The author of a new book on Perry Wallace, who broke the color barrier in SEC basketball in the 1960s, explains why he decided to tell Wallace’s little-known story.
Why did you want to write Strong Inside?
Perry Wallace is a fascinating, brilliant person who overcame tremendously painful and challenging obstacles to make history—and yet most people have never heard of him. It’s as if nobody knew the story of Jackie Robinson. So it was an incredible opportunity to get to tell this story. It’s one I’ve wanted to tell since 1989, when I was a sophomore at Vanderbilt and wrote a paper about Wallace for a black history class.
A lot of research went into this book. How long did you work on it?
Eight years. My first interview was with Perry’s coach at Vanderbilt, Roy Skinner, in the fall of 2006. I spent several years just doing interviews and research before I began writing.
What do you admire most about Perry Wallace?
There are so many things to admire about Perry—his perseverance, his character, his desire to always do the right thing—but what I admire most about him is his intellect. Spending the last eight years talking to him has been an incredible education for me on everything from human nature to race relations to parenting.
You were born too late to see Wallace play high school or college basketball. Of all the games you describe in the book, which one would you have liked to have seen in person?
I would travel back to Oxford, Mississippi, on February 9, 1968, to see his game against Ole Miss, the first time an African American had ever played a basketball game there. By all accounts, the abuse he took from the crowd was as bad that night as any of his career—but Perry played one of his best games, completely dominating in the second half.
How hard was it for you to come to terms with the day-to-day segregation and racial attitudes of the South in the 1960s?
It was important for me to place Perry Wallace’s story in the context of the place and times in which he operated. He grew up in Nashville at the height of the civil rights movement and as a 12-year-old would sneak downtown to watch the sit-ins at the lunch counters. In college, he met Martin Luther King Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and Stokely Carmichael when they passed through town. Perry’s story is as much a civil rights story as a basketball one.
Did you get any suggestions from your father [journalist and author David Maraniss] about writing this book?
The best advice came through years of osmosis: just reading his great writing ever since I was a little kid. I used to spread The Washington Post over the dining room table, and our sheepdog Maggie would jump up on the table and finish my cereal while I read the paper. Rest of the family was still asleep, I guess.
Put yourself in Wallace’s shoes. Knowing what you do now, would you have attended Vanderbilt and broken the color line in the SEC?
I don’t know that Perry would do it all over again knowing what he knows. And as strong a man as he is mentally and physically, if he has those doubts, there’s no way I could do it.
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of Strong Inside.