"Social change comes in unexpected increments—like the 1966 NCAA men's basketball tournament. The 72–65 victory by Texas Western over Kentucky had tremendous social symbolism: Texas Western (today the University of Texas, El Paso) started five black players—the first such occurrence in an NCAA championship—and they thoroughly outplayed the all-white Kentucky squad, coached by Adolph Rupp, collegiate sports' intransigent exemplar of white supremacy."—New York Times Book Review
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And the Walls Came Tumbling DownThe Basketball Game That Changed American Sports
By Frank Fitzpatrick
University of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2000 Frank Fitzpatrick
All right reserved.
Basketball in Black and White
"What a piece of history. If basketball ever took a turn, that was it."
-- Nolan Richardson
Adolph Rupp's face would not permit a smile. The legendary basketball coach's eyes sagged as he aged, his eyebrows arched higher, and his chin receded into the expanding fleshiness of his neck. Two creases, widening each year like riverbeds in yielding soil, formed an indelible frown as they descended from his mouth. The result, even in those infrequent moments when he attempted a grin, was a look of perpetual displeasure. It was as if nature had reshaped his exterior to match what dwelled inside.
"Rupp was unique," said Bill Spivey, one of twenty-four All-Americas Rupp coached at Kentucky. "He wanted everyone to hate him and he succeeded."
By December 10, 1977, in a private room at the University of Kentucky's Chandler Medical Center, only that scowl identified the dying Rupp. Family members, realizing he could not long survive the spinal cancer that had hospitalized him since November 9, silently surrounded his bed. The only sound was the buzz of a bedside radio.
Rupp almost certainly could not hear the broadcast of that night's Kentucky-Kansas basketball game, but announcer Cawood Ledford's voice, familiar and reassuring, comforted the former coach's relatives. Rupp's son, Adolph, Jr., his daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren grew up immersed in UK basketball. Listening to Ledford's broadcasts was nearly a religious ritual for them, as it was for almost everyone in the commonwealth. From Jamboree on the Appalachian Plateau to Linton on the Cumberland River, Kentuckians adored the Wildcats. And, for nearly fifty years, they were Adolph Rupp's Wildcats.
At about 10:45 p.m. on this Thursday night, Rupp's relatives heard a great radio-muffled cheer arise from the crowd in Lawrence, Kansas. Kentucky was hopelessly behind. There were fourteen seconds left in the game, his son would recall, when Rupp exhaled, shuddered lightly, and died. He was seventy-six.
Rupp, a native Kansan, had transformed himself into a Kentucky colonel during his forty-seven years in Lexington. The Baron of the Bluegrass, as the basketball world knew him, owned several farms in horse country -- the last a white-fenced, Bourbon County estate where he planted tobacco and called his prized Hereford cattle by name. The drawl Rupp affected deepened annually, as did his devotion to good bourbon. All that was missing, it seemed, was the standard-issue white linen suit.
He drove his Wildcats to a then NCAA record 876 victories and four national titles before he retired, quite reluctantly, in 1972 at the age of seventy. He made the University of Kentucky college basketball's best-known program. Professional teams often tried to lure him away. Politicians asked him to run for office. Businessmen sought his counsel. By the mid-1960s Rupp was so dominant a figure in Kentucky that 83 percent of the state's viewers watched his Sunday night TV show. "It's on between The 20th Century and Lassie," he liked to brag.
Yet for all that, he was a solitary man. "He just wasn't a warm person, really," recalled Ledford. "I don't think he had a close friend." A Lexington newspaper columnist who knew and liked Rupp wrote that he "never seemed interested in much except himself and basketball."
Though he had a master's degree in education, he was no intellectual and would not have wanted to be called one. There were few moral ambiguities for him. Life was made to be diagrammed carefully like a basketball play, and that's the way he lived it. Rupp's world was black and white, even if his basketball teams were not.
The circumstances of his death would have delighted him. It came while Kentucky played at his alma mater, Kansas, the two schools that were the great forces in his life. The game took place on Adolph Rupp Night in Forrest Allen Field House, named for his old Kansas coach. And the arena was on Naismith Avenue, honoring Dr. James Naismith, basketball's inventor and one of Rupp's earliest instructors.
It was easy then for those who knew Rupp to imagine his final moments as something melodramatic, like Charles Foster Kane's death at the opening of Citizen Kane. In his own world, Rupp's intimidating power had been as immense as the fictional tycoon's, his motivations often as inscrutable. Surely he, like Kane, would have sputtered a farewell that revealed some buried facet of the man. If so, it would have referred not to a lost childhood toy, but to a lost basketball game eleven years earlier.
Rupp hated losing. But that one defeat, number 152 out of 190, stung him the worst. Toward the end of his life, he told visitors, he still awoke at night, wondering what Kentucky could have done differently. It was as if he understood how his reputation would forever be tainted by that one defeat, on March 19, 1966, when mighty Kentucky lost the NCAA championship game to a little-known school from the Southwest. "Rupp carried the memory of that game to his grave," wrote Russell Rice, his biographer.
