Sixty years before the Spurs won their first NBA championship, a scrappy young squad of Mexican American ballers was making history of its own in San Antonio’s Westside barrios. From 1939 to 1945 Lanier High School won two state basketball titles, finishing second once and third twice, along the way combating negative perceptions of knife-wielding Tejanos that were prevalent during the segregated WWII era. Lanier’s dynastic run started with a literal bang, as fist met face when the team won their initial championship in San Antonio.
“They were playing Brackenridge High School for the city championship,” says Lanier alum Joe Bernal, recalling the original 1939 team. “And Tony Cardona made the winning basket, and this guy ran up to him and smack! Hit Tony in the eye! That caused a big fight in the whole gymnasium.”
According to Bernal, who inspired Ignacio M. Garcia’s engaging book When Mexicans Could Play Ball, the win against Brackenridge represented the first time a predominantly Mexican American team had captured the city title, and Brackenridge’s Anglo contingent were not fans. The brawl escalated outside of the gym before being contained by SAPD.
Known to his teammates as Chema, Bernal played on the 1944 team before attending Trinity University and ultimately championing bilingual education and civil rights in the Texas legislature. His Lanier squad went undefeated until they reached the state championships, eventually taking third place in the tournament. As he nears 90 years of age, Bernal fondly recounts Lanier’s golden era of basketball and the factors that contributed to their success on the hardwood.
“Nemo was a very strict disciplinarian with his students,” says Bernal describing Lanier’s legendary coach William “Nemo” Herrera. “He was a very strict coach. He wasn’t a buddy of ours. He wasn’t a friend of ours. He was our coach and he was our teacher, and that relationship never changed. You admired him because he knew his business.”
A baseball and basketball standout at Southwestern University, Herrera was a master motivator who preached conditioning above all else. His quicksilver Lanier teams overwhelmed taller opponents with a relentless pace and aggressive defense that feasted on turnovers. Herrera was known to play his entire bench and took pride in his squad’s frenetic man-to-man shifts, which suffocated opposing offenses.
Off the court, Herrera served as a father figure to many of his players, helping them navigate an American climate that demanded assimilation. Although he rarely spoke Spanish in front of them, Herrera referred to his players by their colorful nicknames, which varied from Goofus to Indio. His own nickname came from a fellow pelotero’s inability to pronounce Memo, which became Nemo.
Although they faced discrimination on the road from hostile crowds and biased referees, Herrera encouraged his team to rise above the ignorance and let their play do the talking. On multiple occasions the team was refused service at road trip diners based on the color of their skin, once by police who escorted them out of town.
The three all-stars were all named Rodríguez, comprising San Antonio’s original, Mexican American, Big Three.
“You got used to it,” says Bernal. “People were like ‘goddamn Mexicans’ or used bad language against us. Nemo was wise enough to tell us, ‘Don’t pay attention to them. They’re just trying to get you. You just keep on playing your game and you’ll beat them. That’s the way to get even with them. Beat them!’”
Growing up in San Anto’s Westside, Bernal recognized the unemployment, under-employment, and general lack of opportunities that plagued his community. Lanier’s team name, the Voks, spoke directly to the vocational nature of his high school which steered Mexican American students towards the industrial arts, as opposed to college. The school’s dusty gymnasium, known as the chicken coop, included colchones that served as backstops for the baseline’s confining walls.
Bernal attributes much of Lanier’s chemistry to the network of churches and community centers that existed in the Westside barrios that housed the nation’s original housing projects. As part of active “settlement house” and CYO leagues, Westside youth would compete against each other regularly, elevating their stamina and level of play before they became Voks.
“It kind of built up because we started at eight years or ten years of age,” says Bernal. “So by the time we got into junior high school, we were smaller, but we could always beat the competition across town. By the time we got into junior high school and high school, we could out-run, out-play, and out-think people on the court. Not too much in football, because of size and weight. In basketball what we lacked in size we made up in being fast and quick.”
Lanier’s historic run ended 21 years before Texas Western forged their celebrated glory road to the NCAA championship, effectively breaking the color barrier in college basketball. In addition to securing a second state title for the Voks, the 1945 team showcased three players on the all-tournament team, another first at the time. The three all-stars were all named Rodríguez, comprising San Antonio’s original, Mexican American, Big Three.
Coach Herrera left Lanier that summer, turning down a contract offer to coach at Texas A&M University, before leading El Paso’s Bowie High School to a state baseball championship. He passed away in 1984, after dedicating his entire life to youth sports. Bernal recently had a middle school in San Antonio named after him, regularly plays golf, and is enjoying retirement. Lanier basketball remains dear to his heart.
“There weren’t too many things that people would think of that they would say we were very proud of so we had a tremendous spirit at Lanier,” says Bernal. “The spirit that we have for the Spurs is the same spirit that we had for Lanier. It’s the same thing. If they had never won, we probably would have thought we’re just a second-class team, but when they won, they became first class. That never goes away.”