BLACK HISTORY MONTH | ft. Johnny Watts


BLACK HISTORY MONTH | ft. Johnny Watts

Thursday, February 15, 2024

BLACK HISTORY MONTH | ft. Johnny Watts

John “Johnny” Watts, born in 1913 in Mississippi, was a pioneer for black athletes in Wisconsin, starring on an otherwise all-white basketball team in the early 1930s. At 8-years old, Watts moved to Beloit with his two sisters to live with his grandparents. He grew up playing basketball and football with boys who would eventually become his high school teammates, and he would lead them to three consecutive WIAA State Titles from 1932-34, the most memorable of which would come during his junior year.

As a sophomore forward starting for Beloit High School, Watts became the first-ever black athlete to win a WIAA State Basketball Championship. He received all-tournament honors, as he would in the following two seasons, leading the Beloit “Purple” (later known as the “Knights”) to state championships.

It was noted in the WIAA Yearbook that the “1932 State Tournament was, without a doubt, the best ever held in the State. The largest crowd in the history of the event saw Beloit come from behind to win the championship from a powerful Kenosha team.” Watts led the Purple in scoring to defeat Kenosha 13-11.

With their sights set on winning another state championship in 1933, Watts led Beloit in a one-loss season and a Big Eight Conference Championship. In a rematch of the previous year’s final, the Purple defeated Kenosha 22-16 in the opening round of the state tournament. During their next game, a quarterfinal contest against Horicon, Watts was undercut by an opponent causing him to fall and break his wrist, setting the stage for what may be one of the ultimate comeback stories in tournament history. He sat out the next day’s semifinal game in street clothes and watched from the bench as his teammates defeated Chippewa Falls 26-21. 

Watt insisted on being in uniform for Saturday’s championship against Wausau. The Purple was trailing in the fourth quarter when Coach Herman “Jake” Jacobson called upon Watts. “With the wild cheers of 3,500 frantic customers roared through the field house, Johnny tore out on the floor,” recalled Beloit Daily News Sports Editor, Jack Clarke. He took the floor with his wrist braced between the handles of two ping-pong paddles, wrapped in a significant amount of gauze. 

Ignited by Watt’s addition to the lineup, Beloit immediately stole the ball and made a layup to tie the score at 13. After a missed shot by Wausau on the following possession, Watts made a one-handed catch on a pass from a teammate and went the length of the floor to make what would prove to be the game-winning shot, thus securing the Purple’s second-consecutive state title. Beloit allowed one basket in the remaining time, to ultimately defeat Wausau 15-14. A local reporter noted that “no individual ever received a greater ovation than did the crippled Watts.”

In 1934, Watts once again guided the Purple to a Big Eight Conference title and the WIAA Class A State title (it was the first year with two divisions), this time with 14 points in a 32-18 championship victory over Wisconsin Rapids. The WIAA Yearbook commended Watts for his sensational performance. “The state line team guided by Coach Jacobson, finished the tourney with a display of basketball such as only brings forth champions. The entire squad played brilliantly in the final game as they crushed a fine Wisconsin Rapids team with a margin of 32-18. The title is the third successive win for the Beloit five and sets up a state record that may never again be equaled in Wisconsin prep basketball tourney play.”

It would be 43 years before another school (Marathon, 1975-77) would eventually win three-straight boys basketball state titles, but Watts’ high school legacy as a trailblazer for black athletes wouldn’t be matched. With trying times of segregation and the Great Depression in full swing, Watts managed to take center stage in the world of Wisconsin prep basketball and led the Purple to an impressive 63-4 record in three years.

With his high school career behind him, he would face increasing discrimination when looking to play at the next level. During his prep years, he was well-respected in the Beloit community, but was always referred to by the color of his skin by reporters. While on the road, the Purple often struggled to find restaurants that would serve the entire team.

Dr. Walter Meanwell, the University of Wisconsin Coach, said Watts was one of the greatest basketball players ever turned out by a Wisconsin high school, but the Big Ten conference had no black athletes and that color line wouldn’t be broken until 1944. So, Watts went on to star in basketball and football collegiately at the La Crosse State Teachers College for two years before a three-year stint with the Harlem Globetrotters.

In 1939, Watts formed his own all-black barnstorming team based out of Milwaukee, the Negro Globe Trotters. He traveled the country playing and then coaching the team for over a decade. In 1950, he renamed his team the Harlem Aces before retiring in the mid-50s.

Watts settled in Milwaukee where he worked, continued to play in basketball and softball leagues and served as an assistant coach for Milwaukee North’s boys basketball team. He was inducted into the Beloit Hall of Fame in 1986. He passed away on Jan. 25, 2001, and was posthumously inducted into the Wisconsin Basketball Coaches Association’s Hall of Fame in 2011.

We applaud Watts for his contributions to high school athletics in Wisconsin and to the sport of basketball nationwide during a time of oppression and segregation. He was a pioneer and role model for many. May his remarkable story and achievements never be forgotten.


Excerpts referenced from African American Historical Society of Beloit.




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