A new documentary video charts the implausible rise of the 1969 Jacksonville University basketball team.
The small team’s ascension to runner up for the NCAA’s national championship was so unlikely, it prompted media at the time to ask: Jacksonville WHO?
But the team’s success begged another question of the city’s residents — who is Jacksonville?
Not even a decade after black men protesting segregation were bloodied by white people wielding ax handles in downtown Jacksonville, the city’s white and black residents rallied around one of the first integrated basketball teams of the Jim Crow South.
“In storytelling you have to break the character down to his lowest point before you build them up for triumph and that was part and parcel of what we had to do here,” JU alumnus and Jacksonville WHO? producer Frank Pace said.
Pace moved from New York to Jacksonville to start school in 1968, a year before the JU Dolphins would shine a national spotlight on the sleepy River City.
“Segregation was still in effect in Jacksonville — in the spring of ‘68. It wasn’t until the fall of ‘68 that integration began in the school systems and that was very, as Frank Casey said, eye-opening to me,” he said.
JU center and NBA Hall-of-Famer Artis Gilmore averaged more than 26 points a game and the stood at an imposing 7-foot-2 inches tall. Gilmore helped take the school of only 2,300 students to the national championship, one of the smallest schools ever to make it that far. He and his fellow black teammates describe in the documentary the hazards of traveling through the South even during the team’s miracle run.
Pace said Gilmore’s grace as a newly-minted sports star helped some people bury their overt prejudice and root for a hometown team and hopes the team’s story, as told through his documentary, can do the same for people today.
“This will be a reminder to some and a primer for others who weren’t alive in the ‘60s. The ‘60s weren’t that long ago,” he said.