In early 1968, Charles “Chico” Vaughn, who died last October at the age of 73, was playing basketball for the Pittsburgh Pipers in the newly formed American Basketball Association. The most prolific scorer in Illinois high school and Southern Illinois University history, he was picked in the fourth round of the National Basketball Association’s 1962 draft by the St. Louis Hawks. He went on to play in the NBA for five seasons with the Hawks and the Detroit Pistons, before signing with the Pipers.
The ABA was perfect for a player with Chico Vaughn’s scoring skills. Using a red, white and blue basketball, its teams played a free-wheeling “run and gun” game that included a three-point line to encourage outside shooting. During the 1967-1968 season, the Pipers, the highest scoring team in the league, twice set a league record with 150 points in a game.
The Pittsburgh Pipers had four of the most talented players in professional basketball, but they were a band of misfits, either banned or unwanted by the established NBA. Their top two players, Connie Hawkins and Charlie Williams, had been banned from the NBA for their alleged involvement with gamblers. Two other stars, Chico Vaughn and Art Heyman, who was voted the nation’s top college basketball player in 1963, were NBA outcasts because of their perceived lack of discipline on and off the court.
With their talented misfits, the Pipers were the perfect team for an upstart league. After a slow start, they overwhelmed their opposition. Winning 16 games in a row at one point, the longest consecutive game win streak in Pittsburgh sports history, they finished the season with the best record in the ABA at 54-24, easily won their playoff series against the Indiana Pacers and Minnesota Muskies, then defeated the New Orleans Buccaneers in seven games for the league championship.
Despite winning the ABA title, the Pipers were plagued by poor attendance and left Pittsburgh after only one season. They had hoped their championship run would finally bring fans to the Civic Arena, but on the same day they opened their playoff series at home against Minnesota, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
The Civic Arena, built in the Lower Hill District after the homes, businesses and churches of thousands of African-Americans were demolished, escaped damage when nearby rioting broke out, but by the time the Pipers reached the ABA finals, those living on the Hill had suffered through days of violence and destruction.
Chico Vaughn was an All-Star with the 1967-1968 Pipers, but his greatest personal accomplishments, the ones that would have made Dr. King proud, came after his basketball career was over. In 1974, after working for a few years in sports programs for disadvantaged youth in central Illinois, he moved to Cairo in southern Illinois and worked in security and attendance at Meridian High School in nearby Mounds.
Over the years at Meridian, Vaughn became a surrogate father for generations of students with disability and discipline problems. While working tirelessly with the school’s most troubled students, he also became a leader in the African-American community and an avid booster of its youth sports programs. In 1992, he returned to Southern Illinois University, the scene of his earlier basketball glory, and completed his bachelor of science degree with a major in recreation.
While he was a witness to the violent aftermath of Martin Luther King’s assassination when he was playing with the Pittsburgh Pipers, Chico Vaughn also experienced violence in his own life. In 2003, his son, Justin, already in a wheelchair from a previous shooting, was shot and killed by the son of one of Chico’s high school friends. At the time, Justin was living with his father, and they had shared a cup of coffee that morning.
Chico Vaughn couldn’t prevent the tragic loss of his own son, but he could take solace in knowing that he’d helped generations of young people find the way to a better life.
On Martin Luther King Day, we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. King, but it’s also the proper occasion to remember those, like Chico Vaughn, who help the underprivileged and disadvantaged reach for Dr. King’s dream day in and day out.
Richard “Pete” Peterson, professor emeritus of English at Southern Illinois University, grew up on the South Side and is the author of “Growing Up With Clemente” and “Pops: The Willie Stargell Story.” Two of Chico Vaughn’s surviving children, Charles “Pro” Vaughn Jr. and Jynhae Tyler, live in the Pittsburgh area.