For those who saw Rupp's death this way, as a symbolic final act to a large and controversial life, there was little doubt what his last words, his "Rosebud," would have been:
Twenty years later, on one of those West Texas mornings that sparkle like a sunlit lake, Don Haskins talks about that same game, now more than three decades distant.
Texas Western's name had been changed long ago to the University of Texas at El Paso, but Haskins still remains the school's basketball coach and that unexpected 1966 championship its greatest monument.
Thirty-six and blond when his Miners shocked Rupp's Kentucky, Haskins is sixty-seven and gray now. He never coached in another NCAA title game, never even reached another Final Four.
The NCAA championship plaque -- wood and brass and coated with dust -- rests in a bookcase above Haskins' desk, a bookcase with very few books. Mementos from his thirty-six years at the school, particularly of that one game, fill the tiny office in UTEP's Special Events Center. There is a photo of the 1966 team smiling stiffly with that same plaque. Newspaper stories, banners, autographed basketballs all refer to that long-ago night when the school and Haskins leapfrogged obscurity and changed college basketball forever.
Atop a thick pile of papers on his desk this day, the start of another recruiting season, is a North Carolina newspaper story that someone had mailed him. Both its subject and its prominent position on his desk suggest how much 1966 continues to invade Haskins' present. No matter what evasions he attempts, that championship game is always in his face.
That surprising national title, not long after he had been coaching boys and girls at a tiny Texas high school, brought him praise and criticism, honors and hate mail, and, worst of all for this private man, attention. "I'll be honest with you," said Haskins in 1997, not long after he joined Rupp in the Basketball Hall of Fame. "I'm sick of talkin' about the damn thing. Sometimes I wish we finished second."
Now, asked about the clipping, Haskins picks it up. He glances at it, tosses it back on the pile, and, without comment, heads for the parking lot and his red pickup.
One word was prominently underscored in the headline atop the story:
That March 19, 1966, championship game has acquired the mustiness of something stored too long in an attic's corner. The black-and-white film of the game is as interesting now for the basketball relics it portrays -- shiny uniforms, laughably short shorts, canvas Chuck Taylor sneakers, and numerous traveling calls -- as it is for the game itself.
The filmed record of Texas Western's 72-65 triumph, forty minutes of uneventful basketball on a long-ago Maryland night, appears to contain little of lasting significance. No great drama is evident. The Miners grab an early lead and maintain it with a stiff-legged determination. The game produced no future NBA stars -- though Kentucky forward Pat Riley would become the league's most stylish coach -- and no memorable individual performances. The shooting is erratic. There's no dazzle or flair. And the pace, certainly by contemporary standards, is numbingly slow.
"I watched that game once on tape and I never watched it again," said Louis "Flip" Baudoin, a Texas Western reserve who didn't play that night. "It was horrendous to watch. Just horrendous."
The NCAA record book is no help either. Texas Western's name there is notable only because it appears misplaced amid the more familiar North Carolinas, Indianas, and Kentuckys. And because 1966 was the only season between 1964 and 1973 when UCLA was not champion.
Nothing hints at why this game haunted Rupp and hounded Haskins. Nothing reveals why it became, in the words of sociologist Randy Roberts, "the most important NCAA championship ever played." Nothing suggests why it came to be regarded as one of those moments when past and future, sports and the real world, collided with historical and sociological impact.
Nothing seems out of the ordinary until the film is examined more closely.
As the camera pans the University of Maryland's Cole Field House, a Confederate flag can be seen amid the tightly packed rows of mostly white shirts. The crowd appears to be entirely white. So are the two officials and all the reporters on press row. After Kentucky's three white coaches wrap up their final instructions, the Wildcat starters, five white players in white uniforms, walk toward midcourt.
And then, moving casually toward them with the slow stride of history, come the Texas Western starters, their orange uniforms a dull gray on film. All five of them are black.
Black basketball teams are so commonplace today that the Miners' racial makeup does not even register initially. Not until it's viewed in the context of the opponent, the surroundings, and, more important, the era, does their blackness become notable.
In 1966, even at the most liberal colleges, basketball coaches observed strict racial quotas. The whispered motto for many of them was: "Two blacks at home. Three on the road. And four when behind." Yet all seven players Haskins used that night were black. He had white players, four of them, in fact, and a Hispanic. But they never got off the bench. The result was a striking historic contrast.
In a nation obsessed with race, at a time when the civil rights struggle was in overwhelming focus, that twenty-eighth NCAA championship game finally brought the issue into America's demographic meetinghouse -- the sporting arena. On the edge of the Mason-Dixon Line, just a few miles from Washington, D.C., race met race on terms everyone could understand.
