To say that basketball culture has changed dramatically over the last half-century would be a massive understatement, and over the years, much of the credit for the shift in the way basketball is both played and perceived has been charged to Texas Western.
The final buzzer sounded on Mar. 19, 1966, and history had been made.
Known now as the University of Texas at El Paso, Texas Western became the first team with five black starters to win an NCAA championship when it beat No. 1-ranked Kentucky 72-65 at Maryland’s Cole Field House on March 19, 1966. And though the Miners never anticipated the impact of their accomplishment at the time, the reverence for the game and the players who won it has only grown with each passing year.
It was a time when America was in tumult. Soldiers were dying in Vietnam. Protestors were swarming the streets. Martin Luther King Jr. had led the march for civil rights on Washington. Race relations were at the forefront of Americans’ minds.
In 1966, American cultural and sporting mythology insisted at least one white starter was necessary for success. Black athletes, prevailing wisdom implied, needed the steadying hand of a white teammate. Otherwise, games would dissolve into chaos.
Texas Western, an independent from remote El Paso, was little known outside the Southwest despite its 27-1 record and its No.3 ranking. Their 72-65 victory that night over No.1 Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, stunned college basketball and upset conventional wisdom.
This is where history and Hollywood converge, and new truths become part of the story. In “Glory Road,” the 2006 Disney movie about Texas Western, Miners coach Don Haskins tells his team the day before the championship that he will play only blacks the next night to make a social statement. Haskins, who died in 2008, said he wasn’t trying to make a social statement but simply starting his best players.
A pool-shooting hustler from Enid, Okla., Haskins was a pragmatist on racial matters. Don Haskins coached the Miners to 719 wins and the 1966 national championship
While blacks couldn’t play at most Southern and Southwestern schools in the mid-1960s, Haskins welcomed them at Texas Western, recruiting them from New York City, Detroit, and Gary, Ind.
“The fact that he was doing something historic by playing five blacks, that probably never crossed Don’s mind,” said his assistant, Moe Iba. “Hell, he’d have played five kids from Mars if they were his best five players.”
Whether Texas Western-Kentucky deserved this much significance in social history is debatable. Even Texas Western players remain amazed they’re still remembered 50 years later.
“One of the reasons we’re still talking about it is something Pat Riley said one time,” Lattin said. “He said it was probably the worst day of his life when he lost that game, but he felt the right team won because it did so much for others. It made it possible for kids to go to major universities, especially in the deep South, and not just for basketball. It’s my legacy. When you do something for someone else, it’s a legacy that lasts forever.”
In the years immediately after Texas Western’s title, the integration of college sports took a great leap forward. Between 1966 and 1985, the average number of blacks on college teams jumped from 2.9 to 5.7.