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October 25, 1968 - Image 5

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 1968-10-25

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LLOYD GRAFF

The

Courtship

of

Earle

YOU LOOK at Earle Higgins, cocoa
skin, hair in a natural, black turtle
neck tight enough to show his clav-
icle, severely tapered cuffless cotton
slacks that make his legs seem four
hat racks long, and those supple
hands-boneless sponges that ingest
a basketball-and you try to pictu're
him with a ten gallon white stetson,
cowboy boots, and billowing rawhide
chaps, balanced shakily on a snort-
ing palomina, ahd you've just got to
chuckle.
Earle chuckles, too-wryly.
Because for Earle Higgins, erstwhile
black cowboy of Casper, Wyoming,
nothing is terribly amusing t h e s e
days.
Earle Brent Higgins, 21, is a basket-
ball player - but also a husband,
father, a moonlighting assembly line
worker, anEastern Michigan student,
the owner of a Pontiac GTO, the pos-
sessor of a disconnected phone, an ad-
mitted thief-and- perhaps most im-
portant now-an appellant in it h e
Courts of Michigan. .
It is in the Cour~ts that Earle Hig-
ings is fighting for his basketball life.
He is appealing his conviction for
breaking and entering an occupied
I dwelling.
Higgins was, sentenced to 60 days
in jail (at a time of his choosing),
$675 in Court costs, and five years
probation. The ringer was that the
judge decreed that he could not play
basketball varsity or pro, while on
probation, without the permission of
the colrt.
HIGGIN'S LAWYER, Sheldon Otis of
Detroit, claims in his motion be-
fore the State Court of Appeals, that
the basketball provision is a cruel
and unusual punishment, violating
the Eighth Amendment of the Con-
stitution.
In a fluorish of forensic prose Otis
analogizes the Trial Court decision.
"No one would sit still if the judge
gave Higgins a bhoice of having his,
testicles removed or go to prison...
Maybe such a decision was permissi-
ble in the year 1871 . . . But it is not
permissible in the year 1968. Yet the
trial judge here has just as effectively
sought to castrate Earle Higgins."
Otis also argues that the terms of
the probation are unduly vague as
they do not ,indicate what Higgins
must do to gain the court's permission
to play basketball.,
But while the judicial process oozes
on, Earle Higgins is "just tryin' to
make it on the humbug, just tryin'
to get by 'til things get better." Earle's
no novice at humbugging
"I was -born down iy Cincinnati,"
Earle says In his soft almost melodious
voice, "You know, it wasn't too easy.
* My father, he was killed in. Korea. And
my mother she remarried, but then
that didn't work out good. And then
she married again for a third time.
And well, me and the third husband,
she's still married to him, we just
never got along. We just didn't have
anything in common. Really it was
just my brother and I down in Cin-
cinnati, we lived together and went
together. He's oldet than me and he,
took care of me.
"Well, -in '63. my mother and. her
husband were' fighting around and
they decided to come to visit Ann
Arbor where my grandfather lives.
He's a chef at the Michigan Union. We,
stayed at his house for awhile and
then we just thought it would be

good if I stayed with him, you know,
with my mother's husband and me
not getting along and all," Earle re-
calls. , .
ARLE'S GRANDFATHER became
his legal guardian and Higgins
started at Ann Arbor High Sohool..But
he seriously gonsidered chucking high
school for a job like his older brother
Charles did. .
"But my brother wanted me to go
to school even though he wouldn't go
himself. I really wanted to follow my
brother and do what he did, but he
made me go back," 'Earle says.
Charles "Butch" Higgins jockeys
Bonnevilles into cozy parking spaces
all day in a Detroit lot. He and Earley
are still quite close. When Earle was
in Wyoming, Butch 'frequently sent
' him mo ey, and at Christmas when
Earle was embroiled in problems,
Butch sent him plane tickets round-
trip to Detroit.
Amn A'rhnr HiohSh i% two-Cars-

