A friend’s five-year-old son looked at her the other day and said these words: “Mommy, did you know that white Americans killed Martin Luther King?”
Where do you suppose a Kindergarten student heard such a thing?
Forty years ago, racism and segregation were commonplace. A battle was being fought, and even though the Civil Rights Act was passed in ’64, there was still active segregation in schools, restaurants, and public restrooms in the south. A hundred years after the Civil War was fought and won, southern states held on to the old ways. All marches and famous speeches aside, the south would not be swayed. The Supreme Court could force schools to racially integrate, but it could not force them to like it. Scholarships were not given to African-Americans, and schools did not recruit African-American athletes for their programs.
Back in the 1960s, southern collegiate sports were comprised of only white athletes. None of the southern schools had African-Americans on their teams, and many refused to even play against those teams that did. And even though the first African-American to ever play in an NBA game was put in the history books as early as 1950, collegiate sports did not follow suit for sixteen long years.
Forty years after the fact, one can easily see that basketball is dominated by African-Americans, though arguably the colour of a man’s skin doesn’t have anything to do with his ability to play the game. Now we wave flags and cheer for teams that resemble the melting pot that is America – no creed or colour is excluded. Anyone with a good jump shot and a lot of determination could become the next basketball star.
But in 1966, two years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, this was not the case. Myself, I was born in one of the biggest basketball states you will find. Here, the season lasts year-round. News of recruiting, of game plans, of practices and strategies are gobbled up and passed around from fan to fan with avid interest. Games are played in front of max-capacity audiences, and television cameras record the roar of the fans as they weather losses and celebrate victories with the players on the court. And my dad’s motto is, “We don’t have any black players or white players. We have only blue players.” Blue being the school colour for his team of choice. But that is today. In 1966, it was a whole old ball game.
The doors of the south were not thrown open to receive anyone but your standard white American ball player until March of 1966. It was not Supreme Court ruling or laws passed by Congress that brought about the change. Many credit the change, in fact, to just one man. To just one game.
Don “the Bear” Haskins was born in 1930 in Enid, Oklahoma. He grew up playing basketball around the streets of his hometown, and then went on to a high-school ball career before playing at Oklahoma A & M. Basketball was Don’s life, and he would never have been able to stay away. He took up coaching for different high schools around Texas before accepting a head-coaching collegiate position in 1962. He moved as far south as he could without moving into Mexico, finally ending up at El Paso to coach Texas Western basketball. Today, the school is known as UTEP. The school was the first college in Texas to integrate undergraduate classes, in 1955. Texas Western was recruiting and playing African-Americans very early, considering their southern status, back in the 1950s. Don Haskins was a young man when he first arrived at Texas Western, and inherited three African-Americans when he took over the team from the former head coach.
The Bear took that one step further. He recruited his players for talent, not colour, and entered into the 1965-66 season with more African-Americans on the roster than any other race. Haskins was only thirty-five and never before had he coached on a collegiate level. But he earned his no-nonsense reputation, demanding the best out of his ball club. He arrived in the dorms one evening and walked into the room of Nevil Shed, one of his new recruits. Haskins told Shed that he could not have a player that was afraid to rebound, afraid to come up strong under the basket, and started to pack Shed’s bags for him. Haskins produced a ticket and told Shed to go home. Shed, young and terrified of being kicked out of school and then having to face his parents, went behind the coach and unpacked his bags. The next day at practice, Shed worked so hard that he broke his nose. He was allowed to stay on the team.
That moment is portrayed in a new Disney/Jerry Bruckheimer film, Glory Road. It is one of the few truths of the film. That moment actually happened. That Don Haskins personally recruited every single one of his African-American players did not. Haskins was not the first play African-Americans, and he was not the first to enter African-Americans into his starting line-up. Other schools, though they were above the Mason-Dixon line, had gone on to championships with four starting African-Americans leading the way.
Haskins had an almost perfect season in 1965-1966, entering into the NCAA tournament with a 27-1 record. The team earned it’s #3 ranking as it entered into the tournament whose trophy is still the most coveted in all of college basketball. Most had never before even heard of Texas Western.
