Travis Grant gets recognition for past hoops glory

The all-time leading scorer in college basketball history scored his 4,045 points at Kentucky State, a historically black school, in the early 1970s, when college basketball was just beginning to integrate.

His fame was largely confined to the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, where 10,000 fans watched the full-court pressing Thorobreds rip off three consecutive NAIA championships from 1970-72.

Grant returned to that city in November to be inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. It was the kind of full-circle recognition that had been 40 years in the making.

Still is. Kentucky State plays at Georgia Tech on Saturday. When Tech coach Paul Hewitt was asked about Grant this week, he didn't know who he was or that he was the NCAA's all-time leading scorer.

"Did not know that," Hewitt said.

It's not exactly common knowledge that Grant went into the Hall of Fame alongside Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, that he played on the same Lakers team with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and scored more points in college than Pistol Pete Maravich.

But over the years, Grant's need for recognition, at least from the masses, has worn off. Now 60 and an assistant principal at Panola Way Elementary in Lithonia, what's more important for him is the recognition he has gotten from a few.

"It hasn't been something like people don't know me," said Grant, who attends National Basketball Retired Players Association meetings each summer. "Sometimes it's better that everybody doesn't know you all the time."

For the kid who grew up with a mother and three sisters in a three-room house in rural Clayton, Ala., just making it to college was the primary goal.

His mother cleaned homes for white families. As bad as it got, with no central heat or air, no telephone or TV, she never let him quit school to work in the cotton or peanut fields.

Grant's escape was shooting tennis balls, or 25-cent rubber balls, into a five-gallon can he nailed to the house. He honed an incredible shooting touch that helped him shoot a whopping 63.8 percent from the floor in college.

He averaged 42 points at his segregated high school, which didn't get a gym until he was in the eighth grade. He was a sophomore in 1966, the year Texas Western's all-black team defeated Kentucky's all-white team for the NCAA title. That was also the year he started getting recruited by Alabama State coach Lucias Mitchell, the coach Grant would follow to Kentucky State.

Grant had offers from small traditionally white colleges and junior colleges but wanted to play for Mitchell.

"In my era, there were still a whole lot of blacks going to black schools because [the basketball] was extremely strong," said Grant, who had turned down a chance to go to a predominantly white high school his senior year. "It would have been a tough adjustment. Although we had a chance to go there, there was nothing guaranteed on how they were going to treat you when you got there."

In his first game for Kentucky State, Grant came off the bench to score 10 consecutive baskets. A fan yelled out that Grant was a human machine.

"The Machine" nickname stuck and so did the scoring. Grant averaged 33.4 points per game, including 39.5 his senior season when he won the Lapchick Trophy as college basketball's top player. The 6-foot-6 forward shot anywhere from two feet out to 25, well before there was a 3-point line.

"He's the most phenomenal shooter I've ever seen," said William Graham, a former teammate of Grant and now a professor at Kentucky State, who can recall the date Grant dropped 75 on Northwood Institute: Feb. 18, 1970. "I've never seen a guy shoot the ball like he did. It's almost like he was automatic. You'd have to see it to believe it."

Not many people did, since Kentucky State didn't play on TV. But NBA scouts did. The Lakers drafted Grant 13th overall in 1972.

Grant's proudest day was using his $30,000 signing bonus to buy a Cadillac Eldorado, drive to Clayton, pick up his mother and take her from store to store to pay off her debts.

"My mother just turned 91," Grant said. "She still talks about that day."

Grant's professional career was short. He spent only a year in LA, struggling to crack the Lakers' veteran lineup. He followed Chamberlain to San Diego of the ABA but played only three years in the league before it folded.

Grant never cemented his name in the pros as other black college standouts such as "Earl the Pearl" Monroe or Willis Reed did.

It wasn't until ESPN aired a 2008 documentary on old black college basketball that Grant's name was back in circulation. A year later, the Hall of Fame called.

Its Class of 2009 poster features action shots of Bird, Johnson and Wayman Tisdale, each with a ball in his hand. The photo of Grant looked to be cut out of a team photo.

It didn't matter to Grant, who found redemption from his fellow honorees. At a press conference, Bird told a story about seeing Grant score 50 points against Marian College in a game held at Bird's high school in Indiana.

It didn't take many more stories like that before Magic Johnson, who hadn't known of Grant, was giving him a business card, telling him to call if he needed anything.

Personal interactions meant the most to Grant, like the day all the kids at Panola Way wore his old No. 33 pinned to their shirts, or when some took to calling him the Machine.

He cherishes a note he got from Minnesota coach Tubby Smith, who knows a few things about basketball in Kentucky. He also saved one from a fan in North Carolina, who commended his career in education as much as basketball.

"Those are the things that make you feel that you've done something worthwhile," said Grant, a former coach at McNair and athletics director at Stephenson.

He also keeps a letter from a lawyer named Jere Beasley, a former Lt. Governor of Alabama who is also from Clayton. Grant thinks his mother might have worked for the Beasleys.

"I have always been very proud of you," Beasley wrote. "But, the fact that you never forgot your family is the main thing that I am proud of."

Looking back, Grant never thought his records would stick. But college basketball has changed. Even with the 3-point line, such prolific scorers aren't likely to stay for four seasons.

Grant's name is going to be at the top for a while. Maybe more people will come to know it.

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