College basketball, in whose seventy-one-year history Rupp, Kentucky, and segregation rated considerable mention, confronted its future that night. For the first time in NCAA championship history, one of the starting teams was entirely black. And for the first and still the only time in major American sports, one team composed entirely of black starters and another that was all-white competed for a prominent national title. "What a piece of history," said Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, who had played for Haskins' first Texas Western team. "If basketball ever took a turn, that was it."
While the influx of blacks into a sport they eventually came to dominate -- in numbers and style -- already had begun, Texas Western's victory soon came to be regarded as the exact moment everything changed. "The Emancipation Proclamation of 1966," Pat Riley would later call it.
For much of mainstream America then, the notion that a team playing only blacks might be able to defeat a well-coached, talented white squad -- a team like Kentucky -- was preposterous.
Recent NCAA champions (Cincinnati in 1961 and 1962, Loyola of Chicago in 1963) started three, even four blacks, but no major college team had broken that invisible barrier by starting five. University of San Francisco coach Phil Woolpert, whose Bill Russell dominated clubs won back-to-back national titles in the mid-1950s, once played five blacks simultaneously during an NCAA tournament game, but an alumni outcry prevented him from ever doing so again.
The 1965-66 Boston Celtics would be the first NBA team to regularly start five blacks and they would win another championship that year. But fans and sportswriters liked to point out that white sixth man John Havlicek was the Celtics' second-leading scorer and was always on the floor in the closing minutes of the game. And white reserves like Don Nelson and Larry Siegfried played and scored more than some of the starters.
Blacks weren't disciplined enough. They weren't mentally tough. They didn't have heart. If they fell behind, they'd quit. Their abilities were God-given and needed harnessing. At least one white was required, the thinking went, to provide stability and discipline -- the quarterback in football, the shortstop or catcher in baseball, the point guard in basketball.
"There was a certain style of play whites expected from blacks. 'Nigger ball' they used to call it," said Perry Wallace, who made history of his own a month after the 1966 championship game, when he became the first black basketball player signed by a Southeastern Conference school, Vanderbilt. "Whites then thought that if you put five blacks on the court at the same time they would somehow revert to their native impulses. They thought they'd celebrate wildly after every basket and run around out of control. [They believed] you needed a white kid or two to settle them down."
Texas Western's victory challenged that racist logic. Haskins' players performed with poise and control, just the opposite from what most whites expected.
In time, blacks and liberal whites would attach tremendous symbolic significance to the game, and its importance would be magnified because the loser was Kentucky. The white Wildcats were disparaged in black communities as the "Bluegrass Bigots" and Rupp, a Bull Connor look-alike, was an apt stand-in for Jim Crow.
"It broke down all the myths," said sociologist Roberts. "The myth that African-Americans couldn't compete. The myth that they needed some white leadership on the floor. In fact, it might be the point where another myth began -- the myth of the invincibility of the black basketball player."
One coach at a major Texas college had warned Haskins earlier that season: "They don't have the capability to think when the pressure is on." Haskins ignored the advice and went on to win the national championship.
The Miners' upset promised a new era and soon delivered one. Black basketball players suddenly believed something fair and positive was possible for them at a white college. "Young black players told me years later that it gave them confidence and courage," said Harry Flournoy, a Texas Western starter that night. "Some of them, before that game, had been afraid to go to the white schools."
In the next four years, a 1972 study would note, the most substantial increase in integration in the history of college sports took place. The percentage of blacks on college basketball teams jumped from 10 percent in 1962 to 34 percent by 1975. And between 1966 and 1985, the average number of blacks on college teams increased from 2.9 to 5.7. Suddenly, schools North and South had a license, an urge in many cases, to seek out black athletes.
Unwritten rules at Northern schools about how many blacks could play at one time gradually disappeared. Athletes who had been directed to small black colleges now were hunted down by big universities that once considered only the most elite -- "the whitest," some would argue -- black high-schoolers.
But the game's impact was most dramatic in the South. There it signaled the official end of athletic segregation. "It was quite clear after March 1966 that Southern basketball teams would have to change or become increasingly noncompetitive nationally," said historian Charles Martin.
The next season, for the first time, there would be black freshman basketball players in every Southern conference, two even in the last holdout, the notoriously segregated Southeastern Conference -- though none at Rupp's Kentucky. (Rupp's first -- and only -- black recruit, Tom Payne, did not play until the 1970-71 season and he lasted just one year. In Rupp's final game, when even Auburn had four blacks and Mississippi two, Kentucky was again all-white.)
The black rush to predominantly white colleges became so great so quickly, that a year after that game an Ebony magazine writer compared it to "the thundering hooves of a cattle stampede." Even Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, a man whose racial leanings were more akin to Rupp's than to the changing tenor of the time, could see the future by then. "We're looking at some young negroes in the state," he told Ebony in 1967. "The time is coming when in this entire area you won't see too many of these boys going away."