The movie portrays much more racial tension than there actually was, even in that day and age. Players involved say that for them, it was just about basketball and not skin colour. It was that way for a lot of people. No, the racial tension did not actually start until after the season and even the post-season play was already over.
Texas Western fought through some very close games to win a seat at the Big Dance, which is the National Championship game. They fought an overtime war against Cincinatti, winning by only two points. The final score was 78-76. Kansas stuck it out with them through two overtimes before Texas Western won by a single point for a final score of 81-80, and Utah fell with a score of 85-78.
And suddenly, everyone in the world knew who Texas Western was. March 19, 1966 was the day set aside for the Championship game. The trophy was polished and the court in College Park, Maryland admitted fans who were ready to cheer for their teams till the bitter or sweet end. Every year in Spring, it is the most exciting thing that could happen to any college basketball team.
Don Haskins and his mainly African-American Texas Western team were slated to play the number one team in all the nation. A team comprised of only white players, led by arguably the greatest coach in history. No one expected Texas Western to win.
At that time, there was no argument from any camp that the University of Kentucky was the most dominant in college basketball. Led by Adolph Rupp, whose winning record was .822 (an almost ridiculously high number), his boys were called thoroughbreds. The school is located in “the Bluegrass” of Lexington, Kentucky, a place known for its horses, tobacco, and basketball. Rupp, the “Baron of the Bluegrass” took more than 80% of his players from within the state. A southern state, Kentucky is still comprised mainly of farmland and rolling green hills. Perhaps in spite of himself, all Rupp’s players were white.
Rupp was Kansas-born, coming into the world in September of 1901. He played four years in high school and four more in college, coached by legendary “Phog” Allen at the University of Kansas from 1919 to 1923. He went on to get his master’s degree and teacher’s college diploma, and in 1923 took up his first coaching gig at Marshalltown High School in Iowa – as a wrestling coach. He went to Freeport High in Illinois, where he coached players of all skin tones. He was given the head coaching position at the University of Kentucky in 1930, and thus history was made. To this day in the state of Kentucky, the name “Adolph Rupp” will have fans telling you what a great man he was, that his legend will never die and his record will never be broken by any other head coach of Kentucky basketball. Four NCAA tournament titles went to Rupp, in 1948, 1949, 1951, and 1958. In the golden days of Rupp, the coach did no recruiting. Top players traveled to Lexington to try and win scholarships from him. He even co-coached the 1948 US Olympic team, wining a gold medal. Five of the players on that team were from the University of Kentucky.
In 1966, Rupp had already suffered through the point-shaving scandal of 1952. Kentucky was not allowed to play with other college teams for an entire season. Rupp did not close the gym doors, and instead practice with the team all year. They came back in the 1953-54 season and did not lose a single game, beating all opponents by an average of twenty-seven points. They were not eligible for the tournament that year, or Rupp might have had a fifth title before the ’66 game. Kentucky coaches still dream of beating Rupp’s incredible record, which ended with an astonishing 876 wins. Rupp lost only 190 games in his career at Kentucky.
He was called a racist by many, though there is little evidence to support the claim. That Rupp did not recruit African-Americans in untrue. The University of Kentucky was racially integrated as early as 1949, and undergraduate classes were integrated in 1954. Kentucky played integrated teams beginning in the 1950s, and Rupp tried to win African-American Wes Unseld to his team in 1964, but despite his best recruiting efforts Unseld went to UK’s biggest rival, the University of Louisville. If he had not, the Championship game of 1966 might not have made the impact it did, and we might not have the opportunity to see the movie Glory Road.
That Rupp had only white players was not the big deal they portray in the movie. Kentucky, who was a part of the Southeastern Conference since its inception, had no African-Americans it’s true. No school in the Southeastern Conference had a single African-American on any team, nor did any team in the ACC. They were the two southernmost conferences of the day, and most southern schools did not want to have anything to do with African-American ball players.
