ED RATH

COMING SUNDAY

PART NINE: A red-hot summer for Gibson as the country hit the boiling point

Wednesday night, as he should've been completing his game plan, Marquiss looked out his window at 2802 N. 69th St. and saw an image straight out of Alabama: two homemade crosses burning in the front yard.

Water extinguished the flames. The grass wore the scars.

Central was in good spirits when it reached Pershing Auditorium, despite a defection.

One of Dillard's teammates quit the team that morning, refusing to travel to Lincoln. His own personal protest against Wallace and the tournament move.

Then Marquiss announced that Dillard would miss the opener too. He'd violated a team rule, the coach said.

The Eagles strongly considered a boycott. In the locker room, they actually voted not to play before Marquiss called their bluff. "Get out there!"

The State Patrol and Lincoln police were on riot alert. More than a dozen helmeted policemen, including a dog, ringed the courts at Pershing Auditorium and the NU Coliseum, where Tech was playing at the same time. More officers stood high in the bleachers.

They had a quiet morning. Only 1,000 fans showed up, few of them black. Central rolled North Platte, 70-51.

Dillard returned for the Friday morning semifinal against Boys Town, recording 23 points, 21 rebounds and four blocks in an overtime win. At the NU Coliseum, Tech lost to Lincoln Northeast and Ernie Britt lost his cool, shoving an official after his fifth foul. Bob Devaney came out of the stands to calm him down.

Saturday morning presented a state championship rematch — Northeast beat Central in 1967. About 7,000 fans squeezed into the Coliseum, crowding the floor so tightly that officials allowed players to straddle the boundaries when inbounding the ball.

Pressure squeezed shooters, too. Central scored just 19 first-half points, but held a one-point lead. Then Northeast got hot. Dillard's 22 points and 17 rebounds couldn't overcome Central's 10-for-20 at the foul line. The Rhythm Boys never found their rhythm.

Lincoln Northeast 54, Omaha Central 50.

Marquiss blamed five days of chaos. "We were emotionally drained." Dillard, on his 19th birthday, handled defeat with class. But neither Central nor North Omaha inspired sympathy.

In Sunday's Journal and Star, Lincoln columnist Hal Brown wrote this: "If the Omaha Negroes responsible for the Monday night troubles in their city had been able to show the restraint under stress that was shown by the Central Negro cagers, the Class A competition would have been played in Omaha Saturday night instead of in Lincoln Saturday morning."

Here's the other way to look at it: What if Wallace hadn't come at all?

He never returned to Nebraska and received only 1% of votes in the May primary.

Police exonerated James Abbott, the cop who killed Howard Stevenson inside Crosstown Loan. Coincidentally, the two had attended the mayor's 1966 youth camp, designed to improve relationships between police and black youth.

Nathaniel Goodwin, the driver of the '66 Rambler, was convicted of possession of an explosive and sentenced to 1-3 years in jail. McCaslin left his position as director of the Catholic Social Action Office, but continued preaching.

And Dillard? Just like 1966, his charge was dropped. But he wore the scars. College scholarship opportunities dwindled. He landed at Eastern Michigan for one year, then returned to Omaha and never played college basketball again.

The Baltimore Bullets saw his potential and drafted him in the fifth round in 1972. It didn't work out. He joined the Washington Generals before earning a oneyear promotion to the Harlem Globetrotters. He played three ABA games with the Utah Stars. But he never found a home in basketball.

Like Fred Hare, Dillard carried the burden of "what if" the rest of his life. "He was so bitter about basketball," his wife, Carolee, told author Steve Marantz in his book about the '68 Eagles, "The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central."

"He didn't want to talk much about it. He thought he should have gone further."

In 2008, Dillard died of pancreatic cancer. He was 59. His name still carries weight in the North Omaha barbershops and cafes. But the lessons are still fuzzy.

Alvin Mitchell, Dillard's old teammate and a North Omaha pastor, reflects on a moment when moral compasses spun so fast you couldn't see straight, when the pressure to stand and shout felt overwhelming, when kids didn't see a future past the present. In the midst of chaos, Mitchell said, you have to stop and ask yourself, "Who will lead me?"

In March 1968, that question strained even the strongest coaches, politicians, ministers, cops and civil rights leaders.

For an 18-year-old basketball star, the line between right and wrong all but disappeared.

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