During the Academy Awards last month, comedian Chris Rock punctuated his brilliant monologue about diversity in Hollywood with a most basic reminder.
After weaving incendiary and unrestrained commentary to achieve poignancy, Rock opted to close by straying from discomfort and returning to a familiar, oft-disregarded message.
“We want opportunity,” Rock said. “We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it.”
It was something like a preacher revisiting Jesus and the cross at the end of a sermon. In matters of diversity, in attempting to make progress, it always comes back to opportunity.
As I watched the Oscars that night, I was creating a file to prepare for this column on the 50th anniversary of Texas Western’s historic NCAA championship, won at Cole Field House on March 19, 1966. It’s a daunting task, reflecting upon an event I wasn’t born to see yet feeling its impact regularly. But Rock’s monologue, which will stand as one of the biggest entertainment stories of 2016, provided perspective on why Texas Western still resonates.
The importance and power of simply getting a chance — and the endless battle for any underrepresented group to be provided one — should never be underestimated. A half-century after the Miners started a lineup of five African Americans and beat an all-white Kentucky team, the symbolism of the achievement remains a necessary source of inspiration. If there were a scoreboard for racial progress in the United States, it’s uncertain what it would say right now, especially outside of the sports cocoon, where complicated and polarizing social issues are making the lines of division clearer than they’ve been in a while. You’re a fool for being too optimistic about progress, an overbearing zealot for being too pessimistic.
But the memory of Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) endures. It’s a Disney movie, literally — “Glory Road” came out 10 years ago — about meritocracy. The lasting significance isn’t a matter of the Miners paving a new path for black college basketball players. That had already been done. When Bill Russell and K.C. Jones led San Francisco to back-to-back titles in 1955 and 1956, it was more of a trailblazing moment. In 1962 and 1963, Cincinnati and Loyola of Chicago won championships while starting four black players in the title games. What Texas Western did was put an emphatic end to any lingering doubt about the worth of diversity in the sport, especially in the slow-changing South, where Adolph Rupp’s storied Kentucky team illuminated a lack of forward thinking in the region.
The Miners had an opportunity that they were too young to understand. They knew they had a chance to disrupt a hierarchy, a school from El Paso not known for sports against a program Rupp had led to four championships. But they had played white teams before. It wasn’t a big deal, until it was.
“It took a long time to absorb the impact of that game,” said Nevil Shed, who was one of five players to return to College Park on Feb. 13 when the Miners were honored during the Maryland-Wisconsin game.
That’s the thing about opportunity. Mostly, you notice when you don’t have it. People aren’t inclined to count their chances or collect them like trophies in a case, for fear of coming across as cocky or realizing they’ve done too little with a good hand. Those who seek opportunity aren’t asking to be different or special. They just want to be normal, able to float in the pool and swim when intrigued.
If the Miners had understood they were playing to be remembered this way for the next 50-plus years, their 72-65 victory over Kentucky might have instead succumbed to burden. The beauty of the accomplishment lies in the randomness of it. Journalists didn’t catch onto the narrative immediately. In his book “Glory Road,” Coach Don Haskins wrote, “I certainly did not expect to be some racial pioneer or change the world.”
He just wanted to start his five best players. So he put Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin (whose grandson, Khadeem, will start for Oklahoma in this year’s tournament), Orsten Artis, Willie Worsley and Harry Flournoy on the court. They just happened to be black. They just happened to go 28-1 and slam the coffin shut on the myth that black players lacked winning substance.
That’s another thing about opportunity. Sometimes, it’s too important to squander. Texas Western may not have known it, but the nation needed its example. This wasn’t the perfect story of trailblazing because the Miners weren’t a first, and while they dealt with plenty of hate and ignorance, it wasn’t always shocking or overt. But it was the best story because of its layered importance and representation of the times.
A team with an all-black starting five beat college basketball’s premier and still-segregated program? At the apex of the civil rights movement? It was civil disobedience in tube socks and sneakers. After decades of progress by black college athletes, it was time for the biggest remaining barriers to fall.
A year later, Perry Wallace became the Southeastern Conference’s first scholarship black athlete. The former Vanderbilt basketball player is now an American University law professor. By 1969, even Rupp had integrated his program, signing Tom Payne, a 7-foot-2 center from Louisville. Texas Western’s triumph didn’t make life easy for Wallace, Payne and so many others in the next wave of change. But opportunity started multiplying so much you needed a calculator to do the math. Today, basketball is a game played at a high level globally.
As a Western Kentucky graduate, the 1966 NCAA tournament carries an interesting conflict that ultimately increases my appreciation of Texas Western. That year, the Hilltoppers had perhaps their best team. They were in the first year of a two-season run in which they went 48-6 and featured Clem Haskins; brothers Dwight and Greg Smith; and Wayne Chapman, whose son, Rex, played 12 NBA seasons, including four in Washington. In 1966, the bracket set up a chance to play Kentucky in the Elite Eight. The Hilltoppers, who finished the season with a No. 10 national ranking, were determined to get there and beat the Wildcats, who would never schedule them in the regular season.
“It was the game we wanted,” Clem Haskins told me over dinner years ago. “If we had gotten them, there wouldn’t have been a ‘Glory Road.’ ”
Western Kentucky wound up losing, 80-79, to Michigan in the round of 16 after a controversial call by official Steve Honzo — one of the most infamous names in Hilltopper fandom — in the closing seconds.
Western Kentucky was a progressive Southern program. Coach John Oldham didn’t factor race into his scouting. He was able to recruit Haskins and the Smith brothers partly because other prominent programs in the region didn’t want black stars. Oldham, who is 92, used to keep a portfolio of criticism that included hateful letters from people complaining about him featuring black players.
Texas Western’s victory over Kentucky reiterated that Oldham and others were right to be fair and forward thinking. On Feb. 6, UTEP celebrated the 50th anniversary of the 1966 title, and interestingly, Western Kentucky was the opponent that day. I once asked Oldham if he ever wondered about the void that would exist if Texas Western hadn’t gotten to play Kentucky in that historic game.
“I’ve got my own void to wonder about, Jerry,” he said, laughing. “Opportunities like that are rare. We could’ve won a national championship, or at least played for it.”
And that’s the final thing about opportunity. It’s such a precious gift. You clamor for it. You march for it. You make uncomfortable jokes before demanding it for the 4,739,628th (or so) time. But in matters of diversity, the supply is still finite and insufficient.
Texas Western didn’t waste its opportunity. For the past 50 years, that has been worthy of celebration. For the next 50, the responsibility to maintain and enhance this legacy looms as large as ever.
For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.