L.C. Gordon is largely forgotten in Oklahoma State basketball history.
His name is not sprinkled through the Cowboy record books. His career is not celebrated like Bob Kurland or Bryant Reeves.
But his impact is significant.
And it has nothing to do with how many points he scored or how many rebounds he grabbed.
Gordon was the first black player in the program's history. When he arrived on campus in 1957, Jackie Robinson had already broken big-league sports' color barrier but Jim Crow was still the law of land. Segregation's last stand at the schoolhouse door was six years away.
“The first guy, it's always rough,” Gordon said. “But going in, I knew that.”
The change that Gordon helped bring about can be seen today on the Cowboy basketball team, on the OSU campus and all over the country.
For that, he will be honored this weekend by his alma mater. He will receive the OSU Black Alumni Society's Trailblazer Award on Friday afternoon, then will serve as the homecoming parade marshal on Saturday morning.
His name needs to be known.
His story needs to be told.
Lavalius Cyrone Gordon was born in Abbeville, Miss., but raised on the south side of Memphis.
He started playing basketball when he was in seventh grade at Porter Grammar School. Only problem was, the school had no gym. The players had practices and games at the Beale Street Auditorium.
It was five miles away.
There were never any complaints about the walk. That's how much L.C. Gordon loved basketball.
He became a standout at Booker T. Washington High School. He could score, but he could really defend.
That caught the eye of then-Memphis State coach Bob Vanatta. As much as he would've loved to have Gordon play for him, he instead went and recruited Gordon on behalf of Oklahoma A&M. Vanatta was friends with Henry Iba, and the Cowboys' renowned coach had decided the time had come to integrate the basketball program.
Iba believed the player who would successfully break the color barrier in his program needed two characteristics above all else — be a good person and know how to play defense.
“I could do both,” Gordon said.
Gordon, who grew up without his father and knew there was little money to help him through college, committed to the Cowboys sight unseen. The first time he laid eyes on the campus — or Oklahoma, for that matter — was in the fall of 1957 when his Greyhound bus from Memphis pulled into Stillwater.
“The only thing I knew about Oklahoma was what I'd seen in the movies, you know?” he said. “Cowboys and Indians.”
Even though Gordon didn't know much about his new home, he knew plenty about his new coach. Legendary for his team's dogged defense, Iba had won two national titles and appeared in one other national championship game.
“I jumped at the opportunity to play for a man of that stature,” Gordon said. “I was so happy that I was able to play for him.”
Not that that was easy.
Iba could be rough on players. His gravelly voice would boom around Gallagher Hall, directing, scolding, cajoling. Whether during a practice or a game, he could always be heard.
Gordon was like any other player; Iba's words sometimes stung him.
But Gordon never let them derail him.
The same could be for the words that he sometimes heard from strangers. Traveling to road games and playing in hostile gyms subjected Gordon to racial slurs and ugly epitaphs.
Then again, things weren't always entirely rosy in Stillwater, either.
Gordon couldn't live with any of his teammates — whites and blacks weren't allowed to room together per university policy — and when the guys he practiced and played with every day went out to eat or see a movie, he didn't go. Blacks weren't allowed in the same parts of restaurants or theaters as whites.
Gordon admits that some times were difficult. But the young man who grew up going to church with his mom and his grandparents, who was taught to be respectful and do the right things leaned heavily on his upbringing and his faith.
“The Good Lord said, ‘Keep your eye on the prize,'” Gordon said.
His prize: a college degree.
So when times got tough on or off the court, Gordon focused on that ultimate goal. He went to the library more. He read more. He studied more. That gave him distraction in the present and hope for the future.
It worked; Gordon thrived.
The 6-foot-1, 172-pound guard became the best defender on the Cowboys' roster.
“Although most of the time having to give up 3 to 5 inches in height,” the Daily O'Collegian wrote in March 1961 before his last home game as a senior, “Gordon has been excellent on his guarding assignments.”
Later that spring, Gordon received his bachelor's degree in secondary education.
He would later earn an MBA from the University of Memphis and a master's in physical education from Texas Southern.
Gordon became a teacher and basketball coach at the high school and college levels. He coached much of his five decades back in his hometown of Memphis.
He credits OSU for giving him an opportunity that led to a life in basketball.
“I made good of it,” he said. “I was just so blessed.”
L.C. Gordon returned to the OSU campus a year ago. He was in town for a charity golf tournament — he's been retired for a decade and plays golf three or four days a week — and he decided to head over to Gallagher-Iba Hall, where his old coach's name now shares the sign.
He ran into a scout for the Portland Trail Blazers who happened to be in the gym, and they struck up a conversation.
The scout asked who Gordon was there to watch.
“I'm not a scout,” Gordon told him. “I'm the first black player to play for Oklahoma State. I'm here just to watch practice.”
“You've got to be kidding,” the scout told him.
He called over one of the assistant coaches.
“You've got a celebrity here,” the scout told him.
The assistant introduced Gordon to head coach Travis Ford, who asked him to stay and address the team after practice.
“When were you here?” one of the players asked.
“I came here in 1957,” Gordon told them.
“Woooo, that was a long time ago. It must've been rough then.”
“Yeah, it was, but let me tell you something. Everybody cannot play pro ball. Everybody is not going to get that opportunity. You get something in your head. When you get something in your head, can't nobody take it away from you.”
Gordon is proud of what he learned and what he did at OSU.
He's proud, too, of his alma mater for what it did for him. He helped organize the Memphis OSU Alumni Chapter and is a life member of the OSU Alumni Association.
Even with all of that involvement, he was surprised when he learned that he was being honored as this year's trailblazer.
His church family in Memphis celebrated the news one Sunday by putting it on the big screen in the sanctuary. As people applauded and rejoiced around him, tears started flowing down Gordon's face.
“I couldn't help from crying,” he said. “They just didn't know the joy that was in me.
“Basketball has been good to me.”
And L.C. Gordon has been good for it.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.
I jumped at the opportunity to play for a man of that stature. I was so happy that I was able to play for him.”