Bryant couldn't have known how right he was. By 1983, forty-two of the fifty starters on SEC basketball teams were black. And the four Southern schools that made up that year's Final Four in Albuquerque -- Houston, Louisville, Georgia, and North Carolina State -- filled their twenty starting spots with twenty blacks.
"Texas Western broke open the old safe rules that teams had always worked under, these self-imposed restrictions about how many blacks you could have on a team," said Perry Wallace. "Before, even those schools that recruited blacks limited themselves. They would have maybe one big rebounding type and one little fast ball handler who could create some things. After that game, we all knew something big had happened. It was clearly a watershed. But while we were all so very excited, we were still a little unsure of what it meant. What was going to happen next? Would they let it continue?"
They were questions that dogged every step forward in the civil rights movement. And like that wider struggle, Texas Western's shining moment soon would be smeared by the social spasms of the late 1960s.
A polarizing combination of white backlash and black militancy was beginning to forge a harder-edged view of America's racial dilemma in 1966. The Black Panthers were founded that year, and Alabama governor George Wallace, pandering to white fears and prejudices, prepared for a run at the White House. James Meredith was shot on a march from Memphis to Jackson, Mississippi, in June, and that same month, in a speech at Greenwood, Mississippi, Stokely Carmichael first used the term "Black Power."
In this charged atmosphere, everything was reexamined through a racial lens -- even sports. "Until that time, conventional wisdom held that sport treated blacks fairly and that it contributed mightily to good race relations," wrote historian Adolph Grundman. "[But by the late 1960s] intercollegiate sports stood as one more example of the limitations of equality of opportunity."
The new stridency produced black voices like that of sociologist Harry Edwards, who pointed out the obvious: white colleges were exploiting these youngsters. "The black athlete on the white-dominated college campus...[is] abused, dehumanized, and cast aside in much the same manner as a worn basketball," wrote Edwards. Since perhaps 80 percent then were not graduating, and most lived isolated lives on white campuses, it was difficult to argue with Edwards' conclusion.
Perry Wallace himself had witnessed the phenomenon on recruiting visits to Big Ten schools, and it left him with mixed reactions.
"I'd see black kids playing basketball for Illinois or Michigan and it all looked glamorous on TV. But when I visited those places I saw that the black athletes really didn't do that well," he said. "They lived in their own little subculture. They were given rinky-dink courses where they really didn't tend to pursue excellence in education. Some were inarticulate and illiterate. But I also felt that just exposing these people to that environment helped in the next generation. Bill Russell might not have gone to college without basketball, but his daughter was admitted to Harvard."
Questions about the relationships between blacks and college athletics bobbed to the turbulent surface. Academics and those few journalists curious about the trend sought a petri dish where it could be observed. "And where else," asked Haskins, "were you going to find a white college then with a lot of black athletes but Texas Western?"
In his groundbreaking 1968 series on black athletes, Sports Illustrated writer Jack Olsen vilified the college, by then the University of Texas at El Paso, describing it as a "status-conscious university seeking fame by importing negro athletes."
Olsen's "Black Athletes: A Shameful Story" trod boldly where few other sportswriters had dared. The school, with its relative abundance of black athletes, was a natural focus for the writer. He noted that those athletes, including some of the basketball players, often complained of a double standard. He examined some of the heartbreaking realities they encountered on predominantly white campuses. Olsen also questioned the university's motives in recruiting these youngsters.
The series' real focus was world-class long-jumper Bob Beamon and his equally bitter UTEP track teammates. Not long after Martin Luther King's assassination on April 4, 1968, they had boycotted a meet with Brigham Young University to protest the Mormons' racial doctrines. The college's president, Dr. Joseph Ray, responded by suspending them from school.
But the basketball players were quoted extensively too. For African-Americans, 1968 was light-years removed from 1966. David Lattin, Willie Cager, and Willie Worsley -- key members of the 1966 team -- complained about their social isolation, their courses, the way they were treated in contrast to white students, and even athletic director George McCarty's use of the word "nigger." (The AD always insisted he was saying "negro," but with his drawl, he pronounced it "nigra.")
Haskins and McCarty had been interviewed by Olsen simultaneously and the coach recalled the AD using the word "nigger" only once, and that was as the point of a story. Haskins, who prided himself on being able to size up a man's motives, felt the writer was setting them up for a hit. He said some of his players had telephoned him before he met with the writer to warn him about Olsen and the questions he had been asking them.
"I sat there strumming my fingers," Haskins said. "I wasn't buying his act. That [series] hurt us bad. And it was so untrue. They said George kept saying, 'Our nigger athletes.' I was in the room and George did not say that. What he did was tell a story of driving in a car in the 1950s to Abilene with Charlie Brown [one of Texas Western's first black players] sitting in the back seat. George said he started to tell a 'nigger' joke and then he caught himself and apologized to Charlie. And Charlie told him, 'Go on, tell the damn story.'"