And so, the stage was set. Don Haskins made the startling move, before the game, to change his line-up. Going with a group of smaller, faster players, he may not have realized the impact he would make. For the very first time in history, Haskins sat five starters on the floor who were all African-American. He played only African-Americans in the game, while the rest of his club sat on the bench and cheered with all the spirit due a National Championship game.
Adolph’s team was known as “Rupp’s Runts” and remain to this day one of the best-loved basketball teams in the state of Kentucky. No man was taller than 6’5”, but they were quick and relentless. Rupp was known for his difficult man-to-man defense and his fast-break plays. The two stars of the Kentucky team were Pat Riley (yes, the same Pat Riley who went on the become a very famous coach himself) and Lou Dampier. Both scored 19 points in the game.
Texas Western hit the floor with fire and determination, taking the lead midway through the first half and never letting it go again. Both schools had almost perfect records, each only losing a single game during the season. Bobby Joe Hill, the 5’10” starting guard, stole the ball twice for the Texas Western Miners to make layups. He led all scorers in the game with twenty points. His huge 6’7”, 240-pound teammate Dave “Big Daddy” Lattin contributed 16 points and 9 boards. Ortsen “Little O” Artis, a guard, scored 15 points and got 8 boards for the team. The Texas Western players say to this day that there were no racial slurs directed at them from the Kentucky players, and people still remark on the class that the Kentucky team displayed at the game’s end.
It was a considered a huge upset by Kentucky fans, but it actually was not. Texas Western was ranked third in the nation, was coached by a man known to all and sundry as accepting nothing less than the best, and was chock-full of athletic talent. The movie will show a Kentucky team that looks like an army, and fans waving Confederate flags in the stands. That didn’t really happen. And while Adolph Rupp is portrayed in the movie as being a little bit cocky, a little too sure of himself, that is probably very true. But then again, he had every right to be a little bit cocky. Kentucky was an undisputed basketball powerhouse at the time, and the team was well-loved in the 1965-66 season. A fifth championship would have been a feather in his cap, and an achievement that no coach who followed him would gain.
It was not meant to be. The game ended with a score of 72-65, and Texas Western won their trophy. It was then, and only then, that true racial tensions mounted. The movie portrays a season frought with agonies and difficulties, racial slurs and out-and-out lynch mobs. The problems did not start until after Haskins and team won the big game, the big game where Haskins refused to play any but his African-American members.
Death threats came with forty thousand other articles of hate mail, but after winning the National Title nothing would sway Haskins to leave. Over his thirty-eight year tenure with Texas Western (who officially became UTEP shortly after the 1966 game), Haskins celebrate 719 victories and only 353 losses. He never managed to win another National Championship, but still he retired at UTEP as one of the best-loved coaches of all time. He is in the Basketball Hall of Fame and is still credited for changing the face of basketball.
After the televised 1966 championship, the southern schools threw their doors open for African-American athletes. More scholarships were awarded to African-American students, and collegiate basketball changed for ever. Alabama started five African-American players early in the seventies, and basketball was officially open to one and all. The name “Don Haskins” will live on in El Paso until the end of time. He still lives in Texas and remains an active fan of UTEP.
Adolph Rupp was forced into retirement after 41 years of coaching because of state laws. He died in Lexington at the age of seventy-six, the same day that the University of Kentucky Wildcats beat his alma mater Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse. He is buried in Lexington Cemetary. Every winter, max-capacity crowds flock to Rupp Arena to cheer on the Kentucky Wildcats. None deny that it is still a basketball program that Rupp built.
Every year at the site of the Final Four game, during the NCAA tournament, the Adolph F. Rupp Trophy is awarded to one college basketball player. Winners include Michael Jordon, Shaquille O’Neal, and Patrick Ewing. A Kentucky player has never won the award.
The dark monster, racism, may still linger in memories and attitudes to this very day. But one thing is sure, one truth that remains. In basketball, the only colours that matter are those of the team. Red, blue, yellow, brown, green, black, or white, in 1966 basketball became fully integrated and it will never go back.