The original version of The Italian Job premiered in 1969 and featured a thoroughly Mod Michael Caine in the immortal role of gangster Charlie Croker. After watching his partner botch a car bomb that engulfs the entire vehicle, Caine's Croker barked in Cockney English, " ‘U were only suppos'd t'blow th' bloody doors off!" He may well have been shouting about the incredible social and political upheaval happening in every cranny of the planet that year-even in a quiet Ozark hamlet. That year, a young freshman named Almer Lee transferred to the University of Arkansas from Phillips County Junior College where he had earned distinction as an outstanding basketball player. He had wanted to play basketball at the state's flagship university since he was a kid playing at Fort Smith's Northside High School. There, Lee shined as an MVP, an All-American and an all-state player that solidified his status on that court and in Arkansas high school basketball history.
In Fayetteville, however, he symbolized something besides athletic prowess and accolades. Lee arrived on campus and became the first black Razorback athlete to letter in men's basketball at a time when the marching band still played "Dixie" at football games, and the Stars and Bars doubled as a de facto state flag. Markers of the Jim Crow South lingered around the University, despite that Arkansas had officially integrated two decades earlier when Silas Hunt was accepted into the School of Law. Thereafter, young African American men and women trickled onto campus but remained excluded from the activities, clubs, teams, and interactions that helped define being a Razorback and create camaraderie and friendships between students.
Lee did not merely blow the doors off Arkansas' athletic department when he arrived in Barnhill Arena to play for Coach Larry Van Eman; he set a standard of excellence that left no doubt of his abilities or those of students who looked like him. Lee proved to an overwhelmingly white campus and whiter spectators at basketball games that he was not merely a token figure of progress that shored up the University's bona fides as one of South's most moderate institutions. During his career at Arkansas, Lee was a fixture of Van Eman's offenses. For two seasons, he led the Razorback basketball team in scoring-a feat that earned him the title of Southwest Conference Sophomore of the Year.
Lee's hard-won respect did not belong to him alone but convinced others of the possibilities of integration and inclusion. Lee's loyalty to the Razorbacks and to the University enabled him to act as an ambassador, to convince young black athletes that they could enjoy college careers in Fayetteville and that their efforts for Arkansas could translate into even greater opportunities. In this spirit, he was integral to getting Ronnie Brewer and Marvin Delph to commit to the University of Arkansas and building the springboard that made Barnhill Arena a fearsome and legendary place.
Lee was a frequent starter for the 1970 and '71 basketball teams and was a great scorer. He averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore and was named SWC Sophomore of the Year, and averaged 19.2 points per game as a junior in 1971. He was one of Arkansas' greatest high school players at Fort Smith Northside and was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2011.
However, his legacy will endure for the new culture he was able to help establish in Fayetteville. He enabled coaches like Nolan Richardson and Mike Anderson to lead a prominent Southern basketball program, and paved the way for black student-athletes and non-athletes alike to earn an education and partake in life at the state's most prominent university.
Sadly, he passed away in the chill of a mid-November night as a new crop of Razorback basketball players won their season opener against Georgia State. They are a very promising group of guys, insofar as I could see. I hope they know that Lee was only supposed to blow the bloody doors off, but decided to explode the whole thing. Woo Damn Pig.
Misti Nicole Harper is a graduate assistant in the University of Arkansas African-American Studies Department.