Harrison Fitch: Before Kemba, Emeka and Ray
Published: Sunday, September 23, 2012
Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013 17:08
The shirt Harrison Fitch was wearing, a sleeveless jersey with the capital letter “C” etched on the front, was white. If only his skin was too, none of this misery would have ever occurred.
Fitch had never lived an easy life, but January 28, 1934 proved particularly difficult. A sophomore at Connecticut State College – which would later be renamed University of Connecticut – Fitch earned a position as the school basketball team’s first-ever black player. That Tuesday, the squad faced the U.S. Coast Guard Academy from New London, Connecticut. The Coast Guard would not admit its first black cadet for another 28 years. The NBA would not sign its first black player for another 16. Jackie Robinson would not come for another 13.
Shortly before the opening tipoff was scheduled, Coast Guard officials walked onto the court angrily. They moved that “no negro players be permitted to engage in contests at the Academy.” If “the negro” played, quite simply, then their team would not.
The ensuing arguments became quite heated. The Coast Guard threatened to refuse participation if Fitch played, while Connecticut threatened to refuse participation if the exact opposite happened. Fitch silently took it all in, hardly surprised. Catcalls, racial epithets, booing, ethnic taunts – these were all par for the course.
As a form of nonverbal protest, Connecticut started warming up with Fitch. He passed the ball to Cornelius Donahue, rebounded for Eugene Lewis, guarded Nathan Lipman, faked to Phillip Greasley, swiped at Edward Shages, blocked Joseph Gold. Nothing needed to be said aloud.
After several hours, eleven o’clock at night rolled around and the teams finally agreed to play. On one condition. “You are sitting out the game,” coach John Heldman informed Fitch calmly.
“What?” Fitch replied.
“You heard me.”
The “Nutmeg” school yearbook would look back at the match as “rough and full of fouls,” the physical aggressiveness no doubt egged on by the flaring interpersonal tensions. Connecticut ultimately won, 31 - 29. (Apparently, during this era 31 points was enough to secure victory in a basketball game). The team would not be so lucky for the rest of the schedule, ultimately finishing the season with a losing record, going 7-8 in head coach John Heldman’s final complete year.
Fitch kept his head held high while sitting on the sidelines, watching from so close yet so far as his teammates and friends competed with the intensity he had come to know so well. The box score that night indicated that Fitch scored zero points.
After the completion of his sophomore year that June, Fitch transferred to American International College in Springfield, Massachusetts. After graduation he later worked for Monsanto Corporation, a sustainable agriculture company based in Mystic, Connecticut. He married Hazel Brandrum and had two sons, Charles and Harrison Brooks. He died in the 1990s.
ESPN in August ranked UConn as the ninth-best college basketball program of the past half-century, a legacy built largely on the backs of black players. The team’s 14 most recent NBA draft selections were all black. Seven of the 11 current roster members are black. Last week, Kevin Ollie was appointed the program’s first black head coach. UConn’s three national championships were led by blacks like Richard Hamilton and Khalid El-Amin in 1999, Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon in 2004, Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb in 2011. And that’s not even counting greats like Ray Allen, Hasheem Thabeet, Donyell Marshall, Andre Drummond, Rudy Gay, Caron Butler…
Have any of those legendary starters ever even so much as heard of Harrison Fitch? The odds seem highly unlikely. Yet they should know who he was. In fact, we all should – black, white, and every skin color in between. True, Harrison Fitch was far from the best player to wear the UConn basketball jersey. But, he was the reason that so many of the best players could.