Game always came first to Haskins

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Upon learning of the death tonight of longtime UTEP coach Don (The Bear) Haskins, these thoughts made their way through my head, in roughly this order:

• Thank goodness the end came after Haskins had made it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. His enshrinement in 1997, after six unavailing nominations, came far too late -- not to Haskins himself, for he was a self-effacing man, but to chroniclers of the game, who regarded his 1966 NCAA title as more and more meaningful the smaller it appeared in our rear-view mirrors.

• As regards to that national championship, known as the Brown v. Board of Ed of college basketball because Haskins' Texas Western team with its five black starters whipped Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky team in the final: Haskins never veered off message in insisting, from that day forward, that he intended no political statement. He was simply fielding his best possible team.

• No one who knew Haskins and his plainspoken Oklahoma ways ever doubted that this was true.

• I last saw him more than 10 years ago. The Miners had just weathered three seasons without a winning record. The Bear was supplementing his income by going into the hills above El Paso to call and shoot coyotes, then selling the pelts for $75 a piece. Visits from national sportswriters like me came fewer and further between. In his office he told me of growing up in Enid, Okla., and the story of Herman Carr -- and with it I got the closest thing to a social manifesto that Don Haskins would ever deliver.

Haskins was a stud in his day, good enough to draw a scholarship offer from coach Henry Iba at Oklahoma A&M. But throughout his high school career it nagged at him that he might not have been even the best player in town. He'd hook up with Carr, a 6-foot-2 black kid from the west side, for epic games of one-on-one in Government Springs Park. But come September, each headed off to a separate, segregated school. "Would have been nice to have played with Herman in high school," Haskins told me. "I remember just thinking how unfair it was that this guy couldn't play. Unfortunately there wasn't a little more equality back then."

For the "stand" he took in 1966, the Bear got 40,000 pieces of hate mail and a dozen death threats.

For this story he told on a December morning in 1997, he had an audience of one.

The path coursed its way through his life, consistent and true: To Haskins, from his early pinnacle to his largely anonymous twilight, the game always came first.