game long, Horse Cave players smothered Douglas. There appeared to be nowhere to inbound the ball. Then Nay Taylor, the Douglas star who was standing near the foul line called out, “Here, let me take it out.”
Then he began walking toward the end line. A Horse Cave defender relaxed. Suddenly, Taylor broke toward the basket, took a quick trick pass and laid it in.
Horse Cave lost and Douglass went on to win the national championship.
Wilson and Helem went on to have Hall-of-Fame careers at Tennessee State in Nashville before becoming Globetrotters. Wilson had not only joined the Trotters, but had also signed a professional baseball contract with the Cleveland Indians.
Horse Cave residents were proud of Wilson and Helem, and the pair, no matter where they traveled throughout the world, thought often of their little rural town with the funny name.
When Clarence Wilson’s career was over he had been named the team’s captain and considered their best outside shooter. And his 12-years was the longest continuous tenure of any team member in history.
Wilson would return to his hometown to live, before later moving to Louisville. Helem moved to Ashland.
Another Clarence had his memories of Clarence Wilson. Clarence Glover, who went on to play for Western Kentucky University’s 1971 Final Four team and then the Boston Celtics grew up in Horse Cave, too.
“Even when he was with the Trotters he would come back in the summer and coach Little League baseball,” says Glover. “He’d go over to the gym and shoot. He was fantastic . . . standing back near mid-court, he’d shoot the ball over the (ceiling) rafters and make ‘em. He’d hit about 50 before he quit.”
Later in life Wilson made a request of Glover he will never forget.
“I was at Western, and Mr. Wilson had moved to Louisville,” recalled Glover. “He ask me to talk to his son about the importance of education. ‘I’m his father and you are his hero,’ he told me.”
Another Horse Cave resident, Ken Russell, remembered a special treat Wilson did for all of the Little League teams.
“I was probably 7-years-old,” Russell said. “And he took all of the teams to the Louisville Garden to see the Globetrotters. He was retired then but he had our names on the marquee and after the game we went to the lockers and met Meadow Lark (Lemon) and Curly Neal. As time went on we realized how really special Clarence Wilson was.”
There was another time Russell will always remember.
“‘To Tell the Truth’ was a popular TV show back in the 50s,” he said. “It was one of those shows where the panel is blind-folded and they try to guess who’s on the show or what do they do. Well, it was the Globetrotters, and Clarence Wilson was their spokesman. He mentioned Horse Cave, Kentucky.
“We all knew he was going to be on TV that night and Horse Cave almost shut down. Not everybody had TVs back then, but I remember everybody going to people’s homes that did.”
Horse Cave sits in the middle of cave country, but it should also be remembered as a community that produced two sons who helped lay the foundation for the Harlem Globetrotters.
There’s no excuse. Get up, get out, and get going! Gary P. West can be reached at email@example.com.