Garnet & Old

In the Center of the Storm...Ahmad Aliyy

By Jim Joanos


Ahmad Aliyy works hard as a supervisor of investigators for the Florida Commission on Human Relations in Tallahassee. He is also an assistant coach for the girls' basketball team at Florida A & M High School. He is a religious man. Sometime in the late 70's he formally became a Muslim and took on his name which when translated means, "commendable servant of the most high". Aliyy exists in an environment that is for the most part, quite peaceful. However, his life has not always been that way. When Aliyy, then named "Skip Young" first came to Tallahassee in 1967, he stepped into a storm that was FSU basketball at the time.


Aliyy's tenure in the FSU basketball program was during the time that FSU played some of the best basketball in its history. The 1969-70 team may have been the best team ever. But participation in FSU basketball in the late sixties, while it meant participation in a very successful program, was anything but calm. For FSU, under the leadership of the then new head coach Hugh Durham, was racially integrating its basketball program. Because FSU was one of the first large universities in the southeast to integrate a sports program, there was a great deal of resistance to it both locally and throughout the area. Some former fans stopped going to the games. Friends split company over the issue. Playing at away arenas was fraught with ugliness and, at times, scary situations. It was a tough time to be an FSU basketball player, especially a black one. But through it all, the coach, his wife, Melinda, the school, the fans, and, most especially, the players, persisted. After awhile when the uproar had subsided, Florida State and its followers could be proud of how the institution helped lead the South into a racially integrated college world of athletics. Aliyyy was not the first African American basketball player at FSU.

The year before he came, Coach Durham, in his first year as head coach, had signed an outstanding black player, Lenny Hall, who had starred at St. Petersburg Junior College. Unfortunately, in his very first game at FSU, Hall seriously injured his knee and never played for FSU again. Consequently, the main thrust of integrating the basketball team became the responsibility of three players who first came to FSU for the 1967-68 school year. Aliyy and John Burt came as freshmen, Willie Williams transferred in from a junior college. None of the three could play on the varsity that first year at FSU. As a transfer, Williams, had to sit out a year. The two freshmen would have to play on the freshman team as was required of freshmen in those days. In time it became Aliyy's lot to be the first black athlete to see extensive playing time on an FSU varsity athletic team. Burt and Williams would play major roles also. Ailyy believes that Coach Durham handpicked the first black players...that he chose people who could withstand the pressures that would be there. Ailyy describes Coach Durham as having been an intense, demanding coach who was very focused on what he wanted to do. He was extremely competitive and wanted to win at whatever he did. Aliyy came from Columbus, Ohio, and had played basketball at Linden McKinley High School. He had been all state in Ohio for two years and was the Most Valuable Player in the State Tournament his senior year when his high school team won the state championship in Ohio's top classification. He was proclaimed the state's Class AA player of the year. He was also a High School All-American.

He first gained the attention of FSU assistant basketball coach, Bill Clendinen. It was not long thereafter when Coach Durham came calling to Columbus to recruit Aliyy. Aliyy became enthusiastic about going to Florida State. While he had been recruited by several Big Ten schools, including Ohio State and Mid America Conference schools including Kent State, he wanted to go further away from home. He also liked the idea of starting something new at FSU. Helping to integrate a program seemed to be a very worthwhile idea. He never considered that there would be any major problems in regard to integration as he had never been in the South before and had no knowledge of what he calls, "the social politics" of the area at the time. He was also favorably influenced by Jake Gaither, who at the time was the legendary football coach at Florida A & M University, and by the well loved Tallahassee African American physician, Dr. A.D. Brickler. Both encouraged him to come to Tallahassee and play at FSU.

Freshman Basketball, 1967-68

It did not take long for the abuse to begin upon Aliyys arrival as an FSU player. One of the first things that happened was the receipt of some nasty threatening letters. While he did not save them, he recalls that they came from somewhere "around the St. Petersburg-Tampa area". It got worse. Aliyy and Burt were taunted during freshman games, primarily during away games. One of the worst things that happened during that first year occurred in the game with the Florida freshmen in FSU's own Tully Gymnasium. FSU's frosh were beating the young Gators when he heard a Florida coach say, "If we got rid of those n-s, we could win the game". It stung so much that Aliyy remembers it vividly to this day. The very year that followed that incident, the University of Florida dropped Florida State from its regular basketball schedule. Since the 1955-56 season, the two teams had played each other regularly. At first, the teams had played each other one game each year, mostly alternating the location between Gainesville and Tallahassee. Since the 1960-61 season, the U of F and FSU had played two games each year on a home and home basis. Aliyy is convinced that the issue of race was involved in the decision whereby the two teams would not play thereafter on a regular basis. Beginning in 1968-69 and lasting until 1980-81, FSU and the U of F did not play basketball against each other in either Gainesville or Tallahassee. The only time they met during that span of time was in a tournament or on a neutral court.

