Ground-breaking basketball game

Pamela RhoadesNews

In honor of Black History Month, we remember Monsignor Philip Thoni, a priest, teacher and coach at Knoxville Catholic High School in the early 50s. It was as his role as boys’ basketball coach that Father Thoni initiated a little-known ground-breaking sporting event.

To prepare his 1953-54 Catholic team for the coming season, Father Thoni thought it would be beneficial to scrimmage the best talent around. So, he called coach G.H. “Dusty” Lennon at Austin High School. (Austin-East High School now.) “We were on Magnolia (Avenue) at that time, so it was the closest school to us,” Father Thoni said.

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

“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 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.

The team’s backup center, John Luttrell, now 88, recalled 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 remembered that this was not the only game they played against Austin. “We played them many times; we didn’t think anything of it (playing a black school).”

A few years after that, Father Thoni went on to coach at Catholic High in Memphis. He made his way back to East Tennessee as pastor of St. Mary’s Oak Ridge in the 2000s. He 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, Knoxville News Sentinel, June 13, 2009 & phone interview with John Luttrell, February 2024.