“Don’t take it so seriously. After all, it’s just a game.” I think that all of us have heard this homily at some point in our lives, and — I suppose — it is mostly true. But, sometimes games do matter. Sometimes what happens on a playing field, a diamond, a court, or any playing surface has great social implications and helps to lead to change and transformation in our state, nation, and world. Many scholars have offered that President Harry Truman may never have issued his executive order desegregating the military if Jackie Robinson had not crossed the color line in Major League baseball. Another monumental “game” — although it more accurately was the culmination of an entire season of success and unprecedented achievement — came in 1966 when the Texas Western (now University of Texas-El Paso) Miner basketball team won the NCAA National Championship. The Miners would be historic today no matter the composition of their team since they remain the only Texas men’s basketball program to win the NCAA Tournament, but that is not why history remembers them. They were the first major college basketball champion in which all five starters were African American.
Today, of course, the norm for most college basketball teams is to has an all-black starting lineup, but in 1966 no major college basketball team started all blacks. While some black players played on northern teams, there was a thought in college basketball that too many African Americans on a team would lead to losses. In fact, legendary University of Kentucky Basketball coach Adolph Rupp had remarked as recently as 1964 that he would surely “never see a Negro basketball team win a championship. They are just not capable of doing so.” Since it would be Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats that Texas Western would defeat in the final game, Rupp would soon see such an event up close and personal.
Texas Western was not a member of a conference in 1966 and played as an Independent. Don Haskins had become the team’s head coach in 1961 and they had fielded some strong teams, even making the NCAA tournament in 1963 and 1964. Haskins was building a basketball power under the radar way out in far West Texas, and he was doing so with players who came from all over the nation. Three players, including star Willie Cager, were from New York City, Harry Flournoy came to El Paso from the inner city of Gary, Indiana, and Bobby Joe Hill, the best player on the team, hailed from Detroit. Center David Lattin, the force in the middle force was a Texan, but from far off Houston. Haskins convinced these players to come to Texas Western because he promised them that not only would they win, if they played his way — which was an exciting, pass oriented offense, but also one that depended on a rigid pattern that was often deliberate. More than anything else, Haskins demanded that his team play hard, fast, hounding defense, and that they be the better rebounding team in every game. He recruited players who were quick, fast, and could think not because he needed such skills for his offense, but they were imperative to play his brand of defensive scheme.
When the 1965-1966 season began in December, Haskins experimented with his lineup, but after the team’s fourth game of the season, which was a win over Tulsa and even though the team was undefeated, he decided that the best team he could field was one in which all five starters were African American. The Miners continued to run through their schedule without a loss, until the final regular season game of the year against the University of Seattle (a team they had beaten earlier in the year at home), which they lost 74-72. Haskins berated his team’s sloppy play in the locker room, but secretly he was joyful since he believed this would be a dose of humility for the Miners.
The NCAA Tournament was not the large spectacle then that it is today. Only 22 teams were invited, and the four regions were strictly divided geographically. It produced a quirk in Texas Western’s Midwest Regional in that they and Oklahoma City University were the only schools that had to play in an opening round. Texas Western beat Oklahoma City handily, but their next two games—against Cincinnati and Kansas, the latter one the regional final—were decided by a cumulative three points. Regardless of the scores, Texas Western had advanced to the Final Four.
Hardly any national pundits gave the Miners much of a chance to win. Because they were from remote El Paso, and televised college basketball was unheard of during the regular season, very few people had ever seen them play. Instead, the national media relied on stereotype and prejudice. The Baltimore Sun’s basketball reporter James H. Jackson, called them a “running, gunning, Texas quintet who play basketball like monkeys on a 50-foot jungle wire.” John Stewart, in the same paper wrote, “They can do everything with a basketball but sign it” (it is worth noting that four of the five starters for Texas Western graduated on time, more than any other team in the Final Four).
The Miners dispatched Utah in the semi-final, but surely their run would end against national power Kentucky and the towering Coach Adolph Rupp, a team led by future NBA coaching legend Pat Riley. The Wildcats were smaller and athletic, but it would be the Miners unrelentless defense and rebounding that would carry the day. Texas Western won 72-65, and it wasn’t even that close. Adolph Rupp became bitter over the loss, and turned, naturally, to racist stereotypes when he painted the Miners as “street thugs,” and claimed that Haskins had imported “professionals.” What he could not accept was that he lost to a team composed of human beings he considered inferior, and his reaction was not uncommon in the nation. The Texas Western Miners had won a game, but it was much more than that. They made history and had helped to change a nation.
East Texas Historical Assn. provides this column. Scott Sosebee is executive director,firstname.lastname@example.org.