Lattin, in an interview with Olsen, told him that Haskins had once reprimanded him for holding hands with a white girl. Haskins admitted to Olsen that he had cautioned his black players about interracial dating, but explained that while it didn't offend him, there were "downtown people" upset by it.
"I would talk to our players when they came here and the only thing I said was that in that day and time, I didn't think things were right for them to be dating," Haskins said. "Most of the black kids in that time, whether they wanted to go with a white girl or not, didn't. They kind of kept their place."
In the wake of these widely read stories in the nation's premier sports publication, some blacks began to view the school in a more critical light. Haskins began to meet recruits who turned away from him specifically because of the Sports Illustrated series.
Lou Henson, a longtime coach who was at New Mexico State at the time of the magazine articles, benefited -- along with other coaches -- from the aftershock. "I know for a fact it hurt Haskins [and his recruiting]. Everyone I talked to had read the Olsen article....The black athletes all knew [about] it."
The Texas Western players now contend that, for the most part, they were misquoted, misinterpreted, or simply misunderstood by Olsen. Things were far from perfect in El Paso, they say, but they were young in 1968 and there were people -- black and white -- who tried to fit Olsen's findings to their own agendas.
"Remember this was 1968 and it was a couple years after our championship," Willie Worsley said. "There were some people on the team who felt a little jealous, a little angry at being forgotten. Because at that time when teams would win the national championship, you'd see them on TV all the time. We never got on TV. They still treated us like second-class citizens. The town treated us like King Tut, but no one else. And there were some black militants and people on both sides that wanted to make a big deal out of things [in the Sports Illustrated piece]. The writer talked to other people about us and a lot of the things they said weren't so."
According to Louis Baudoin, if his black teammates came off as sounding angry in the articles, it was understandable.
"They were angry -- as angry as Beamon was," he said. "That was such an angry time nationally. Some of them handled it better than others. Some just bit their tongues. But that whole thing is something that's healed with time."
Haskins and others at UTEP still dispute much of Olsen's series, while the writer just as vigorously defends his work. Most of Olsen's criticisms seem justified, but the series did help contribute to certain misconceptions about the 1966 champions that soon became accepted truth.
Very quickly afterward, many wrongly believed that Texas Western's surprise title had been accomplished extralegally, with a team of urban hired guns. "Here comes this team out of El Paso with these black kids and everybody says, 'Well, there's a bunch of renegades,'" said Moe Iba, Haskins' assistant at the time. "They didn't know the kids individually so it was easy for them to say."
Rupp welcomed the targeting of Texas Western. He would call its players "a bunch of crooks," and erroneously claim the school had been placed on probation soon after its championship. He even said one of the Miners had been recruited from prison. "I don't think Duke [another all-white Final Four team in 1966] and Kentucky had to apologize to anybody for the way we played without 'em [blacks]," Rupp said.
When ten years later, in his book Sports in America, popular author James Michener -- relying on many of these same mistaken notions -- characterized the 1966 champions as "loose-jointed ragamuffins. Hopelessly outclassed," their historical fate seemed sealed.
"The El Paso story is one of the most wretched in the history of American sports," Michener wrote. "I have often thought how much luckier the white players were under Coach Adolph Rupp. He looked after his players; they had a shot at a real education; and they were secure within the traditions of their university, their community and their state."
Even Dr. John W. Oswald, Kentucky's president at the time, a spectator at the game, and someone who fought Rupp over integration, bought into this mythology. "I'd like to have been able to state it as well as Jim [Michener] did in his book," Oswald said in a 1989 interview. "I think what happened to that Texas Western team was really pretty outrageous. None of those players, as I understand, ever went on for another semester, much less graduated."
The real story of Texas Western's championship team is far different from the myth that has grown around it.
Instead of playing like the uncontrollable playground thugs they were alleged to have been, the Miners walked the ball upcourt, employed an intricate passing game, and were ferocious on defense.
"If you want to get down to facts," said Willie Worsley, "we were more white-oriented than any of the other teams [in the Final Four]. We played the most intelligent, the most boring, the most disciplined game of them all."
And instead of forgoing an education, they used theirs to gain entry to the middle class. "Almost all of them got their degrees and they've done something with their lives," said Iba.
Now they are salesmen, detectives, teachers. Nine of the twelve Miners, four of the seven blacks, eventually got their degrees. The remaining three left within a semester of theirs and did not suffer because of it. David Lattin, six credits shy, is a public relations executive with a Houston-based liquor distributor; Orsten Artis, a semester shy, is a detective sergeant in Gary, Indiana; and Bobby Joe Hill, also a semester short, recently accepted a buyout after several decades as a senior buyer with El Paso Natural Gas Co. His daughter finished law school that same year.
"We've all got good jobs," said Nevil Shed, who is now the director of intramurals at the University of Texas at San Antonio. "It's altogether different from what they said, and it really, really hurt me....If I see one of those sportswriters who said that stuff, I always say, 'Hey, I'm here. I'm one of those old black misfits. The ones you said didn't graduate.'"
