The popular country-music strains came whining out of the El Paso jukebox, asking the musical question After I'm Number One, Where Do I Go? In the old days, before ratings and opinion polls, before Top Forties and the general mania for ranking everything, Number One in this context meant, say, "Sweetheart" or "Darling" or maybe even "Honeybunch." The team that won a national championship was called, simply, the national champion. But this is Texas, where all the No. 1 foolishness may have started, and in El Paso the champion Texas Western team is usually referred to as No. 1, as if it never really played Kentucky last season but just outpolled it.
Of course, Texas Western—shortly to be known as the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP—gave El Paso its first national title, and the town is well aware of what can happen to any No. 1. So much does the sun shine on El Paso, the No. 1 Sun City, that there is a suspicion it was invented here or, at least, the town has a lien on it. There is, too, old E.P. & S.W. No. 1, the "train that settled the West," resting on campus. The Smithsonian Institution is trying to take it away, so a campaign is on to "Save No. 1." This is often billed "El Paso vs. Smithsonian Institute." In the case of many U.S. citizens, the answer to the song—after you're number one, where do you go?—is that you go to El Paso, because El Paso is the gateway to Ciudad Juàrez, Mexico. The prospective divorcees pile in by the planeload. Little knots of anxious women gather in the motels or wander across the border together to soak up the Latin atmosphere, trying their very best to look casual when they say, "Uno whisky sour, por favor."
Still, the top act in town consists of Coach Don Haskins and the University of Texas at El Paso Miners—hereinafter called the Miners, or, in desperation, UTEP. Only two regulars are gone from last year's team—Harry Flournoy and Orsten Artis—and if it were not for the presence of Lew Alcindor at UCLA the Miners would unquestionably be favored to defend their title. The team is made up of some of the most composed, determined young athletes anywhere. "Just another game," David (Daddy D) Lattin, the team's center, said coolly after the Miners beat Kentucky. Now, however, Haskins calls them "swellheaded," berates himself for a poor coaching job, and the players themselves agree that they are not working well together. Besides, the team has been hit by a flock of injuries. All-America Bobby Joe Hill, with a sprained ankle and a charley horse—"Lattin gave me that one"—could not even play in the opener last week. Willie Cager also has a sprained ankle, little 5 foot 6½ Willie Worsley has a bad back and Nevil (Shadow) Shed has a bruised hip. So the national champions started their defense last Thursday against the Sam Houston Bearkats by going scoreless for almost three minutes. It was all of nine minutes before they caught up to the Bearkats. They were ahead only 51-45 with nine minutes to go. Then they wore down the visitors and won 78-54. On the bench, Haskins growled and grumbled at his team's sloppy display. When Sophomore Center Phil Harris took a hook shot near the end of the game, Haskins rose and bellowed, "You wild man!" Moments later Harris pulled down his game-leading 13th rebound. There were only a few seconds left and, a bit confused, he tossed the ball wildly downcourt. It bounced directly toward Haskins, who stormed onto the court and took the pass well in bounds. While the startled officials looked on—the ball was technically still in play—Haskins just cradled it and screamed a few more epithets at poor Harris. The crowd was laughing too hard to hear them. On the bench, the Texas Western players were gleefully squirting each other's faces with the water squeeze bottle.
The relationship between Haskins and his players is a sort of uneasy truce. On the court, his sarcasm is steady and strong—"you must have had a nightmare last night, Shed, to have dreamed that one up." Off court, he not only shepherds his players solicitously, but is so free with his praise that at times it would seem saccharine, except that he is so obviously sincere. The players respect Haskins and their affection for him is based on understanding. "They told me when I first got here," Shed says, "not to let him bother me, to start worrying when he stops yelling at me." Lattin, whose glowering countenance conceals his brightness and who has grown into a most articulate college junior, is a bit more reserved than the others. "No, I don't like it at all for him to scream at me," he says. "It's driven a few guys away, too. But Jim Barnes [Texas Western's All-America in 1964] told me, just take it—it's the way he is and it won't be this way forever. But I don't like it. We have it out at the start of every season. Yes, already this year, too. I scream back at him, he tells me to get out for a couple of days and then I come back calmed down. Maybe some guys—Shed, maybe, or Cager—need that sort of prodding, but not me."