On several occasions, Aliyy thought about leaving FSU. He "was somewhat miserable for awhile". It was not just the race thing. He did not believe that the home fans understood or appreciated the style of play that Durham had instituted. Durham wanted the team to consistently press on defense. On offense he favored a one point-guard attack using one player to spearhead the tactics of the offense, quite akin to today's primary college style of play. Most other teams in the sixties were playing more laid back on defense and on offense they used a two-guard system. In time, especially after it proved to be quite successful, FSU fans not only adjusted to the style but enjoyed it immensely and would turn little Tully Gymnasium into a very loud, supportive environment. We fans would stomp on the wooden bleachers and cheer at the top of our lungs.

An important decision

Aliyy went home for the summer break after his freshman year. Although he had a great season, having scored 317 points on the freshman team, he was quite uncertain as to whether he would return to Florida State the next fall. At times at FSU he had been miserable. Social life for black athletes was quite different from what it was in Ohio. When he returned to Columbus for the summer, he explored the possibility of transferring to Ohio University, one of the colleges that had recruited him the previous year. He discussed the matter with his mother who helped him decide to come back to Tallahassee and finish what he had started. Today, he is quite happy with the decision he made to come back. He is quite proud of the part he played in not only integrating FSU's basketball team but in helping to bring change throughout the campus. He is especially appreciative of the people who counseled with him and encouraged him during his down times. One he singles out as having been extremely helpful was Jomills Braddock who was at the time a PhD candidate at Florida State. He is currently the head of the Sociology Department at the University of Miami.

The 1968-69 Season

In Aliyy's first year on the varsity, he was chosen to play the point position for the team by Coach Durham. He had played forward on the freshman team, the same position that he played mostly in high school. As the point man, Ailyy was the team's "quarterback". He, of course, was chosen because of the great ball handling skills that he possessed. At first, he had some bad games which did not help much considering the other pressures that he faced. However, in time, with some experience he became quite proficient in running the team. During the season, FSU won 18 games and lost only 8. In addition to his great play in running the offense, Aliyy was second in scoring on the team for the year with 390 points. Dave Cowens led the team in scoring with 508 that year. Early in the season, at the Florida Sunshine Classic in Jacksonville, FSU beat Miami and Jacksonville University on consecutive days. Later in the year, FSU would beat both teams again. The victories over JU were especially sweet as FSU and JU were in the midst of a major rivalry at the time. Both schools had integrated their basketball teams and both were among the best teams in the southeastern United States. The season also included a victory at home in Tully over the nationally ranked University of Southern California. I remember the game well and how excited the students and players were over the upset victory. After the final buzzer, the team picked Coach Durham up and carried him to the center of the court where the students had converged.

Things were not always pleasant that year. At Clemson, Aliyy recalls that many of the fans kept referring to him as "Leroy" and kept shouting to "give the ball to Leroy". At the time, he just thought that they did not know his name but the tone of their shouts was not pleasant at all. He was not aware until later of the racial connotations involved that were derived from a well-known racist joke. Despite, or, perhaps, because of the unruly fans, the FSU team rose to the occasion and won the game 70 to 67. Bill McGrotha, Sports Editor of the Tallahassee Democrat, at the time, wrote a column about that game and in it gave much of the credit for the victory to Ailyy in his role as the point guard.

Jeff Hogan, FSU's team captain, roomed with Ailyy that year. He recalls long late-night discussions between the two roommates as they tried to understand the events that were going on in the country regarding race relations. This was a time of great social unrest throughout the country. Later in the year, at Georgia Tech, Aliyy recalls that when the team came out on the court, the fans called him and the other black players on the team many names. This was followed by the playing of "Dixie", the battle song of the confederacy, by the band. By this time, Ailyy was so infuriated that when the National Anthem was played, he sat down and put a towel over his head. FSU went on to win the game 96 to 80. Thereafter, for the next several years, Coach Durham would keep FSU's team in the locker room until after the national anthem had been played. In addition, at FSU home games, the black students all sat together in a large group, and in silent protest of conditions that existed at the time, would remain seated during the playing of the national anthem. There was much discomfort and a strained feeling among fans during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner" in that the whites would stand while the black students in a segregated group remained seated. However, once the game began, it was a different story. All fans, black and white, cheered heartily at the great basketball that was being played by that magical, legendary team that was taking on the most divisive issue ever in American history.