What no one mentioned at the time was that until the mid-1970s, four of Kentucky's five starters, including All-Americas Riley and Louie Dampier, had not yet earned their college diplomas.
"That's just the way the thinking was back then," said Lattin. "It was 1966. And 1966 was a crazy time in this country."
Imagine America as an enormous table on which 190 years of customs and traditions had been set down carefully like dinnerware for a great feast. Imagine also that, quite suddenly, something began to tilt that table. At first, the tilt was nearly imperceptible, just some minor tottering here and there. But as the pitch grew steeper, the crystal began to rattle. Soon the china and silverware were crashing to the floor.
That was the 1960s, and by the third week of March 1966, most Americans were beginning to realize that their table was listing badly.
The signs of social change, and resistance to it, were everywhere that week: after a summer in which there had been civil disturbances in forty-three black neighborhoods, Los Angeles's Watts exploded in riots for a second time; New York City police barricaded the nightclub district of Greenwich Village that Saturday to "keep out undesirables"; the New York State Commission of Education, responding to a teenage girl's lawsuit, ruled public schools could no longer compel students to wear a particular style of clothing.
Even television was slipping into the abyss. Raised on the moral certainties and familiar themes of detective and cowboy stories, many Americans were baffled by that season's hot new show, Batman. What the hell is this, they asked, with the "Pows" and the "Bangs" and the sarcasm? It wasn't literal. It wasn't familiar. And the kids loved it.
The sporting world was also experiencing unprecedented turmoil. In early 1966, Muhammad Ali, boxing's heavyweight champion and a Muslim, challenged his draft status, beginning a process that eventually would cost him his crown; the Dodgers' Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two of baseball's best pitchers, held out in tandem for a combined $500,000; and, for the first time that Saturday, in Houston's Astrodome, a big-league baseball game was played on a surface other than grass.
Nowhere, however, was the status quo vibrating more noticeably than on the nation's college campuses. Students, increasingly politicized by the military draft and the civil rights movement, demanded more freedoms, challenged curriculum, dabbled with drugs, and questioned the incomprehensible conflict in Vietnam.
At the University of Maryland, March 19, 1966, was a sunny and unusually warm Saturday. Located along Route 1 in College Park, just north of Washington, the big campus on that last day of winter was teeming with the kinds of contrasts that were peculiar to the 1960s. Side by side in its student newspaper, The Diamondback, were notices for meetings of the bridge club and Students for a Democratic Society; campus discussions on the Vietnam War were set for the following week, as were interviews with recruiters from tobacco companies and defense contractors, and that afternoon, at several segregated apartment complexes adjoining the campus, black and white picketers from ACCESS (Action Coordinating Committee to End Segregation in Suburbs) clutched signs demanding "Equal Access to Suburbs."
Meanwhile outside Cole Field House, a green-roofed arena that resembled a World War II-era Quonset hut, some early-arriving fans for that night's NCAA championship basketball game carried Confederate flags. "It was such a chaotic time," said Kentucky forward Larry Conley. "Things were changing all over the place."
Later that night, on the floor of that arena, Conley and four of his white Kentucky teammates shook hands with Texas Western's black starters.
In this racial drama, a perfect morality play for the decade's heightened social consciousness, Rupp and Haskins were cast perfectly. Rupp, the snarling epitome of an unyielding establishment, made a compelling villain. Haskins, the laconic loner who rode in from the West, was an appealingly American hero.
These antagonists had been born in small Midwestern towns within 150 miles of each other -- Rupp in Halstead, Kansas, Haskins in Enid, Oklahoma. Each was the disciple of a legend, Rupp having played for Phog Allen at Kansas and Haskins for Hank Iba at Oklahoma A&M.
Yet it would have been difficult to envision two more distinct personalities.
The Kentucky coach was stiff, formal, and predictable. He liked Lawrence Welk and dark Cadillacs and, even if he had not been bald, never would have let his hair down. He was notoriously thrifty and loved to discuss his many accomplishments. "[Rupp] was the biggest egotist that I've ever known," said Kentucky's president John Oswald. His suits were always brown, his pajamas always red, and his teams, with only two exceptions in forty-two years, always white.
Haskins hunted, fished, gambled, and could drink most men under the table. He fussed and fidgeted so badly that friends had difficulty imagining him asleep. "Tarzan with his loincloth on fire," is how Eddie Mullens, then Texas Western's sports information director, described him. He tipped well, drove pickup trucks, and had no detectable ego or fashion sense. "What you see is what you get," said friend Jimmy Rogers. "He is the most unpretentious person you'll ever meet."
Both men could be harsh and intimidating, and their practices were grueling, humorless sessions. But Haskins' players, unlike most of Rupp's, seemed to understand that their coach's gruffness masked a warm heart.
