RIP to “Jumping” Johnny Wilson, who was the oldest surviving member of the famed Harlem Globetrotters basketball team. He was a multi-talented athlete was was also a member of the 1949 Chicago American Giants of the Negro Leagues. He died on Friday, January 11 at the age of 91. According to news reports, he had been in good health up until Christmas Day before coming down with pneumonia.
Wilson was a standout basketball player at Anderson High School in Indiana, where he earned his nickname by being the only player on his team who could dunk. The team made it to the state semifinals in 1944, but Wilson got hurt and couldn’t play in the last game, which his team lost. Upon his graduation from high school, he was named Mr. Basketball, an award given to the state’s top high school basketball player, awarded by the Indianapolis Star. He had hoped to play at Indiana University, but the Big 10 had not integrated yet, and it didn’t seem likely that the Indiana coach at the time would try to change the status quo. Instead Wilson attended Anderson University in Indiana and majored in history and physical education.
Wilson signed a contract with the Chicago American Giants in 1949, Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any statistics from that year. Wilson then joined the Globetrotters and played around the world with the team from 1949 until 1954.
Wilson made one other contribution to baseball, inadvertently. While in high school, he became close friends with one of his white teammates named Carl Erskine. Erskine went on to have a 12-year career with the Dodgers, starting with 1948 Brooklyn team. He was teammates with Jackie Robinson, who had integrated MLB just the year before. Erskine’s presence gave Robinson what I’m sure was a much-needed friendly face in the locker room.
Erskine, now 92, said that Robinson came up to him one day and said, “Hey Erskine, how come you don’t have a problem with this black and white thing?”
“I said, ‘Well, I grew up with Johnny Wilson,'” Erskine told the Indy Star. “‘I didn’t know he was black. He was my buddy. And so I don’t have a problem.'”
After his playing career ended, Wilson finished his degree in education and became a teacher in Indiana. He became the first African-American head coach of an integrated school when he became the basketball coach at Wood High School. He also spent 16 years as the head coach and athletic director at Malcolm X College in Chicago. He teams compiled a 378-135 W-L record during his tenure.
Wilson is a member of the Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame, the Anderson University Hall of Fame and the Anderson Black Expo Basketball Hall of Fame.