Imagine winning a state title and few people knowing.
That wouldn’t happen in Texas today — when College Station won its first-ever football title in 2017, the city was abuzz for weeks — but when James Steen, Sylvester Calhoun and the College Station Lincoln Panthers won the 1960 Prairie View Interscholastic League Class 1A boys basketball state title, it received little attention from the city at large. Steen and Calhoun were the point guard and shooting guard, respectively, for Lincoln, the school for the city’s African American children.
“We were a happy family,” Steen said. “The community supported us, and we supported each other. That was during the time; they didn’t do a whole lot for this small black school, so we learned how to celebrate ourselves and enjoy ourselves.”
The Panthers and the league they played in, the PVIL, occupy a sometimes-forgotten place in Texas history. Starting in 1920, the PVIL governed interscholastic academic and athletic competition for Texas’ African American high schools for 50 years, until the league’s merger with the UIL was complete in 1969-70.
Nearly 60 years after the Panthers’ title, Calhoun and Steen met at the Lincoln Recreation Center, yards from the gym they played in as teenagers, to reminisce about their time in Panther purple and gold. They both were seniors on the state championship team and remember the rare size advantage the Panthers had in the 6-foot-7 Charles Banks, who went on to play for the legendary Don Haskins at Texas Western, and a strong relationship with head coach Edward Elliott. Lincoln beat Rockdale Aycock 68-34 in the 10-A championship to advance to the state tournament, which was at Prairie View A&M on Feb. 20, 1960.
“We were a close-knit team. We still are,” Steen said. “We don’t get a chance to see each other, there’s not many of us, but it’s kind of like family. We supported each other in whatever way, and we were really good friends because we were brought up in the same community. We didn’t have any jealousy among each other; we were a team sport.”
Added Calhoun: “One thing we were always proud to do is if each one of us could get 12-15 points, you could pretty much win.”
Lincoln trailed Ladonia Clark for much of the championship game but rallied to win 69-56 after a back-and-forth fourth quarter, bringing home the only boys basketball title won by a Bryan/College Station African American school. After the game, Steen said the city didn’t do much to recognize the title and The Eagle only provided limited coverage. There wasn’t a team banquet after the fact, either, and the players received their sweaters and other memorabilia during the ensuing school year. Steen laughingly remembers the team doing most of its celebrating 25 years later, when the Panthers were among teams honored during the 1985 state basketball championships in Austin.
Steen and Calhoun didn’t just consider themselves basketball players — they played baseball and football, winning three straight district titles in the latter. In the summer, they would ride in the bed of Calhoun’s father’s truck to Navasota or Anderson to play baseball.
“We were athletes; we were good at pretty much everything,” Steen said. “Like [Calhoun] said, we grew up in the community, and we knew everybody’s move. Whatever the season was, that’s what we played.”
After a fire destroyed one of the Lincoln classroom buildings in 1966, its students attended A&M Consolidated, while students at Bryan Kemp were integrated into Bryan High by 1971. Lincoln was closed for good after the fire, and the remaining buildings and property were leased to the city for 10 years starting in 1968. The facility officially was dedicated as Lincoln Recreation Center in 1980.
When Steen and Calhoun played, the school provided uniforms and players furnished the rest. That’s where community support was key, providing equipment such as towels and cheering loudly at games, while the players or their families paid for shoes and anything else they needed.
“Some of us worked during the summer,” Calhoun said. “You know basketball season was coming up, so the first thing you would do is buy your tennis shoes.”
The lack of fanfare didn’t bother the Panthers, and the support from family and friends is what meant the most to the team. Steen and Calhoun carried those lessons with them through long careers at Texas A&M in a lab and as an athletic department equipment manager, respectively.
Today, there aren’t enough surviving Lincoln alumni to hold a reunion, but former Panthers are remembered at Consol gatherings. The five surviving members of the championship team reminisce and piece together stories from their time in purple. They share stories of their playing days with their families and agree their contributions helped open doors for today’s local African American basketball players, including Calhoun’s own children.
“Our parents and forefathers paved the way for us,” Steen said. “It’s a slow process, but each generation helps the future generations.”