By John Feinstein
Thursday, September 11, 2008
On the night of March 19, 1966, Texas Western basketball coach Don Haskins started five African Americans -- known then in popular vernacular as Negroes -- in the national championship game against an all-white team from the University of Kentucky.
Haskins, who died of congestive heart failure Sunday at age 78, would say years later that he started those five players for one reason: He thought it was the best way to win the game. "I wasn't trying to make any kind of statement," he said. "I thought those five guys gave us our best chance to win."
Texas Western was a huge underdog against Kentucky, which was seeking a fifth national title under the legendary coach Adolph Rupp, but the Miners won the game, 72-65. That game is now considered the most important in the history of college basketball because it literally changed the face of the sport.
"I remember walking out afterwards hearing the Kentucky fans saying to one another, 'We need to get some of them,' " Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams said this week. "It wasn't long afterwards that everyone began to recruit them."
Williams was then a 22-year-old Maryland junior. He sat with a teammate, Billy Jones, during the game, which was played at Maryland's Cole Field House. Jones was the first African American to play at Maryland and in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
"I can remember seeing how much it meant to Billy," Williams said. "We were sitting with a lot of Kentucky fans and . . . their tone was almost mocking, as if it was beneath their team to even play the Texas Western guys. That changed as the game went on."
Everything in college basketball was to change after that game. Within three years, Rupp and Kentucky had recruited an African American player, and the entire Southeastern Conference, along with the rest of the ACC, was recruiting black players. Basketball people now refer to Texas Western-Kentucky as the Brown v. Board of Education of college basketball.
Haskins, who went on to win 719 games in 38 years at the school now known as Texas at El Paso, found the attention humbling. He thought of himself as a coach who wanted to win because that was his job -- not as a social reformer.
Of course, that's one of the reasons sports tends to be ahead of the curve when it comes to integration and doing the right thing. A scoreboard doesn't recognize color, only talent. It is not a coincidence that Jackie Robinson integrated Major League baseball seven years before the Brown decision. Branch Rickey, who ran the Brooklyn Dodgers, recruited Robinson because he wanted to integrate the sport but also because he knew the Negro Leagues were filled with talented players. And Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach started five African American players in the early 1960s -- years before busing led to the integration of high school teams there and in most of the country. Whenever someone asked Auerbach about the symbolism of starting five blacks in a racially divided city such as Boston, he would laugh. "If there's one thing blacks and whites agree on," he would say, "it's that winning beats losing."
All that said, it still took guts in the 1960s to recruit black players to a small school in West Texas, travel through the South and play them at segregated schools where they were hooted at and taunted. Haskins grew up in the 1940s in a small town in Oklahoma with "white only" signs on water fountains. One of his best friends was Herman Carr, an African American boy he played basketball with in the schoolyard. Years later, Carr talked about Haskins's shock when he learned there were places his friend wasn't allowed because of the color of his skin.
No doubt Haskins's goal that night in 1966 was beating Kentucky. His team had talented white players, but Haskins felt he needed his five quickest players on the floor against the very quick Wildcats. He chose his starters based on their talents, not their skin color.
That's also how he recruited players. Like all coaches, he wanted the best he could find. But he also knew that segregation was wrong long before he arrived at Texas Western in 1961. He proved it emphatically to the basketball world five years later. That is his legacy.
It is one that should be -- and will be -- remembered.
John Feinstein is a Post contributor and author. His most recent book is "Living on the Black -- Two Pitchers, Two Teams, One Unforgettable Season."