Curiously, according to documents in the archives of the two schools, that night's absolute racial contrast would not have been possible if both Rupp and Haskins had not resisted their universities' presidents.
At Kentucky, the northernmost member of the SEC, Rupp's reluctance to integrate had troubled president Oswald long before that game. Under 1964's Civil Rights Act, colleges that discriminated jeopardized their federal funding. Oswald had opened most of the university to blacks without much difficulty, but he found the already legendary basketball coach a formidable hurdle. "Rupp, in his very first discussion with me," said Oswald, "sounded like a bigot."
Still, Oswald pushed. "He drove Adolph crazy telling him to recruit blacks," recalled Rupp's assistant coach Harry Lancaster. And Rupp -- a power in the conference, the state, and the sport -- pushed back. "[Athletic director Bernie] Shively came in and told me that Dr. Oswald was very interested [in recruiting blacks]," Rupp recalled later. "I said, 'I can get them, but can you get 'em in [school]?'"
Meanwhile at Texas Western, where alone among white schools in the southern half of the nation black athletes had been competing for a decade, Haskins faced the opposite problem. His college president, Dr. Joseph Ray, was concerned that the coach was playing too many.
Haskins' pragmatic attitudes coupled with the school's Mexican border location and lax admission policies made the recruitment of blacks relatively easy. But when the 1965-66 season began, he was doing more than finding and playing them. He was starting five blacks, a radical concept anywhere then, particularly at a state-supported school in conservative Texas. "It was going to reflect on me," Ray recalled, "if we played all black boys."
So Ray told his athletic director to inform Haskins that "we couldn't play more than three black boys." The coach objected. Haskins now says he doesn't remember the incident, but Ray recalled that Haskins came to his office and convinced the president to change his mind.
Haskins recruited black after black to El Paso not because he was a social crusader but because he understood they helped him win. "He didn't do it to make a statement and he didn't do it to step on anybody's toes," said Paul Cunningham, a UTEP forward in the 1980s and now a broadcaster for Miners games.
Seizing an opportunity in a region where no other coach recruited them, Haskins sought blacks even more diligently. With the aid of one of his first Texas Western players, Willie Brown, and a New York City Parks Department worker named Hilton White, he established a pipeline to that city that would bring him three key players on the 1966 team. And because blacks had been playing at the El Paso school since 1956 (five years before Haskins ever came to the school), he gained contacts in many other black communities. White coaches who saw black players they liked but could not recruit, often tipped Haskins to them.
Rupp, meanwhile, kept his team all-white out of a combination of pride, prejudice, and practical concerns. He always had done things his way and been wildly successful. His way did not include blacks. "I think the feeling among a lot of people at the university was that Adolph was a racist who was never going to bring blacks onto the team. That's just how they felt about him," said Robert L. Johnson, a former vice president and head of athletics at Kentucky.
At best, Rupp possessed the patronizing attitude toward race that was common among Southerners of his generation. There were some things blacks simply weren't equipped for, men like Rupp believed. Meeting a real university's academic standards and beating talented all-white basketball teams were two.
Anyone who recruited a lot of blacks, Rupp felt, must be cheating. In later years, he and others would accuse Texas Western of that and more. "I hate to see those boys from Texas Western win it," he said. "Not because of race or anything like that but because of the type of recruiting it represents. We won't go raid some schoolyard. Hell, don't you think I could put together a championship team if I went out and got every kid who could jam a ball through the hoop?"
So when that groundbreaking 1966 game was over and a defeated Rupp departed the floor, a resentment nearly as thick as smoke engulfed him. "TWC," he allegedly sniffed, back in his locker room. "What's that stand for? Two white coaches?"
For all the significance that later would be attached to the game, the subject of race barely was mentioned in contemporary accounts. In fact, reporters seemed to go out of their way to avoid it.
"It was nothing but ethical that the coaches at their press conferences here would not comment on the ethnic backgrounds of the teams," wrote El Paso Herald-Post sportswriter Bill Ingram that weekend. "It is a matter that requires some delicacy of handling."
But while the 150 sportswriters at College Park that weekend -- virtually all of them middle-aged white men -- made little of the two teams' racial differences in print, such discussions were widespread on press row and among fans. "There are overtones of race," wrote Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News, one of the few to raise the topic, "and you need earmuffs to avoid the black vs. white theme of tonight's title game."
Some, while dodging the serious implications of the racial subtext, could not resist backhanded references to it. "Rod Hundley, the former West Virginia and Lakers star, had the funny quote of the tournament when he was talking about Texas Western," wrote John W. Stewart in the Baltimore Sun. "'They can do everything with the basketball but autograph it.'"
That same day, Stewart's Sun colleague, James H. Jackson, presented this entirely inaccurate scouting report on Texas Western: "The Miners, who don't worry much about defense but try to pour the ball through the hoop as fast 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 reality, Texas Western's stingy defense yielded only 62 points a game -- 8 points fewer than Kentucky allowed -- and their offense slowly walked the ball up the court. It was the kind of thoughtless, offensive stereotyping this game would help erode.