The 1969-70 Season...  the year of "The Busted Flush"

The 1969-70 Seminoles exceeded all expectations. They went 23-3 for an 88.5 per cent winning record, which is still the best percentage of wins for a season in the school's history. This is the team referred to by old timers as "The Busted Flush" as it was customary for the team on the floor at most times to be composed of the great Dave Cowens, the lone white, surrounded by four African-Americans. In all, of the twelve primary players on the team, eight were black. Ailly, Williams, and Burt, had been joined by newcomers Ron Harris, Ken Macklin, Roy Glover, Rowland Garrett, and Vernell Ellzy. The four whites were Cowens, Randy Cable, Jan Gies, and Carl Reynolds. Ailyy had helped recruit Rowland Garrett who he describes as having exceptional athleticism. He confirms that Garrett once leaped over a car. He saw him do it. No one ever measured his vertical jump. Ailyy believes that Garrett could jump high enough to touch the top of the backboard. Ailyy and Macklin had become very close friends along with John Burt. He believes that every member of that team could have played anywhere else and done very well.

The team won all of its home games and lost only three on the road. Early in the season, FSU won the Gator Bowl tournament in Jacksonville by beating Army by 35 points and then the University of Florida by 25. Midway through the season, FSU beat Jacksonville in Tallahassee, 89-83. Ahmad recalls this as the biggest thrill of the year as Jacksonville had been previously undefeated. This was the Jacksonville team that boasted twin towers, Artis Gilmore and Pembroke Burrows, as well as Rex Morgan and Chip Dublin. The FSU team that year scored more than 100 points on six different occasions. Twice they scored over 122 points. This was at a time when there were no three point field goals no matter the distance from the goal. They were very adept at pressing on defense and causing numerous turnovers. They were most effective when the other team would attempt to bring the ball in. Cowens with his size and cat-like quickness would nearly smother the opposing player trying to bring the ball in from out of bounds causing numerous errant passes which the other FSU players would intercept and quickly drive in and lay the ball up for points. The only disappointment at season's end was that this team could not go to the NCAA tournament. There had been some recruiting irregularities the year before for which FSU had been punished by disqualifying the team from post season play in 1970. Jacksonville, which had split two games with FSU during the season did get to the NCAA tournament. They progressed all the way to the final championship game where they lost to UCLA.

1970-71 Season

During Aliyy's last season at FSU, the team went 17-9 and had a fairly good season. Unfortunately Aliyy was injured just before the season began and as a result was unable to play in many of the games. The FSU team began the season on the road by beating Texas in Austin, 80-78. The primary disappointment during the season was that FSU lost to rival Jacksonville all three times that the two played. The first of those losses was at Jacksonville as part of the Sunshine Classic Tournament and was noteworthy for the reason that both teams scored over a hundred points as the final score was 114-108. But for those losses to JU, it would have been a great year. When the season was over, Aliyy's career at FSU as a player had come to an end.

During his three years on the varsity, the team had gone 58-20 by winning more than 70 per cent of their games. The team had established itself as a power to be reckoned with. But more importantly, following FSU's lead, more Southern institutions were recruiting black players. In the following year the team had a magical season, which ended in the national championship game at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion when the UCLA Bruins playing on their home court beat FSU 81-76 for the national championship. Ailyy was selected in the fifth round of the National Basketball Association draft by the Boston Celtics, the same team that had drafted Dave Cowens and Willie Williams the year before. He made it with the Celtics throughout the exhibition season but was relegated to the reserve group when the season started. He stayed with Boston for about a year. Later he signed as a free agent with the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association and was with them briefly. Then he decided to give up professional basketball and returned to FSU to finish up his degree work. In 1973, he obtained a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the School of Criminology and Social Welfare. Later in 1985 he would return to the campus again to do some graduate coursework in the Department of Public Administration in the College of Social Sciences. Since the eighties, Ailyy has worked in state government in Tallahassee. He has held positions in the Departments of Transportation and Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles as well as with the Florida Commission on Human Relations where he presently works. With hard work, he has risen from entry level positions to the very responsible duties that he now performs, having received numerous promotions and accolades along the way.

Basketball has remained close to his heart. Prior to his present coaching at Florida A & M High, he has been an assistant coach at Rickards High in Tallahassee and has coached at basketball camps for kids. In 1997 he conducted a basketball camp for young people in West Africa. On occasion he has taught courses in various places. In 1999, he was an adjunct professor at FSU and taught a course regarding the economic, social and political implications of African Americans in Sports, a course which his lifetime experiences made him imminently well qualified to teach. Every time I run into Ahmad, I think of those days in Tully Gym when he was Skip Young. It was always about ninety-five degrees in that place. When the FSU team would put the press on, it would cause turnover after turnover. The fans would go absolutely wild with joy. "Tully would rock." Tully Gym remains today. No basketball games are played there anymore. That tiny arena played an important role not only in FSU's basketball history but in helping the people of the South learn to live together. Perhaps, there should be some kind of monument in front of that place in honor of what happened there in the late sixties and early seventies.

This was originally printed in the February, 2003 Seminole Boosters Report To Boosters newspaper. The author and the Seminole Boosters have given their permission to reprint this article.