Below is the second of a two-part series about the Hilarious Jesters, a traveling team of former college players who broke racial barriers in the early 1960s. Most stories of integration in the South of this era highlight African Americans entering white worlds, but in this case the Jesters featured a couple white players playing on a primarily black team vs. all-black teams.
The Little Rock-based group initially included core African-American players such as Chester Lane, Marion Rice and John Davis, as well as McPherson. McPherson later brought Ray Paladino aboard, along with another white player, Charles Taylor. As I mentioned the article, originally published in Arkansas Life, this group scrimmaged against high-level talent such as Harlem Globetrotter extraordinaire Geese Ausbie and NBA player Wayne Yates.
Likely central Arkansas’ first semi-professional integrated basketball team, the Jesters competed primarily against all-black squads of players hailing from communities such as Marked Tree, Marion, Clarendon, Holly Grove, Newport, England, Altheimer and other areas southeast of Little Rock.
McPherson says he had little trouble playing all-black opponents in front of all-black crowds: “First time I did something like that, I was a little bit nervous about how it would turn out, but shoot, nobody ever said a cross word to me.” Lane, however, remembers it slightly differently, recalling fans and even players who occasionally hurled racial taunts at the white players. It never got physical, though. A few times, the Jesters also played all-white teams in areas such as Benton, Conway and Menifee, and the taunting flowed the other way. “Sometimes it was nice, and sometimes we got a little razzing,” Lane says.
McPherson and Lane’s friendship centered on competition, whether basketball, chess or pingpong—which McPherson had learned from Poles while he was stationed in Europe. The two played pingpong in gyms before practices and games, and at Lane’s home, but Lane never visited McPherson’s home, even when he invited him. One day, McPherson called him out on it, asking Lane why he always had an excuse to avoid visiting. Lane said he believed his presence as an African-American man wouldn’t be welcomed by McPherson’s southwest Little Rock neighbors. “They’ll look down their noses at you,” McPherson recalls Lane saying. Lane didn’t want McPherson to experience negative feedback from his community on account of his presence. McPherson understood, appreciated Lane’s desire to protect him and never pushed the point again. “I felt like that was true friendship,” McPherson says.
Despite their name, the Hilarious Jesters provided serious competition for whomever they played. McPherson and Lane were both guards, but while McPherson specialized in shooting, Lane was an outstanding ballhandler as a result of a hip injury he had suffered while playing semiprofessional basketball after college. The injury limited his mobility, but Lane was able to compensate by developing his dribbling skills, McPherson says. “He could almost make a ball talk.”
The team didn’t profit from its games, although it occasionally got gas money and free meals through postgame picnic potlucks. Mainly, they played for love of the sport. Lane recalls a typical outing: a group of the guys jamming into a couple of Oldsmobiles, heading off to play a night game in some small northeast-Arkansas town, pure exhaustion setting in, his wife, Janet, taking the wheel for the long road back.
The Jesters folded after only a couple of years. The players’ lives had gotten too busy for the fun, unpaid times to last forever, but they left a legacy that has endured. By the 1970s, sports would be almost completely integrated, along with most spheres of Arkansas society. There can be little doubt that of the hundreds of all-white and all-black crowds who saw this integrated group of ballers play throughout the years, there would have been some men and women who would have seen in them a sign of a more hopeful future. McPherson, though, says he never thought about trying to change society. “I’m not trying to blow my horn. Race has never been an issue with me,” he says. “I was just playing ball, and color didn’t matter.”
Lane went on to coach high school basketball in Clarendon, then at Arkansas Baptist College in the 1970s. McPherson, who by the mid-1960s had four children, was on his way up the corporate ladder at Horner Boxes in southwest Little Rock. He stayed in the game by playing for corporate-sponsored Amateur Athletic Union teams and later refereed games at all levels, including AAU, high school and college games. Indeed, he recalls once refereeing an Arkansas Baptist game while Lane coached there.
Still, by that point, the friends no longer had the time to hit the courts. They had continued playing pickup at MacArthur Park and Dunbar throughout the 1960s, but those days are long gone. Occasionally, though, someone remembers them.
McPherson recalls, years later, running into a black man around town who knew him through basketball circles. The man told him he appreciated how, unlike other whites, McPherson didn’t act scared or hesitant around blacks. “We always thought you all had been afraid of us, and—little did you know—we were afraid of y’all, too,” he explained to McPherson. “It meant a lot for you to reach out.”
Nowadays, McPherson lives in Alexander and Lane in Sweet Home, south of Little Rock. They talk a few times a year and have attended a few reunions together for their old basketball buddies at Abe’s Ole Feedhouse in nearby Benton. One former on-and-off-again Jester, James Bledsoe, has died, but the others still make it. Granted, the bounce in their step is gone—Lane now enters the restaurant in a wheelchair, and many others limp—but they still know how to let the good times roll. They laugh, reminisce and joke about the old days while picking out fried catfish and hush puppies in the buffet line. Geese Ausbie, true to Globetrotters form, is still prone to clown around with servers, McPherson says.
Through it all, not a word about big-picture stuff like race relations and the group’s small but significant role in tearing down walls is ever uttered, McPherson adds. He refuses to acknowledge his own likely status as a pioneer. “I don’t want to make an issue of something now that wasn’t an issue then. That was not my intent.”
In November, his hope was to attend a basketball game at Philander Smith that would be attended by some of his old basketball buddies. Lane’s health had been off and on, so McPherson offered to stop by his old friend’s house and give him a ride.
As before, just a little pickup.
To read more about the Hilarious Jesters and Arkansas sports history in the content of race relations, make sure to check out the first part of the above article.