Son of IU legend makes emotional return to Assembly Hall as Bethune-Cookman assistant

While Indiana men’s basketball dismantled his Bethune-Cookman squad on Thursday, Wildcats assistant Billy Garrett felt a little conflicted.

Obviously, Garrett was coaching his players and took no pleasure from a 101-49 defeat. But this was no ordinary road game for him. His father, Bill Garrett, is an Indiana legend: while playing for IU basketball from 1947-51, he became the first African-American player in Big Ten history. He was an All-American in 1951. Garrett was inducted into the IU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1984, and the on-campus intramural center was named after him in 2020.

Bill held several jobs around the Indianapolis area after his professional basketball career ended, so he and his family lived close enough to make plenty of return trips to Bloomington. Billy was bred around IU basketball and Assembly Hall, with some of his fondest childhood memories involving the Hoosiers.

So even as his team succumbed to a far superior Hoosiers team, Garrett couldn’t help but enjoy the atmosphere at Assembly Hall.

“I found myself singing the fight song during the game,” he said. “I had to realize, ‘I’m trying to compete against these guys, I can’t do that.’ (But) I’ve been doing that since I was six years old.”

When Bethune-Cookman arrived in Bloomington and got to Assembly Hall ahead of the game, the entire team and staff went with Garrett to find his dad’s statue. The Wildcats meandered around the several statues in the arena’s south lobby, searching for the one that looked like their assistant coach.

“When we saw his dad’s head, we knew: that was Billy’s big head,” Bethune-Cookman head coach Reggie Theus joked. “What a great tribute to his dad. I thought that was very cool that all our players were talking about — in their words — how dope it was. They were really excited about taking pictures. I’m sure they all put it on their Instagrams.”

Billy got emotional seeing his father’s statue. Bill passed away in 1974, when Billy was only nine years old. Looking back at pictures is one thing, but seeing a 3-D, physical likeness of his father like that is a completely different experience.

Billy took a photo by the statue where he was holding its hand.

“I just felt like a little kid again,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it. My vocabulary is not extensive enough to find the words. But it was just in my heart. I love it. … It was really hard for me to get out of here without crying, but I’m trying to do it.”

Garrett couldn’t pick just one favorite IU basketball memory. He has so many, and all positive.

He remembers coming to Assembly Hall with his dad when he was little. He’d watch games on TV at home and look forward to the original Martha the Mop Lady commercial airing. After his dad passed away, Bob Knight let Billy sit on the bench during some games in IU’s historic 1976 season.

Indiana is just part of Garrett’s makeup as a person. The Hoosiers were his favorite team for a long time, and still remain his second-favorite — behind the team he’s coaching.

“(Indiana) is where my heart is,” Garrett said. “I love the people here. Everybody here has always been good to me. I don’t have any bad memories of this place. I’m just fortunate that they — Scott (Dolson) and (Mike Woodson) — gave us an opportunity to come back here and play. It meant a lot to me.”

Photo credit – IU Archives

The Daily Hoosier –“Where Indiana fans assemble when they’re not at Assembly”