Since everyone has a bit more time on their hands these days, how about a dive into hoops history and a game of what if? There was no NCAA tournament this year, so let’s take a stroll down memory lane and focus on what in recent decades has become an iconic national champ: The 1966 team from Texas Western College (now UTEP, the University of Texas-El Paso).
Why iconic? For starters, Hall-of-Fame Coach Don Haskins put together a great team that year, which went 28-1—losing only to the University of Seattle 74-72 late in the regular season—played tenacious defense, and was fun to watch.
Ok, sure, but the main reason for its exalted status today is because Texas Western, as is well known, was the first squad to start five African American players in the NCAA championship game, which it won 72-65 in Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland. The fact that the Miners defeated the University of Kentucky—a team with five white starters (including Pat Riley), and was coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp—made the match-up even more dramatic. Today that game—and more to the point, the racial composition of the respective starting lineups of the two teams– is often viewed as a powerful symbol/signal of the civil rights revolution that was sweeping the U.S. and would ultimately transform it. A great story, one memorialized in the 2006 movie Glory Road, and subject, quite appropriately, of numerous tributes over the years. Personally, I loved that TW team, especially guards Bobby Joe Hill and 5-6 Willie Worsley, and remember, as a kid, staying up late to watch the Miners’ game against Kentucky. Speaking of Worsley, he was one of three key Miners from the Bronx: The others were Nevil Shed and Willie Cager.
My love for that Miners’ team notwithstanding, it’s time to introduce the “what if?” A week before the national championship weekend—the term “Final Four” had not yet been coined—Texas Western defeated Kansas University in Lubbock, Texas in the championship game of the Midwest Region. The game, itself a classic, went into double overtime before Texas Western eked out the victory 81-80. With the score tied and time running out in the first OT, Kansas guard, Jo Jo White—who went on to become one of the greatest Celtics ever and a member of the NBA Hall of fame–hit a 32-foot jumper from the left side that apparently won the game. Not so fast, though, because one of the refs, in a very controversial call, ruled that White’s left foot was on the out of bounds line when he set to shoot. Basket overturned, the teams went into a second OT. In that period, Texas Western took control, holding a comfortable lead for most of the remainder of the game, before KU cut it down to one at the end.
So what’s the big deal? Well, what if White’s shot had counted, and Kansas (with a racially- mixed starting line-up) rather than Texas Western went on to play in College Park? Would that great Texas Western team still be remembered in the same way today, that is, as the avatar of both the civil rights revolution and the overwhelming dominance of African American players in big-time college basketball?
In my view, the answer is no. In some ways, the racial politics of the TWC-Kentucky game might be a bit overdrawn in any case. For example, as sports writer Mike Lopresti has recently pointed out, the AP account of the game included nothing about the racial composition of the starting line-ups.
To be sure, the championship the Miners’ won—and the demographics of the team they beat—made for perfect optics (especially in retrospect), but they amplified and punctuated changes that already had a lot of momentum. Remember that the Loyola of Chicago team that won the 1963 national championship started four African American players, and by the mid-60s many big-time schools all over the country were scrambling to recruit talented African American players. Indeed, by 1969 even Adolph Rupp had recruited an African American player (Tom Payne) to Kentucky.
The writing was on the wall in other words—with or without that great run by Texas Western. That great squad, make no mistake about it, deserves to be remembered even if it got into the championship round as a result of a disputed call and even though it didn’t singlehandedly transform college basketball in one night. Change was coming and coming fast—and would have come even if Jo Jo White’s amazing shot had counted.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History and Director of the Global Research Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill. He has written a number of pieces for New York Sports Day over the years.