The participants themselves contend that their desire to win and play well obscured any sense of a larger importance. "If I would have come into that game talking about, 'Okay, whitey, man, your ass is mine,' or he said, 'Okay, nigger,' the game probably would not have been played as good as it was," said Texas Western's Nevil Shed. "I don't think we ever made a gesture of, you know, 'Yeah, us blacks we got a Black Power kind of thing and we're gonna beat those whities.'"
"There's no way we went into that game thinking this would be great for blacks," said Worsley, now the dean of boys at Harlem's Boys Choir High School. "Why should we? Who knows when they're going to make history? At that time, we didn't know it. We all had our own little set of priorities. Me personally, I knew nothing about Rupp. I didn't know who the hell was coaching for Kentucky. And you can ask me now and I still can't tell you who coached Duke. We knew they were segregated. We weren't as stupid as people thought. But Rupp didn't wear a uniform. He wasn't the one who was going to run by me."
In his role as a prominent college basketball commentator, Kentucky's Larry Conley is asked often about the game and its implications.
"I've had a lot of chances to consider this over the last thirty years," said Conley, a senior on that Kentucky team, "and it's something that really never entered our minds. We were playing another basketball team. That they started five blacks was inconsequential. All the racial overtones developed much later. We were kids, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, trying to play a game. I've had several black writers ask me about that since then and I always say, 'Let me tell you something, I wanted to kick their ass all the way back to El Paso.'"
Haskins, who had never even seen a black basketball player until he was a junior at Oklahoma A&M, still says racial considerations were the furthest thing from his mind that season. "I started my five best players," he said. "That they were all black and that it was the first time five black players had started in an NCAA championship game meant nothing to me."
"He's not lying," said Earl Estep, a former college teammate of Haskins' and still a close friend. "I don't think he recognized what he did. I don't think he even understood it. The black-white thing was nothing, absolutely nothing to him."
But it was something to the spectators who paid $14 apiece for tickets when they went on sale in August -- some scalpers outside Cole Field House got as much as $115 that weekend. You didn't have to be among them long to hear some sort of chanted racial insult. Ethnic jokes and stereotyping still were socially acceptable then, and that kind of taunting by sporting crowds was common, North and South.
Only a month earlier, at a Georgetown-NYU basketball game in New York City, a Georgetown student dressed in Nazi-like attire led Hoyas fans in "Sieg Heil" chants. When a student at predominantly Jewish NYU later complained, a Georgetown official defended the action as a parody. "We have friends who are Jewish people," the Reverend Anthony Zeits told the New York Times. The unusual, unofficial mascot, he said, would be permitted to continue -- except when Georgetown played NYU.
Now, waiting for the championship game to start, boisterous Kentucky fans hoisted Confederate flags and the school's pep band played "Dixie." Two years earlier, the band had gotten itself in trouble with Oswald when, just as a black Iowa center had fouled out, they struck up "Dixie." Oswald had assured concerned minority leaders that it would never happen again, but "Dixie" remained a part of the Wildcats' basketball atmosphere.
"They would get on their feet and play that song and wave the Confederate flags," recalled Oswald's son, John, who attended the 1966 championship game as a ten-year-old. "I remember at that game I asked my older sister why they were doing that and she said that was their sort of subtle way of noting that an all-white team was playing an all-black team."
There were other incidents of race-taunting at that Final Four. "The crowds were more than interesting," reported The Diamondback on the consolation game between all-white Duke and integrated Utah that preceded Texas Western-Kentucky. "Southern hospitality was plentiful except when Utah's Jerry Chambers [a black from nearby Washington] began to seriously threaten Duke's lead....Disparaging remarks were shouted from Duke's trainer's bench whenever Chambers was within hearing range and the referees were not."
As Rupp and Haskins gathered their teams around them for final instructions, Cole Field House stirred to life with typical pregame activity. The cheerleaders solicited noise from clusters of fans seated near the floor. Referees tested the game ball's bounce as they moved toward midcourt. Reporters rustled their notepaper. But if anyone sensed they were about to witness history, they kept it to themselves.
College basketball had been lurching toward this moment since February 9, 1895, when the Minnesota State School of Agriculture defeated Hamline, 9-3, at St. Paul, in the first recorded intercollegiate game. Almost since then, the forces for and against the integration of university athletics had been rumbling, mostly unobserved, like shifting subterranean plates.
Now as referee Steve Honzo tossed the basketball into the air for this most unusual championship game's opening jump, the earth was about to shake.
Excerpted from And the Walls Came Tumbling Down by Frank Fitzpatrick Copyright © 2000 by Frank Fitzpatrick.
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Meet the Author
Frank Fitzpatrick is a sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
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