The names roll trippingly off the tongue: Bobby Joe...the Shadow...Big Daddy D...Orsten Artis—quaint handles found in any trivia collector's basic answerthon as well as flesh-and-blood survivors of the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team. A team with no past or future. A once-in-a-millennium team. A team that changed the course of civilization. Or something like that. The Texas Western Miners, the only team to win the national championship between 1964 and 1973 that wasn't called UCLA. The all-black-starting-five Texas Western Miners.
Where are they now? Orsten Artis is a detective on the Gary, Ind. police force. David (Big Daddy D) Lattin does public relations for a liquor company in Houston. Nevil (The Shadow) Shed is a college basketball coach in San Antonio. And Bobby Joe Hill—why, Bobby Joe works in the purchasing department of the gas company right there in El Paso where the latest edition of the Miners—the school has long since gone high tone from Texas Western to, excuuuuuuuuse me, the University of Texas at El Paso—is unbeaten, untied, practically unscored upon and virtually unknown.
Texas Western. Awwww, you bet. The name conjured up visions of the frontier: sagebrush, chaps and spurs, tough and nasty bandido hordes. But they don't make men—or name schools—like they used to. So heavily macho before, UTEP now seems to have gone to gossamer. A swingman grows roses behind a picket fence. A couple of the guards wear braces on their teeth. The best player is a man named Fred, who sports two gold teeth and dresses in Ralph Lauren signature stuff when he isn't hamming it up across the border in Juàrez, modeling sombreros. Dang! Pass the feather duster, bar-keep. Make mine sarsaparilla. And come back, Shane.
Lest a stranger get the impression that coach Don Haskins, the girthsome, growling, legendary Bear, has turned into a Paddington and enlisted a bunch of finesse wimps in the name of progress or style, it should be noted that the Miners have fashioned their 13-0 record mostly out of the same ornery defense and bushwhack rebounding that Haskins has been teaching for 23 seasons. And, oh yes, a raw tenacity and low estimation of themselves that Haskins vociferously encourages at the hint of a missed assignment. "Are we this God-awful sorry or what?" he keeps asking his friends. "You're the biggest bunch of mess I ever did see," he keeps screaming at his players.
January 16, 1984
In truth, it has been difficult to judge how sorry UTEP may or may not be. The Miners beat Indiana and knocked off strong Louisiana Tech and Michigan, too, but most of their pre-Western Athletic Conference schedule has been sprinkled with Texas Southerns, Southern U's and injuries. Leading scorer Fred Reynolds has missed the last two games with back spasms. The team's best rebounder/defender, 6'7" senior Paul Cunningham, who prowls the middle of UTEP's zone like an enraged panther, has missed the last five games with a sprained ankle. "I got everybody hurt. We can't cover man-to-man. Nobody can rebound a lick. We should be eight and five. We got to be overrated." On and on Haskins groans about the team ranked eighth in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Top 20 this week, which only means that El Paso Eddie, as Haskins' friend Bobby Knight calls him in honor of his proficiency at hustling golf and pool games, is back in the saddle again.
It's Haskins' M.O. to ream out, poor-mouth and sandbag his troops just about every day that the sun shines over the Sun Bowl city, which, by the way, has been precisely 6,511 of the last 6,561 days, according to informed sources.
"The old players swear the man has softened up since the championship year, but if that's true there's no way I could have played for him back then," says Reynolds. "I think he's having flashbacks to '66. We win a game and get all hopped up. Then he comes in the locker room bitching and moaning about how we should've got our tails kicked. He's made me a complete player, though. And he's made this team. It's good that he won't let us get complacent. I bet if we won the national championship, he'd still be ticked off."
UTEP is probably too small to realize that lofty goal—6'10" sophomore Dave Feitl is the only Miner over 6'7"—but if determination, character and, uh, savagery are prerequisites, the team has a good chance to go a long way in the NCAA tournament, a destination UTEP hasn't reached since 1975.