December 12, 1966
Lattin and Haskins get along, however. "Nice," Daddy D said, fingering Haskins' suit before they went on the coach's TV show together last week. "Why, thank you, David," Haskins said, pleased—as he should be—that any man wearing a yellow paisley tie and handkerchief and big red cuff links that shine all over, would compliment his clothes. "Sharkskin," Lattin said. "Yeah?" Haskins asked, beaming. Lattin nodded a simple assurance.
By everyone's admission—and Haskins is worried about this—he is now much easier on his players than he used to be. Jim Paul, TW's assistant sports publicist, who played for Haskins when the coach first came to El Paso six years ago, remembers that he used to break out in a cold sweat, just waiting to go out for practice. But however testing Haskins chooses to be in his training methods, there is no argument anywhere about the fact that the results make him a superior young coach. After the Miners beat a fine small-college team from Abilene Christian 85-46 last Saturday night for their second win of the season, Haskins' record stood at 110-26.
At first Haskins was admired mostly for his discipline. He stresses defense and a calm, controlled offense, and he has inculcated these tenets into young men whose basketball experience was gained mostly on school playgrounds, where the game is run-and-shoot and the defense is elbows.
But Haskins is more than the strong-armed, loud-voiced Marine drill instructor. Sometimes, as he stands on the practice court, his belly dipping out over his gray Bermudas—so that he looks, he says, like "two sticks in an apple"—he even whispers an "attaboy" at a player. He is a superb teacher, a determined winner who has complete trust in his theories. They also work. "You've got to have some rules," he said recently. "I don't care whether they're good or not, but you've got to have something to guide you. I'll tell you what. Nobody on my team bounce-passes. If you have to bounce it to get it to someone, you've got no business passing it. And it seems to me that if you can pass it, if the other guy is open, well, there's no reason to bounce it. Now, maybe that's wrong, but that's the way I feel. I wouldn't say I have a philosophy. But I know what I want, and I know how I want to play. I coach the same way I did when I started in high school in Benjamin, Texas. It never mattered where I was, the size of the school. I worked the same. The district championship then meant as much as the national title." He looked around and thought a moment. "I'll tell you what," he said. "You can only want to win so bad."
Haskins hardly sleeps after TW's big games, but he did not sleep after the big games in Benjamin either. "It's not about like all pleasure," is the way he puts it. He stops working only to concentrate on worrying, for which he has a natural facility. Flournoy, who started during the past three seasons and who is still in school finishing up his work for a degree, dropped by the morning of the first game last week to see his old coach. Haskins was momentarily elated, then fell into a depression. "Damn, I hate to lose Harry," he muttered later, lighting another cigarette. "Now I wish he hadn't dropped by. It just reminded me how much we'll miss him. You knew when it went on the board that at least you had one to get after it." Deciphered, the last comment means that whenever a shot went up Haskins could depend on one man, Flournoy, to rebound. Haskins always says "it" for ball, as in, "We don't shoot it real well," or, "When he was a sophomore, I wouldn't let Bobby Joe do much with it, and he was never right. So last year I even let him put it back here a little. Worsley, too. And I'll tell you what. Cager can put it, too." He can? "You bet." "Put it" means to dribble the ball behind the back. "Get after it" meant, originally, just to rebound. It has come to mean a general hustle and shaping up, and the players favor the expression as much as their coach does.
But they do not agree with him that success has gone to their heads. "No," Lattin says, "this team was too used to winning to let it change us." All the Miners simply think that they must get after it more. The other obsession that they share with their coach is a concern with maintaining poise. The players attribute nearly every reaction in a game or off the court to poise or the absence thereof. When Shed and Harris got into a little fight the day before the season began, it was all chalked up to a momentary loss of poise. ("You two hardheads!" Haskins also inserted at the time. "Neither one of you knows how to fight, anyway.") When Harris threw the errant pass to his coach, he hastened to explain that it was not caused by a lack of poise, but that the ball had slipped off his hand. Harris, who is known as The Silver Spoon, lost the little finger on his right hand and the ring finger on his left hand when he was 5 years old in an escalator accident in a department store in Manhattan. He makes up for the handicap with a hustle that is uncommon in big men. Most of the players have modest-to-poor backgrounds, and they appreciate what basketball has done for them. "My mother would break my neck," Shed says, "if I didn't finish college after I have come this far." Still, none of them were exactly Merit Scholars in high school, though Haskins maintains that Hill has an IQ of 130 and is just a lazy student. Predictably, both the school and the players have been the subject of innuendo, much of it inspired by the fact that the seven top Miners last year were Negroes, many from outside Texas. Allegations are invariably tossed at independent schools that achieve athletic success. Indeed, from the very first time that it snared a sought-after athlete, Jim (Bad News) Barnes, Texas Western has been on the defensive. It was investigated at that time, in 1962, by the NCAA and completely exonerated. Despite all the rumors that have followed, no evidence has ever been forthcoming that the school has illegally recruited a boy or kept him eligible when he was not making his grades. "We don't cheat, I'll tell you that," Athletic Director George McCarty says firmly but a bit wearily. In El Paso they are all used to the subject now.
