(Oct. 30, 1933-Sept. 28, 2000). William “Willie” Gardner was born in Pulaski, Tennessee, the only child of Versie Coleman and an unknown father. He and his mother moved to Indianapolis sometime during his early childhood. Gardner experienced extreme poverty, growing up food insecure in a home without electricity on Missouri Street, located on the near west side of Indianapolis in an area called Frog Island. By the time he was 12 years old, Gardner worked three part-time jobs to supplement the family income.

A tall young man poses with a child under a basketball goal.
Crispus Attucks High School student, Willie Gardner posing with a child in a gymnasium, 1952 Credit: Indianapolis Recorder Collection, Indiana Historical Society View Source

In 1948 at the Senate Avenue Ymca, Gardner had a chance interaction with Frank Bullock “Pop” Hedden, a coach at Butler University, which inspired him to play basketball. He then joined an intramural program that Crispus Attucks High School coach Ray Crowe organized at the Dust Bowl, a basketball court at the south end of the Lockefield Gardens housing complex.

At Attucks, Gardner became one of Indiana’s best high school players for the 1950-1951 and 1951-1952 seasons. As a 6’6” sophomore in 1951, he led the team to beat Howe High School in its first state sectional title win at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Attucks went on to win regionals but lost to Evansville Reitz in the state semi-finals. In 1952, Gardner again led his team to the state semi-finals, this time losing to Arsenal Technical High School.

Indiana High School Athletic Association (IHSAA) rules made Gardner ineligible to play on the Attucks team his senior year. At that time, players could participate on a varsity team for a particular sport only for three years of their high school careers. He instead joined the Indianapolis Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) league and carried his team to the 1953 AAU national finals held in Denver, Colorado. He also played in the Dust Bowl Tournament in August 1953, where 2,000 fans showed up to watch Gardner outshoot Indiana University’s All-American Bill Garrett in the tournament final. This performance drew a scholarship offer from DePaul University of Chicago. Gardner turned down this offer and signed instead with the Harlem Globetrotters.

With the Globetrotters, Gardner was named most valuable player (MVP) at the 1954 World Series of Basketball, which pitted the Globetrotters against teams of college All-Americans. After a two-year stint in the U.S. Army, he became MVP again in the 1957 World Series.

The Globetrotters sold his contract to the New York Knicks in fall 1957 for a three-year deal of $35,000. In preseason games, Gardner averaged 28 points and 18 rebounds. His NBA career, however, ended before it began when the Knick’s team doctor found that he had a hole in his heart. Gardner was only 22 years old.

A brief stint as assistant coach of the Ray Crowe Stars, a professional team composed of former Crispus Attucks High School basketball players, followed in 1959. Gardner, however, left basketball to become a successful salesman for a Stroh’s beer distributor and later worked as a corrections officer for the Marion County Sheriff’s Department.

In 1972, Gardner was named to Tony Hinkle’s “Dream Team.” He received the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “Drum Major Certificate of Achievement” for sports in 1982 and the NAACP “Award of Achievement in the Fields of Athletics” in 1983. He received a “Legends” ring at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis, on January 17, 1998.

Diagnosed with diabetes, Gardner eventually lost his lower legs. He died at the age of 67.

Revised June 2022

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