'Glory Road' looks at a team trying to win, not make a statement


Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 2:29 a.m.
Don Haskins didn't realize the impact of what he had done until a few days later.
That's when the letters started arriving. Thousands of them, mostly from the South.
Almost all began the same way: "Dear n----- lover:"
His Texas Western basketball team had won the national championship. But Haskins was no longer in any mood to celebrate.
"The worst time of my life was the next few weeks after we won the national championship," Haskins said. "It didn't really dawn on me what this was all about until that time."
Haskins' crime - an unpardonable one in certain parts of the country - was that he started five black players against Kentucky's lily-white team in the NCAA final.
Worse yet, his players had beaten the Wildcats 72-65 to become national champions.
It was 40 years ago, March 19, 1966, to be specific. America was a different place then, and basketball was a different game.
A world away, blacks were fighting and dying alongside their fellow white soldiers in Vietnam. They weren't, however, playing basketball at many schools in the South, where de facto segregation still reigned.
Just two years earlier, President Johnson had signed landmark civil rights legislation prohibiting discrimination of any kind. But change came slowly, even on the basketball court where ability was supposed to matter more than the color of a player's skin.
Haskins and his Miners weren't trying to change all of that when they took the court against Kentucky in the national final, and the argument could be made that they really didn't. It would be another season before a black player took the court in the Southeastern Conference, and two more after that before Kentucky's team was integrated.
Putting five black players on the court wasn't meant as a statement for racial equality. It was a lineup put together to win a basketball game.
"We had one goal, one objective, and that was to win the basketball game," said Harry Flournoy, a Texas Western forward immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week blocking a shot from Kentucky's Pat Riley (yes, that Pat Riley).
"We blotted everything else out around us."
The ensuing win over the favored Wildcats was the kind of thing Hollywood movies are made about. But even Hollywood took its sweet time with the subject, waiting four decades before presenting its version of what happened that night in College Park, Md.
You won't have to wait any longer to see it. "Glory Road" opens this week around the country, and Haskins and his players say the movie makers got most of it right.
It's a story about a team and a time inadvertently coming together to make history.
Texas Western, now the University of Texas El Paso, wasn't supposed to make the championship game even though the Miners had lost only once and had a team so cocky that one player, Bobby Joe Hill, fell asleep the afternoon of the final during a chalk talk.
"The guys drove me crazy because they did not think anybody could beat them," Haskins said. "I asked Bobby Joe years later how he could fall asleep on me. He said, 'Coach, they weren't going to beat us."'
Haskins had alternated starting lineups all year, starting five of his seven black players on several different occasions. He did it against Kentucky because the Wildcats were known as a fastbreaking team and he wanted three guards on the court instead of two.
It turned out to be the coaching move of a lifetime for Haskins, whose team played tenacious defense and frustrated Kentucky at every turn. The final score showed only a seven-point margin, but the Miners were in control all the way.
Riley, newspaper accounts said, cried on the bench afterward but then went to the Texas Western locker room to congratulate the winners.
Interestingly, there was never a word in the papers about the color of anyone's skin. Haskins swears he never said anything about race, either, though center David "Big Daddy" Lattin says Haskins told the team he was starting all black players because he had heard Rupp say five blacks couldn't beat five whites.
Depending on who you ask, Rupp was either a racist who wouldn't allow blacks on his team until his final years, or himself a victim of the times and circumstances in the South.
Those times were already changing long before Texas Western took the court for the final game. Blacks had been playing pro ball for more than a decade, and most universities outside the South had several blacks on their teams.
In a lot of ways, the 1966 national championship game was just that - a game. More than changing the way basketball was played, it simply reflected the way the country itself was changing.
Still, the sight of five blacks starting the biggest college game of the year was jarring for some, stirring for others.
That's not what Haskins had in mind when he filled out the lineup card. He simply wanted to win a basketball game, not make a statement for social justice.
Almost inadvertently, he ended up doing both.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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