But the boosters of the Purple and
White Pioneers soon found that the
tall skinny kid from Cincinnati who
didn't talk much, had moves he didn't
have to talk much about.
The kid from Cincinnati became
the hero of Ann Arbor, the Cazzie
Russell of Michigan high s c h o o 1
basketball. In his senior year he took
Ann Arbor High to the finals in the
State Tournament in Lansing. The
Pioneers lost in overtime to Ferndale.
after Higgins fouled out.
Earle averaged 23 points per game'
that year, '65-'66, setting a record for
everything except most fiberglass
backboards broken -in a season (3,
held by many). The basketball pundits
named him High School All-Ameri-
can, All-State, All-Tournament.
ED KLUM, basketball coach at Ann
Arbor High during the "Higgins
Era", remembers Earle fondly, and
still keeps in touch with him. Higgins
calls Klum a second father.
"Earle was-quiet, unassuming, not
the 'kind to point to the bleachers
and then hit a homer, not the guy
who'd come into the huddle and say
'Coach have them feed me the ball,
and I'll win it,'" Klum recalls. He'd
just go out and do it without any fan-
fare. I remember when Earle had a
foot so sore he could barely walk. He
begged that we take him to the game,
and then 'he asked to, have the foot
frozen. Earle went out and scored 47
points that night.
"But Earle was not the kind of per-
son to go off and do things by him-
self. He had to have somebody to lead
him. I guess I gave him direction in
basketball, but he didn't have any
strong figure to help him off the bas-
ketball court. I'm afraid that if you
put Earle in a situation where the
leader of the group said 'C'mon, let's
rob a liquor store,' or 'lets go get.
drunk tonight,' he'd probably go
along," says Ed /Klum.
Over 280 athletic scholarship offers
dribbled into Earles home, about 200
more than Cazzie Russell received.
But with all the glory there were
still troubles at home.
"My grandfather," says Earle a bit
ruefully, "you know, he's kind of old
fashioned. He set up a whole lot of
rules , and regulations,' and I just
couldn't put up with them. As I look
back now he was pretty wise and I
probably should have followed what
he said. But it finally got to be too
many arguments, at home so I moved
out late in my senior year into 4n
apartment with some other guys."

route to major college stardom. O. J.
Simpson was at San Francisco City
College before jumping to Southern
California to become Superman. Sam-
my Williams, All-American forward at
Iowa last season interned at Burling-
ton Jr. College. Spencer Haywood, the
starting center for the American
'Olympic Basketball team, racked up
credits at Trinidad Jr. College in
Colorado last year, and will be crush-
ing mere mortals for the University of
Detroit after Mexico City.
Dave Strack is friendly with Eric
"Swede" Erickson, the Adolph Rupp of
Casper, Wyoming and he put Swede'
and Earle in contact. It was one of
Strack's less successful efforts at
matchmaking.
So come September, Earle tooled out,
to where the buffalo roam and foun4c
to his black chagrin that of 3000
students at Casper -J.C., six were
Negroes.
"Oh man, was it bad. Cowboys, rod-
eos, horses, like that's all there was,"
says Earle holding his head. "Yeah,
I even rode a horse a couple of times.
All you could do was join in.
"And then there was Swede Erick-
son., Ie was the type who'd say one
thing and do something else. He'd
show favoritism. But he did know
basketball, and I respect him for that.
"But he was the type of dude, if
you'd sneeze he'd want you to tell him
about it."
Earle 'thought his sniffles were his
own business. He also thought so
about Jackie Merkel.
Jackie Merkel is a petite brunette,
with a girl-next-door look except for
a chipped front tooth. Her father sells
used cars in Ann Arbor. Her entire
family hails from the South, and
though she has spent her lift in the
North, a s w a t h of Dixie cuts right
through her speech. She greets a visit-
or with "Haa- there y'all."
Well, not long after Earle.lit out
for Wyoming, Jackie boarded a Grey-
hound in pursuit' dead set on getting
married. However, Swede Erickson,,
among many many others, wasn't too
high on the idea, and heartily discour-
aged any interracial dating at Casper.
jACKIE HAD been in Casper just a
J few weeks when things began to
get sticky. A lifted television set
wound up where Jackie was living.
The facts of the case vary with the
teller, but both Earle and Jackie end-
ed up in police custody when the set
was discovered.
"Oh that Chief of Police, he almost
had a heart attack on the spot," re-

Higgins
John Hannah of Michigan State and
DeLyte Morrison at Southern Illinois.
An important phase of college em-
pire building is raising an athletic
colossus. Spondberg imported F. L.
"Frosty" Ferzacca, who had hammer-
ed together a sports dynamo at
Northern Michigan, to juice up the
Zastern Michigan program.
Ferzacca assigned Jim Dutcher the
task of taking EMU basketball into
the big time. Earle Higgins was Dut-
chet's chance.
Dutcher, an aggressive young'coach
with solid rapport with his players,
had recruited Earle in high school
along with everybody else who knew
a dunk from a free throw. Earle took
the Casper route instead, but he never
forgot Dutcher.
The situation in Casper convinced
Earle that Wyoming was a groovy
place for grizzly bears but not for him.
Michigan was out because he did not
have the necessary 'B' average to
transfer after one year. Even if he
wanted to come to Michigan NCAA
rules would have forced him to sit out
one year of eligibility.
Eastern Michigan on the other hand
is a member of the NAIA, a small col-
'lege association, with less restrictive
transfer rules. Earle could not only
transfer from Cosper with his grade
point average, but was eligible to play
without sitting out a year.
EARLE HIGGINS and EMU clicked.
Averaging 21 points per game and
10 rebounds he brought the Hurons to
the quarterfinals.of the NAIA Tour-
naent in Kansas City. He was named
second team NAIA All-American be-
hind the likes of Bob Kauffman o'f
Guilford, and Charlie Paulk of North-
east Oklahoma, both first round draft
choices in the NBA.
The Kentucky Colonels basketball
team of the ABA this spring expressed
interest in Earle, thinking that he was
a senior, not a sophomore. The U.S.
Olympic team invited him to try out,
the only player in a Mihigan college
to receive such a bid.
Higgins, at 6'71", 190 pounds, dis-
played the agility and touch which
pro scouts lust for. He dribbles well
and passes adroitly, and shoots a
deadly 15 foot jump shot. He has the
moves of a man five inches shorter,
and like Oscar Robertson or Cazzie
Russell, plays guard, forward, and
center with equal facility. His only
real need is more beef, which helps
when scrapping for rebounds.
"Earle could be an outstanding pro
guard if he improves his ballhandling

1y40
ding but the cops informed him that
there was no way they could step in.
Jackie and her father have not talked
since.
She became pregnant a couple of
months after the marriage. Jamie
Denise Higgins entered the troubled
scene n May of this year.
"Earle is a good father," says Jackie
thoughtfully. He loves the baby. I
don't know which he loves more,
Jamie or basketball. Probably basket-
ball." "He's moody and sensitive, gets
up and down a lot, but he's happiest
when hes playing basketball. I never
really seen him that much because
/he's so wrapped up in basketball. Like
during the summer. He' worked for the
Ann Arbor Recreation Department,
coaching kids, organizing games. He
loved it. He'd playfrom early morning
to 11:00 at night. He just can't get
enough of the game. He lives for it."
George Beaudette, assistant direc-
tor of Ann Arbor recreation, hired
Earle last summer as a playground
supervisor. Beaudette has known him
for several years.
"He's grown up tremendously since
the baby was born," remarks Beau-
dette. "He's done a great job of ma-
turing in the last year.' "Earle's got
magnificent rapport with kids, they
just love to be around him, not be-
cause he's a great player, but because
he can convey his knowledge and love
of the game."
Higgins not only tutored his local
following last summer. He 'received a
little tutoring himself. Earle scrim-
maged against the likes of J i m m y
Walker, startng guard for the Detroit
Pistons, Sonny Dove, reserve forward
for Detroit, and Spencer Haywood,
America's hope in the Olympics.
"I held my own against them: I
think I could do Walker in about as
often as he'd do me in, if I got used to
playing against him," says Earle of
the former Providence All-American.
BUT WHETHER Earle Higgins gets a
chance at pro basketball probably
depends on the Courts of Michigan.
When Judge James Breakey sen-
tenced Earle to five years' probation,
during which time he could not play

basketball without the permission of
the Court, the Judge felt he was do-
ing the best for Higgins. After all, it
wasn't prison.
Breakey felt that the sentence of-
fered the enticement necessary for re-
habilitation. But what he did not un-
derstand was Earle Higgins's passion
for basketball, a driving lust for the
game which reduces everything else
in life to incidentals.
Peter Jamison, captain of this
year's Pioneer High School Basketball
team, friend and protege of Earle, de-
scribes Higgins's intensity for the
sport:
"Earle's whole life has been aimed
at one thing, playing 'pro basketball.
He's thrown his whole being into the
game. He's a natural, but he'll prac-
tice endlessly to in'prove. Earle plead-
ed with Breakey not to take away
basketball, and that's not like him. It
just hurts me as his friend to see him

A young man defines himself in a certain way, in this case, as
a basketball player. What happens if some outside force tries to
redefine him?

sdoubt himself as a person And it just
makes me sick to see it,' he. says bit-
terly.
Jackie 'Higgins comments on the
effect of the decision:
"When he asked me the other night
if he was a good basketball player, I
knew it was getting to him. He's never
had to ask me that question before."
WHEN JUDGE BREAKEY announv-
ed his sentence, it came' as a sur-
prise to everyone.
"Of course, I was shocked," says
Earle, "but there's nothing I can do
about it, unless it's overruled. I don't
think the cat's prejudiced. He thought
he was doing right, I guess."
But a lot of other folks didl't feel
Breakey was either, unprejudiced dr
doing right. Several angry letters
flowed into the Ann Arbor News on
the sentence. A lieutenant of t h e
Reverend Jesse Jackson, a prime
mover of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference,, called Earle
inquiring whether he wanted SCLC
backing for a Court fight. Earle de-
clined, preferring to stay out of the
racial crucible.
A group of local people raised $300
to help Earle pay for attorney Otis'
,appeal. A U of M black fraternity con-
tributed $50 to the defense fund.
Judge Breakey's sentence caught all
parties off guard because neither the
Prosecutor, Police Department, or
Probation Department mentioned
anything about basketball in their
recommendations for sentence.
Breakey, a slight man with an owl-
ish visage and heavily freckled face,
has spent 23 years on the bench. He
graduated from Eastern Michigan
and taught music there from 1920-
1931 before devoting himself to law.
He believes that the sentence will
give Earle a clear direction to follow.
But those who are closest to Earle
Higgins fear that Breakey removed
Earle's only alternative to a listless,
disillusioned wandering.
Earle Higgins refuses to give in yet.
He has re-enrolled at Eastern t h i s
term without any scholarship aid
from the University. He works sixty
hours per month cleaning up Bowen
Fieldhouse and generally maing
himself useful to the athletic depart-
ment. For this effort they pay him
$102, enough to cover his rent for a
one bedroom apartment in EMU mar-
ried student housing. His wife cash-
iers at the University Bookstore, and
Earle will soon be working a 8-12
night shift on the assembly line at
Gar Wood's Ypsi plant.
Earle owes over $400 in personal
loans, a large lawyer's fee, and $675
in court costs.
The phone remains disconnected.
And the glimmer of that pro con-
tract grows dimmer every season
Earle misses of collegiate competition.
"So what good is a once great bas-
ketball star if he has to start over at
26," says Peter Jamison grimly.
Jackie Higgins views the future
with the same shiver of fear.
"I don't know how I'll be able to
live with Earle without basketball. I