Texas Western's current physical expansion is matched by its improvement in academic standards, though both have come after a long period of foot-dragging. El Paso may be the only town in the world that saw fit to build a streetcar line before a schoolhouse was constructed. TW opened its doors back in 1914 as a two-year school of mines and metallurgy and did not become a four-year liberal arts school until 1931. Its greatest progress has been made under President Joseph Ray, whose tenure dates from 1960. The university was carefully examined by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools last year and given a rating of "highly favorable." Dr. Ray's popular leadership was even more highly praised.
The president is a sports enthusiast. Under his aegis, McCarty—a former basketball coach and dean of men—has taken the Miners into the athletic big time. Haskins has never forgotten that Dr. Ray showed up at the airport at 6:30 in the morning six years ago when the new coach took the team off for his first college game. Dr. Ray keeps a basketball autographed by the champions in the most prominent spot in his office, and he wears an NCAA championship watch. But he is under no illusion that basketball success can be equated with academic achievement. "We won national notice last year," Dr. Ray says, "but I cannot call that national recognition. We want all elements of this institution to succeed, and it is obvious that high quality in athletics is more readily attainable."
This TW team may be even better than last year's. After its sluggish performance against Sam Houston, it began by missing 12 of the first 13 shots against Abilene Christian. Then the Miners settled down and put on a magnificent show against a team that had been beaten by only nine points by powerful New Mexico two nights before. The Miners appear to have more depth than last year. Besides Harris, two local boys—junior David Palacio and sophomore Kenny John—are a big help. Palacio, who hardly played at all last year, replaced Hill in the opener and scored 15. Worsley had 15, too. Cager, however, was the best player on the floor that night. Against Abilene Christian, on the other hand, he failed even to score. Shed played well both nights. He hangs around a place up on Mesa Street that dispenses malts in 31 flavors, and he vows that he has tried them all. But he is still as skinny as ever—6 feet 8 and 185. And Daddy D is as awesome as ever—6 feet 7 and 240. His performances, however, continue to be erratic. He got only eight points against Sam Houston, then followed with 18 against Abilene Christian. Perhaps the clothes helped. After the second game he appeared in an outfit that was all green from head to ankle. So much green has not been seen since chlorophyll was in all the toothpaste. "Why not green socks?" someone asked. "Black shoes," Lattin snapped.
His personal development is a striking tribute to the school and to his own efforts. Three years ago, after getting kicked out of Tennessee State, he called up Haskins and asked if he could come to Texas Western. He was a tough guy who could hardly communicate. Haskins told him to come on out if he thought he could qualify, but says that he never figured Lattin would take him up on it. Soon after Lattin arrived, a speech teacher took a liking to him, forced him to make speeches in class, and slowly Lattin began to gain confidence off the court. He started to major in radio and TV and, happily, found something to stimulate him besides basketball.
He is now a junior (though eligible for the pro draft this spring), is a B student and disc jockey of a jazz program—Daddy D's Soul Session—that is a big favorite not only on campus but in town and out at Fort Bliss. Daddy D moves in on the mike and welcomes listeners to the Soul Room and to music that is for "You, you and I do mean you." The progressive, modern sounds flow for three hours three times a week.
"He plays that jazz all the time," Harris says, ruefully. The Silver Spoon, who has his own daily radio sports report, roomed with Lattin earlier this year, but the matchup never had a chance. Harris cannot tolerate jazz; he prefers the rock. Besides the music conflict, Lattin, who drives a Riviera, kept calling Harris' Super Sport a "tank." That was the end. They live alone, happily, now. Shed also lives by himself, Worsley and Cager together. Bobby Joe is the only married starter, and he is a new father, too. Michelle Denise is 8 weeks old.
These are all young men growing into responsibility now, if only because they are No. 1. Nevil Shed's mother should break all of their necks if they do not get after it off the court as well and graduate from old UTEP.