I was at the NCAA basketball championship game between Texas Western and Kentucky — my duty was to write a sidebar, a feature on the outcome. At the time, I did not realize the significant role this game was to play in integration. Basketball already was becoming a sport dominated by African Americans. In 1963, I had seen Loyola of Chicago with four blacks in the starting lineup defeat Cincinnati with three blacks in its starting lineup.
The crux of the March 19, 1966 game was this: Five blacks defeated a racist, Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp, the coach of an all-white team.
Rupp had praised his players as being the best shooters he ever had, and he took it to his grave that they had failed him. Sportswriter David Israel called it “the Brown vs. Board of Education game.” Pat Riley, who played in the game for Kentucky and scored 19 points, referred later to it as “the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966.”
The outcome’s effect, as I remember it, was in seeing Rupp, the personification of bigotry, suffer the most humiliating defeat of his life. The game had an effect on the South. The following year, college teams were integrated hurriedly as coaches and athletic directors felt the need to keep from a similar perceived humiliation, not for any altruistic reason. This was the time, the late 1960s, when African Americans were marching for freedom.
The late Don Haskins, who was 36 and white, started five blacks, something he had done before, and didn’t realize — didn’t even think about — the significance of what he had done. “I really didn’t think it was all that unusual,” he said. “What made it so is that Rupp had an all-white team and didn’t make a secret of how he felt about it.”
Haskins used seven players in the 72-65 game at College Park, and the two extras were also black. Bobby Joe Hill, Orsten Artis, David Lattin (6 feet 7, 245 pounds, 16 points in the final), Willie Worsley, Harry Flournoy, Willie Cager and Nevil Shed showed that African American players could play equally with white players, if not better. Kentucky took 70 shots, Texas Western 21 fewer. But Kentucky hit far below its average, something that Rupp could not abide. Texas Western generally shot from long range, over the heads of the Kentucky players.
The hero of the game was the late Hill, who stood 5-10 and was the high-point man with 20. He died of a heart attack at 59, but this game was his. He stole the ball twice, as Kentucky tried to bring the ball up on consecutive plays, and had a clear path to the basket in front of him. That made the score 14-9 and the Miners were never to give up the lead. Three times Kentucky got it down to one, but failed to take over the game. It unfolded as Haskins had predicted: Defense led to victory.
“If we don’t play better defense we just can’t win,” he said, after beating Utah in the semifinal and preparing for Kentucky.
Texas Western — now named the University of Texas at El Paso — had a final record of 28-1, the one being a two-point loss at Seattle. At one point, Hill, with the ball, drove to the basket and was knocked down by a Seattle player. No foul was called. This is the kind of discrimination that Hill and his teammates faced during the season.
Granted that the lead-in games took place in Lubbock, Tex., almost a home-court advantage for the Miners, Texas Western defeated Cincinnati by two points in overtime and Kansas by one point in two overtimes. Rupp didn’t see Texas Western as a threat. He had no idea what Bobby Joe Hill was capable of. May he rest in peace.
William Gildea was a Post staff writer from 1965 to 2005.