On January 31, 1961, nine young Black men stepped into McCrory’s Variety Store in downtown Rock Hill, sat down at the lunch counter and refused to leave.
Those students from Friendship Junior College — now known as the Friendship Nine — knew they’d be taken out in handcuffs and arrested, but they stood for something bigger. For civil rights. For change.
If Frank Martin were to step into the South Carolina men’s basketball locker room today and ask his players about the Friendship Nine and their impact, he’s not sure a single player would have an answer — despite the fact that the historic sit-in occurred an hour down the road from Columbia.
That lack of knowledge is one of the key reasons why Martin and the Gamecocks agreed to play in the inaugural No Room for Racism Classic, an eight-team event hosted at the brand new Rock Hill Sports & Event Center on Dec. 10-12. Rock Hill announced the event Thursday, and the classic will include an exhibit on the Friendship Nine and their “jail, no bail” motto.
“That’s education,” Martin said Thursday. “It’s being a part of this event, and being able to educate people as to the sacrifices that others have made to create change. And it’s not just change — it’s to create growth, which is the most important.”
For his entire career, Martin has advocated for minorities and inclusion both within basketball and in the community at large. The 55-year-old coach of Cuban heritage serves as co-chair for the National Association of Basketball Coaches Committee on Racial Reconciliation and won an NABC award for inclusion this March.
Along with the Gamecocks, Rock Hill will host Florida State, High Point, Winthrop and historically Black schools South Carolina State, Clinton College, Carver College and Edward Waters. Each team will play once during the classic.
Participating was an easy “yes” for Martin, who said it’s important to him to give back to the Rock Hill community in addition to amplifying the mission behind the No Room for Racism event.
It helped, too, that the Gamecocks drew an enticing non-conference matchup on Dec. 12.
“The perfect storm came together,” Martin said. “When they called me and they said, ‘Hey, Florida State might be interested in playing you guys.’ I was like, ‘Listen, let’s do this because now you get a big-time opponent in the state of South Carolina, and it’s a great game for our state, the city, our program.”
Martin called Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton, 73, a mentor of his, telling stories of days early in his coaching career when he’d step into Hamilton’s office and ask for advice on how to lead a program.
From a pure basketball standpoint, the game represents the toughest test for the Gamecocks in a stout non-conference schedule, as they’ll take on a Seminoles squad that finished 18-7 last season and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA tournament. Along with non-conference games against Georgetown, Princeton and Clemson, Martin should learn much about his team’s mettle early in the season.
“When you’re in a Power Five league, you’ve got to play good teams. If not, your team won’t be prepared to deal with SEC-caliber opposition,” Martin said. “.... It’s about playing against winning programs and hardening your team and preparing your team so it can be as united and as good as it can be come March.”
After multiple COVID-19 shutdowns stalled the Gamecocks (6-15) last season, Martin said there’s excitement in the building about what the Gamecocks could achieve this year, saying the personalities on the team remind him of the personalities on the 2017 Final Four squad.
However, regardless of how USC is playing by Dec. 12, Martin knows the tournament stands for something more resonant than basketball.
“As we prepare to play this game, we’re going to make sure our players understand the impact of the Friendship Nine and what they did in this community,” Martin said.
“I’m not a big advocate for just talking. Talking is awesome, and it’s part of it. But there’s got to be action. So there’s substance to the words, and what those nine individuals did, that was action to force change.”
No Room For Racism Classic game lineup
Dec. 10: SC State vs. High Point
Dec. 11: Winthrop vs. Carver College
Dec. 12: Clinton College vs. Edward Watters
Dec. 12: South Carolina vs. Florida State