ONE OF THE problems at home was
Earle's romance with Jackie Mer-
kel, a white girl, now his wife. His
grandfather was bitterly opposed to
the match. "Really there . weren't a
whole lot of people for it," Earl chor-
tles.
Earle "Wash" Higgins (nickname
comes from "Wash" Allen, a disc jock-
ey on WJLB, Detroit, who comes in
loud and clear on. Earles' frequency,
frequently) spent the latter part of
his senior year figuring out what bas-
ketball coach he would bless with his
talents.
Naturally Dave Strack, University
of Michigan Basketball Coach wanted
Higgins. A local boy, he'd fill the new
Michigan Field House with Ann Arbor
bolk who have traditionally been
about as interested in Bocci as Mich-
igan basketball. To many observers,
Higgins looked like the man who
could take Cazzie Russell's place.
(Cazzie, incidentally, was Higgins'
idol, and often played Earle one-on-
one in playground games.)
But Higgins was a marginal stu-
dent. Strack could not justify his ad-
mission on the basis of Earl's grades
and Scholastic Aptitude Tests.
Earle wanted Michigan. He liked
Ann Arbor and didn't want to leave
Jackie Merkel. He hoped to f o 11 o w
Cazzie. "And my grandfather really
wanted me to go to Michigain," says
Earle. His grandfather, Frank Cooper,
had been preparing meals for U of M
athletes for years.

members Jackie with relish. "'You
mean you came all the, way from
Michigan to see a colored boy,' he
,said. He just couldn't believe it. Then
he locked me up. First time I'd ever
been in jail. You wouldn't believe the
people, the characters in that jail,"
she says with a twinkle.
"Then they put me in a foster home.
I was 18, but they still put me in a
foster home. And what foster home?
The home of the Chief of Police.
Wouldn't you know it? He was really
pretty nice, he just couldn't get over
it, you know, me and'Earle."
Under a Wyoming statute Higgins
was placed on two-year probation for
possession of stolen goods, without
undergoing trial. The Wyoming stat-
ute is similar to the Michigan Youth-
ful Offender Act. A provision of the
probation was that it would last for
only one year if he stayed in Wyom-
ing, but two if he left the state. And
under the statute if Earle violated
the probation, he could be tried for
possession of stolen goods in Wyom-
ing at a later date.
After the bout with the police Earle
soured on the state of Wyoming.
He made second team Jr. College
All-American at Casper, but he want-
ed out.
Jim Dutcher, basketball coach at
Eastern Michigan University in Ypsi-
lanti wanted in.
EASTER MICHIGAN, that cute little
teachers college in Ypsi whose

a bit. He really chews up a smaller
guard if he takes him close to the
bucket," says Coach Dutcher.
But with all his success on the
Court, Earle Higgins was flunking in
the Courts.
Not long after the school year be-
gan at Eastern, Earle, who's been
known to tie one on occasionally, got
bombed. Lubricating himself nicely at
one party on campus he headed for
another in Ann Arbor. But somewhere
between bashes, the police picked him
up with a couple of purses, allegedly
lifted out of an apartment building on
Geddes. A witness identified- him as;
the one who entered several apart-
ments, allegedly prowling for money.
Earle was booked for breaking and
entering an occupied dwelling - max-
imum penalty 15 years in prison.
On the advice of Robert Shankland,
eda Court appointed lawyer, Earle
pleaded guilty. Judge James B. Break-
ey, Jr., heard the case, and issued sev-.
,eral delays to get records from Wyom-
ing and to decide on the sentence.
With the delays, Higgins was able
to get in a full season for EMU. It was
a year of growth for Earle, according
to those close to him.
"You could feel him growing, ma-
turing," says a man who knows him
well. "He became a team man on the'
Court as the season progressed, and he
won the respect of his teammates.
They didn't feel like they were play-
ing with a criminal. His teachers all
said that he became more attentive

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