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[Audio] The Legacy of Coach "Big House" Gaines, Basketball Hall of Famer from Paducah

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Courtesy of Pogue Library
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Long-time Winston-Salem basketball coach Clarence "Big House" Gaines was born and raised in Paducah. He went on to win numerous awards, including being one of the few African American coaches inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. On Sounds Good, Matt Markgraf speaks with Sarah Hopley, Special Collections & Exhibits Librarian, about the legacy of Big House Gaines and his thoughts on Paducah and the region before, during and after the Civil Rights Movement.

A Lifetime of Achievements

Clarence "Big House" Gaines was the second most "winningest" coach in college basketball when he retired in 1993. He's now the 15th, with 828 wins over 47 years. He was one of the only African American coaches inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. He was on the Olympic Committee working with the basketball team in the 60s and 70s. The Air Force hired him to teach basketball clinics all over the world, including Mexico, Germany and countries in Africa. He won coach of the year five times.

Paducah Roots

Gaines was born in 1923 in Paducah and went to high school in Paducah before leaving to attend Morgan College in Maryland. His parents stayed in Paducah. His father was a chef at a hotel and his mother worked on an assembly line. His uncle Emmanuel Bolin owned the first black business in downtown Paducah - a creamery, which Gaines said was open and closed before he was born, in the early 1900s.

Coaching at Winston-Salem

He started coaching at Winston-Salem University, an historically black college when he started, through connections with an alum at Morgan. Gaines had a degree in chemistry with a minor in math. They were looking for a math professor and someone to help coach sports. He played football in high school and basketball with his church team.

At Winston-Salem, Gaines oversaw the careers of legendary players like Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Cleo Hill - the first African American from a predominately African American school to be a number one draft pick for the NBA. Gaines' son, Clarence Jr., was a scout for the Chicago Bulls in the 90s (during their record years) and is now VP of Player Personnel for the Knicks. He also runs a Facebook page dedicated to his father's legacy.

"Big House"

In his freshmen year of college, Gaines was 6'4" and 265 pounds. Friends commented that he was as big as a house, never seeing anyone as large as he was. Hence, the nickname "Big House."

Growing Up in Segregated Paducah

In the oral history recordings at Pogue Library, Gaines spoke with a friend from Paducah. They talk about growing up in the 30s and 40s. He tells a story about how they had to walk past a white school to get to his school and remembered the kids yelling racial slurs and throwing rocks at them. Eventually, Gaines and his friend started taking another - longer - route, which sometimes made them late for school.

Gaines said he loved the school he went to. He was interested in music and played the piano and trumpet. He says sometimes he'd play with the band during halftime games. He talked about how his music teacher at Lincoln High School had a masters degree from the University of Chicago, showing that educated people came to teach in smaller towns. He also talked about how important the community, church and family was to him growing up and how his teachers holding him responsible is what allowed him to succeed in life.

Civil Rights Movement & Paducah

He thought the Civil Rights Movement was great, but commented that Paducah was moving slower than the rest of the country, compared to Winston Salem. He said the biggest problem was that people weren't changing. When he came back to visit his family, he said it'd be the same people, standing on the same corners talking about the same things. "If nothing is changing, then how do you progress?" Hopley says, recounting his story.

He said he thought things were better when it was segregated because he felt African Americans worked better in their own community and could understand each other better. Hopley says this is interesting to look at from today's perspective, but says back then when you were always among people who experienced the same thing you were and then going out amongst people who held a prejudice or weren't supportive of you joining their community, then that had to be a hard and scary thing to do.

In the late 1970s was when this recording took place, and Gaines said African Americans were still being held back economically in Paducah. His example was that if you needed to buy a house and you were black, you'd have to put 80% down. He said if you have 80% to put down then you don't need a loan. Comparatively, when he and his wife bought a house in Winston-Salem in 1954, he could get the house with a 4% down payment.

Gaines died in 2005 at the age of 81.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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