Knox Catholic, Austin East made history in the ’50s

Susan EspirituEast Knox

John Luttrell, former basketball player from the 1950s, recently spoke to Pam Rhoades, director of marketing and communications at Knoxville Catholic High School, about his vivid memories of the unconventional associations and friendships between his 1953 Knoxville Catholic basketball team and Austin High’s basketball team (today’s Austin-East High School.)

Luttrell, now 88 years old, remembers well his priest, teacher and coach Monsignor Philip Thoni. He says it was in his role as boys’ basketball coach that Father Thoni initiated a little-known ground-breaking sporting event, a scrimmage between an all-white school and an all-black school.

Monsignor Thoni

To prepare his 1953-54 Catholic team for the coming season, Father Thoni knew it would be beneficial to scrimmage the best talent around. So, he called coach G.H. “Dusty” Lennon at Austin High School.

Father Thoni said, “We were on Magnolia Avenue at that time, so it was the closest school to us.”

This was almost a year before Brown vs. Board of Education began the integration of public schools, so an all-white Catholic High and all-black Austin High might as well have been on different planets in the climate of the early 1950s.

“You were not allowed to play a black school,” Father Thoni said. “But as Catholics, it didn’t make any difference to us. We’re all God’s children. That’s what we believe and what we teach.”

The scrimmage held at Austin High was cordial but was played behind closed doors. Austin defeated Catholic, 68-32, but it helped prepare Catholic for the post-season as the team went on to win the 1954 Sixth District championship.

John Luttrell was the team’s backup center and he recalls that the Shamrocks (as they were called then) enjoyed playing against the boys at Austin High. “We got along fine and would even hang out after the game.” He remembers that this was not the only game they played against Austin. “We played them many times; we didn’t think anything of it.”

Father Thoni died March 19, 2015, at age 91. The Knoxville Catholic gymnasium was renovated by the McCabe family in 2013 and the basketball court was named, Monsignor Philip Thoni Court.

Excerpts from a story by Mike Strange with permission, Knoxville News Sentinel, June 13, 2009 and phone interview with John Luttrell, February 2024 with permission.

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