Fifty-one years ago today—February 3, 1969—Auburn freshman Henry Harris scored 43 points at Lexington, Kentucky, against a freshman team made up of Kentucky players who would win three straight SEC titles from 1970-72. “Watch for Harris” read the headline in the Lexington newspaper the next day. Sadly, that promising night was possibly the pinnacle of Harris’s Auburn career. During his three varsity seasons, he would be limited first by role play and then by injury.

Here’s an excerpt describing the game from Remember Henry Harris:

Chapter 14, page 104
Even if it was just a freshman game, the meeting of Auburn and Kentucky on Monday night, February 3, 1969, was full of promise. Kentucky’s guards—Stan Key and Kent Hollenbeck—would be varsity starters most of the next three years, and forward Tom Parker would be the SEC’s “Sophomore of the Year” the following season. With Parker and Harris, the game would feature two of the ten players selected to the Dapper Dan national all-star team. Even the coaches were both up-and-comers. Joe B. Hall would coach Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA championship, and Auburn’s Larry Chapman would win more than 700 games in four decades as a college head coach. Even the venue was special—Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, probably the most historic on-campus arena in America, where four NCAA championship banners hung on the wall, all won in an eleven-year span. By the start of the second half of the freshman game, more than half the 11,500 seats would be taken. Kentucky fans came out by the thousands for freshman games to evaluate their own young players and scout future SEC stars. Many had already heard of Harris. His reputation was spreading as the league’s most talented freshman.

As knowledgeable as Kentucky fans could be, they could also be very hard on black players, but Harris responded to the hostility with grit, just as he had at Ole Miss. He had twenty-one points at halftime, and, by the end of the game, had forty-three.

Kentucky’s Hall had structured his defense to run Auburn out of its patterned “shuffle” offense, creating numerous one-on-one opportunities for Harris, and Kentucky had no one who could stay with him. Harris hit pull-up jumpers inside fifteen feet and used his quickness to get open inside for layups.

Kentucky’s up-tempo offense would beat Auburn, 98-75, but Harris could have run with Kentucky all night. “Henry was a flow player,” Chapman said. “The more space, the better he could move.” He scored another twenty-two points in the second half despite being knocked off balance while in the air and landing hard on his knees, shoving both kneecaps out of position. Chapman was not convinced it was an accident. “Henry jumped so high, they used to knock him down,” he said.

Harris made sixteen of thirty-two shots and eleven of fourteen free throws, a remarkable performance on a big stage. The Lexington Herald’s game story was headlined, “Kittens Win, But–Watch for Harris,” and reported Kentucky’s freshmen had gotten “a glimpse of a guy who may be lots of trouble in the seasons ahead.” “Harris is an excellent ballplayer,” Hall said afterward. “. . . You can’t leave him open.” Chapman agreed: “He’s a good player all right. He’s played great all year.”

As well as Harris was scoring, he was playing in handcuffs. On many of his steals and breakaways, he could have dunked easily, but the NCAA had banned dunking a year earlier in reaction to the increasing number of dominating black players, specifically Lew Alcindor, who led UCLA to the 1967 national title as a sophomore. Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp was influential with the NCAA rules committee and lobbied hard for the ban, his 1966 team the victim of Dave “Big Daddy” Latin’s historic power dunk early in the NCAA finals. The following season, Rupp saw Vanderbilt’s 6-foot-4 Perry Wallace throw down a dunk over his own star freshman, Dan Issel, a future Basketball Hall of Famer.

Meanwhile, the Kentucky freshman team that faced Harris was as white as Kentucky’s varsity was the night it lost to Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA finals. Since then, Kentucky had been either unable or unwilling to sign a black player, despite pressure from university president John Oswald and his hiring of Hall to recruit blacks.

Kentucky had attempted to recruit at least one black player in the high school class of 1968—Savannah’s Joby Wright, the 6-foot-7 strongman recruited by Auburn. Wright spent an entire weekend at Kentucky but got only fifteen minutes with Rupp. “I’ll never forget it,” he said. “We shook hands and he [Rupp] said, ‘Your hands are as big as meathooks.’” When Wright played at Kentucky as a sophomore for Indiana, “I was blown away, like ‘Wow!’” he said. “I never got called the n-word so much in my life. They called me everything but the son of God.”