Saturday marks the 50th anniversary of the most significant championship game in the history of NCAA basketball. But at the time, we had no idea.
Neither did the players and their coach who made history on March 19, 1966, when Texas Western beat Kentucky, 72-65.
Only as time elapsed did the game grow in stature, until the victors morphed into legends.
Only in retrospect can we look back and appreciate the significance of what happened that night.
Only with hindsight can we see the stereotypes that were shattered, the barriers that were cracked, and the prejudice that began to wane.
“What a piece of history,” Nolan Richardson told Frank Fitzpatrick of ESPN Classic. “If basketball ever took a turn, that was it.” Richardson played on coach Don Haskins’ first team at Texas Western in 1961, and coached Arkansas to the national championship in 1994.
All this, thanks to a basketball team and its coach who had no idea what ground they were breaking. They were just trying to win a game.
And to do that, Haskins started his five best players, who happened to be black. First time that had ever been done. Three years earlier, Loyola of Chicago roused attention by winning the championship with three blacks starting.
“The fact that he was doing something historic by playing five blacks probably never crossed Don’s mind,” his assistant coach Moe Iba told Fitzpatrick. “Hell, he’d have played five kids from Mars if they were his five best players.”
Kentucky was the perfect foil. Their coach, the legendary Adolph Rupp, was known to have an aversion to black players. In kindest terms, he was a product of his times. In unkindest, a racist. His reputation was such that even when he did begin to recruit blacks, they went elsewhere.
Rupp’s teams played a fast break, run-and-gun style, led by guard Louie Dampier and forwards Pat Riley and Larry Conley.
Yet James Jackson of the Baltimore Sun caught the prevailing sentiment when he described Texas Western: “The Miners, who don’t worry much about defense, but try to pour the ball through the hoop as much as possible, will present quite a challenge to Kentucky. The running, gunning Texas quintet can do more things with a basketball than a monkey on a 50-foot jungle wire.”
In fact, Texas Western may have been the finest defensive team in the nation. “We were more white-oriented than any of the other teams in the Final Four,” guard Willie Worsley told Fitzpatrick. “We played the most intelligent, the most boring, the most disciplined game of them all!”
Perry Wallace, who would integrate the SEC one year later at Vanderbilt, told Fitzpatrick, “There was a certain style of play whites expected from blacks. Whites thought that if you put five blacks on the court at the same time, they would somehow revert to their native impulses.
Didn’t happen on March 19, 1966. On their second possession, the Miners’ David Lattin slammed a dunk down on Riley, and midway through the first half, Nevil Shed made a free throw to give the Miners their first lead.
On the ensuing possession, Bobby Joe Hill left Dampier, raced halfway across the court, stole the ball from Tommy Kron, and drove in for a layup. Very next Kentucky possession, Hill stole the ball from Dampier, and drove in again. Texas Western now led, 16-11. They would never trail again.
Rupp called an immediate time out. “As they were coming off the court, he confronted his two guards about the steals,” recalled Eddie Mullens, then the Texas Western SID. “He just couldn’t take it.”
The game played out statistically even except for two categories. The Miners held Kentucky to a 38 percent field goal percentage (and shot 45 percent themselves.) Kentucky made 11 of 13 free throws, but Texas Western made 28 of 34.
“I was 35 when we won,” Haskins told ESPN.com in 2003. “Here in town, I wasn’t really criticized. The people, university and town were always tremendous. The problems started after we won. We got some hate letters. Some say I am a pioneer, but all I was trying to do was win some games.
“Two or three years later, the Southwest [Conference] got some black players. That did get the ball rolling. If we had something to do with that, I am proud of it.”
Be proud, coach. In 20 years after that game, the average number of blacks on college teams doubled, from 2.9 to 5.7.
Haskins retired in 1999 without ever reaching another Final Four, but with his legacy secure. Rupp coached his final game in the 1972 Mideast Regional final, losing to Hugh Durham’s Florida State team, 73-54. That Kentucky team had no black players. FSU started five blacks.
And of the five starters on the ’66 Kentucky team, only one earned his degree.
Of the seven blacks on the Texas Western team, four earned their degrees. The other three finished a semester short, but all three became successful businessmen.
We’ve come an awfully long way over the past 50 years, helped along by a group of guys just trying to win a basketball game.