Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Champ of a Different Color

It is almost a cliche now to think of basketball as primarily a black sport.

That sounds racist, I know, but it is simply a statement of fact.

It is a recognition of the almost total transformation that basketball has experienced in the last half century, a transformation that may well have begun 45 years ago tonight when Texas Western University (now the University of Texas at El Paso), with an all–black starting lineup, won the national basketball championship over perennial contender Kentucky.

No other team, no individual coach or player has had the lasting influence on college basketball that that team had.

Black athletes were not new in America in 1966. They had been participating in professional sports for many years, and most schools outside the South had black players on their rosters, but until 45 years ago tonight, no team in any sport had fielded an all–black starting lineup in a championship game.

On that night in College Park, Md., Kentucky was making its fifth appearance in an NCAA final. The Wildcats had never lost an NCAA title game before.

The Miners of Texas Western, meanwhile, had never been in a championship game, and they were widely expected to lose that one. Many people acknowledged that Texas Western was good, but it was the first college in the South to integrate its athletic programs.

The Miners' coach, Don Haskins, made a point of recruiting black players — a fact that contributed to his inductions into both the Basketball Hall of Fame (1997) and the College Basketbal Hall of Fame (2006).

It was admired in the mid–1960s, too, but, in spite of ample evidence of black competence in all other endeavors, white athletes were still widely regarded as superior by most Southerners.

Black athletes were the great untapped natural resource in the South, but few people in the region realized the impact they would have on all sports. Even among more enlightened observers, there was a prevailing belief that an all–black lineup simply couldn't compete with an all–white lineup.

Nevertheless, the Miners won with an all–black starting lineup.

It is interesting, now, to look in the rearview mirror and see what people are saying about that time in history, that night and that team.

I was not yet old enough to be in elementary school — and my family did not own a TV set at the time — so I have no memory of it. But things were clearly changing in the South.

In my little hometown in Arkansas, for instance, segregated schooling was coming to an end that spring. Generations before me had gone through a segregated school system, but I never knew a time when blacks and whites did not attend school together.

March 19, 1966 "might just have been another day for millions upon millions," Bill Knight of the El Paso Times observes.

(That is a particularly intriguing comment for me because I mentioned this anniversary to my father at dinner the other night — but, although he is old enough to remember that night and my parents were passionate advocates of civil rights, he doesn't remember Texas Western's victory.)

"But, for the world of college basketball, it is a landmark," Knight writes. "For a basketball team, a band of brothers, it was the moment of a lifetime. And, for the city of El Paso, that day did, does and always will loom larger than the beautiful blue desert sky, will always cast a warm welcoming shadow grander than the Franklin Mountains over the city."

John Wallingford of the Tacoma (Wash.) News Tribune recalls that Texas Western came to Seattle two weeks before the championship game to play Seattle University in the regular–season finale. The undefeated Miners were ranked #2 in the nation and were assumed to be next in line for the top spot following Kentucky's loss to Tennessee earlier in the day.

But Seattle ended up handing the Miners their only loss of the season.

Hollywood didn't exactly give an honest portrayal of that "pothole" in its 2006 "Glory Road" movie retelling of Texas Western's triumph, Wallingford wrote.

That may be so, but the fact also remains that, with the Miners' victory 45 years ago today, "the complexion of the game changed for good," writes Wallingford. Whether you take a few modest liberties in telling that story (as "Miracle" did in its dramatization of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team) doesn't change the bottom line or its inspirational quality.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Geoff Johnson and Rex Nelles have called the Miners' victory one of the NCAA's top 10 Cinderella stories of all time.

I guess you could call it a "statement game" — before anyone really knew what one was.

When they met the Wildcats 45 years ago tonight, University of Maryland junior Gary Williams was there, and he remembered that Kentucky fans treated the Miners "as if it was beneath their team to even play the Texas Western guys," wrote John Feinstein in the Washington Post when Haskins died in 2008.

Feinstein also wrote that Williams remembered that, after the game, he heard "Kentucky fans saying to one another, 'We need to get some of them.' It wasn't long afterwards that everyone began to recruit them."

The game that was played 45 years ago tonight changed everything about college basketball, Feinstein observed. "Basketball people now refer to Texas Western–Kentucky as the Brown v. Board of Education of college basketball."

I suppose it is appropriate that this 45th anniversary occurs during an NCAA Tournament that will crown its champion in the Lone Star State.

Other Texas schools have been in the Final Four, but Texas Western remains the only one to win a national championship.

And, other than a couple of U.S. Olympic teams, it is the only team enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

No comments: