The announcer is bland and clueless and biased beyond words. As the 1966 national championship game between celebrated Kentucky and obscure Texas Western is about to begin, the TV voice introduces just one of the latter’s starters by name and characterizes them thusly:
“A team that has no offence but wants to work one-on-one all the time. The Washington press has pretty well conceded that Texas Western cannot stand up to Kentucky.”
This was the start of a seminal moment in college basketball – even in American history. This was sports transcendent, black athletes triumphant, à la Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson. As U.S. President Barack Obama put it recently in marking the 50th anniversary, this was “a group of Americans who laced up their shoes and moved our country forward. That, and a pretty good basketball team.”
On March 19, 1966, in the NCAA final in College Park, Md., hard by the old Mason-Dixon Line, the all-white Kentucky Wildcats took on the Texas Western Miners, whose starting lineup, for the first time ever in a final, featured five African-Americans.
No one talked about it much at the time; it was almost subliminal. But a code had undeniably been broken – even the most liberal colleges observed racial quotas then, Frank Fitzpatrick writes in his book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: “The whispered motto for many of them was, ‘Two blacks at home. Three on the road. And four when behind.’”
The breach was especially stark because the opponent this night came from the Southeastern Conference, which had no black players, and because the legendary coach of lordly Kentucky, Adolph Rupp, was hell-bent on holding back the tide of change.
And change was certainly in the air. Landmark civil-rights legislation in 1964 and ’65. Martin Luther King taking protest north to Chicago. Stokely Carmichael soon to espouse Black Power. And now – though it wasn’t political, just basketball, the principals insisted – these upstarts out of El Paso, Tex., presuming to challenge Kentucky with a collection of black kids recruited from New York, Detroit, Houston and Gary, Ind. For the record, the Miners’ roster included four white people and a Hispanic player, but none of them saw action in the final.
I watched the game on the floor of my parents’ bedroom in Philadelphia. The TV, naturally, was black and white. I was rooting for the underdog, as I always did when a Philly squad wasn’t involved, though the significance of this occasion no doubt escaped me. I just knew insufferable Kentucky faced an unknown band of black guys with catchy nicknames – the Shadow, Big Daddy D – and my allegiance was assured.
What do I remember? Not a lot. Texas Western’s David Lattin slamming down a dunk over Kentucky’s Pat Riley early in the game, and little Bobby Joe Hill stealing the ball on back-to-back plays and driving in for lefty layups. I did not know that Mr. Rupp – the Baron of the Bluegrass – called the Miners “coons” in a halftime rant, as Sports Illustrated reported, or that The Baltimore Sun had written that the “running, gunning Texas quintet can do more things with a basketball than a monkey on a 50-foot jungle wire.”
It seems so long ago, the racial attitudes as antiquated as the grainy footage of the game itself. And watching the film now, it’s striking just how delusional those stereotypes were. Far from running and gunning – and the old slur that without a white player on the court black players would lose control – the seven young African-Americans who toiled that night for Texas Western coach Don Haskins, a white Oklahoman, employed a disciplined, passing, tough-on-D style that simply ground Kentucky down. They fully deserved their 72-65 triumph.
Years later, Mr. Rupp was still fulminating that he’d somehow been robbed, that the Miners were “crooks” who’d imported a player on parole from Tennessee State Prison. (Close: Mr. Lattin had transferred from Tennessee State University.) No less than author James Michener dismissed the Miners as “a bunch of loose-jointed ragamuffins ready for a brawl.”
That’s slander from another era, one soon to fade. Today, some 64 per cent of major-college players are African-American, according to a University of Pennsylvania study, and Kentucky fields highly ranked, heavily black teams that play – with unspoken irony – in Rupp Arena. Texas Western has become the University of Texas at El Paso, and its basketball breakthrough – which earned coach Haskins a deluge of hate mail – has received Middle America’s official stamp of approval: a Disney movie (Glory Road, 2006).
Heck, the United States has a black president – and yet, despite giddy predictions of a “postracial” America, Mr. Obama’s skin colour has fed vicious critiques of his politics and questions about his birthplace. White cops still have a nasty habit of shooting unarmed black people. A black quarterback, Cam Newton, can still provoke racially tinged revulsion at his swagger, and an entertainer, Beyoncé, can set off a storm with a halftime homage to the Black Panthers.
It is impossible to overstate the pre-eminence of race in the American story, or how relentlessly the story goes on.
Last month, fans packed the Don Haskins Center in El Paso to welcome back many of the Miners’ heroes from ’66; their old coach died in 2008. Mr. Obama gave his tribute by video. “I was trying to be a model man and not cry,” said guard Willie Worsley, now 70. “And then the President came on? Him? To us?”
Yes, to the Miners and one of those accidents of history that, in retrospect, seems somehow inevitable. It was just a hoops game, but the time was ripe and the team ready, and the night took a fortuitous bounce into immortality. It’s a reminder of how far we’ve come, and how far we haven’t.Report Typo/Error
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