Last season, after losing two starters to injury before their fourth game, the Miners regrouped to win 19 and gain a share of the WAC title with Utah and BYU. In the first round of the NIT, UTEP outscored Fresno State from the floor by six baskets but lost 71-64 when the home-standing Bulldogs were awarded 35 foul shots to the Miners' 12. That's home as in j-o-b. Fresno State went on to win the tournament. UTEP has avoided hazardous road trips so far this winter with the result that Haskins still can't figure out how good or bad his team is.
"We may not even be the third-best team in our league," he grumbled last week after the Miners embarrassed the national security wing of the schedule, U.S. International, 85-59, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, 72-50. The yawn-inspiring week was saved only by U.S. International's bearded, 5'2½" Zach Lieberman, who dribbled four times through his legs each time he shouted out a play called "hully gully." Said UTEP's Kent Lockhart: "I thought the plane had landed, and I was on Fantasy Island."
Haskins, who weighs between 240 and 250 pounds, depending on how nerve racking the season is and how many beers he consumes at Don Haskins' Easy Street Restaurant (Don Haskins, prop.), is a descendant of the dreaded Iberian cult—that coaching tribe sworn to the tenets of the ancient disciplinarian Henry Iba. Three of Haskins' teams have led the nation in defense, and two others have led in rebounding, which is why Haskins contracts apoplexy following any layup or tip-in by the opposition. These Miners, however, are more versatile than their forebears at El Paso in that they actually can shoot a little bit: The present .497 field-goal percentage would break the school's season record of .487. The 1966 champions shot a breathtaking .446. What the current Miners also can do is hurt you with swarms of swift leapers and sprinters, most of whom are of approximately the same size and ability. Five Miners have led the team in scoring already, six in rebounding. A different Miner is the season leader in each of the following six categories: minutes played, points, rebounds, assists, blocks and free-throw percentage. It gets confusing. The 79-year-old Iba, now retired in Stillwater, Okla., took one look at this conglomeration of highfliers during a visit to El Paso in the preseason and told Haskins, "We got to stop this crap—all these guys playing so far over the rim."
Over the past four years UTEP has won 77 games, somehow without being chosen for the NCAA tournament. This is ridiculous. It is also the reason that only Reynolds' name is familiar outside the mountain standard time zone. But make no mistake. The Miners do have some names. If not a Jordan, a Juden. If not Dr. J, the D.A. If not Big Ben, Tick Tock. If not a limo, a Jeep. And if not a star cluster, at least one Luster. Luster Ceaser Goodwin Jr.—"call me Pony"—is the Miners' outrageously quick point guard, and freshman Hernell (Jeep) Jackson, even quicker, is his backup. Kevin Hamilton (Tick Tock for the Hamilton watch, get it?) is a multitalented sophomore power forward who backed up New York Met outfielder Darryl Strawberry on the basketball team at Crenshaw High in L.A. The D.A. is Donnell Allen, a reserve forward who has played more campuses than Dr. Timothy Leary—namely Mississippi State, Moberly Junior College, Utica Junior College and, now, UTEP. "I'm a role player," says the D.A. "I'll play any role they got." How about the lead in a video of Hit the Road, Jack?
As for the explosive 6'6" swingman Juden Smith, whom UTEP recruiters found on the playgrounds of New Orleans, even Haskins seems perplexed by his name.
"Juden is African, I think," Smith told a reporter last week. "Like my middle name, Niger."
"You Nigerian?" bellowed Haskins. "Damn, why ain't you seven feet?"
Though Haskins is loath to admit such sacrilege, it was Reynolds and Smith who forced the coach to open up the UTEP offense, which Haskins insists was never closed. Unfortunately, it was also Reynolds and Smith who missed nearly the entire 1982-83 season and were given medical redshirt status. Imagine the Washington Redskins without Theismann and Riggins and you get an idea of what the Miners lost. "I covered Michael Jordan at the Pan Am trials and stuck with him," says Reynolds, "but Juden is a nightmare. I have to back off a step or it's goodbye."
The 6'6" Reynolds is the kind of overachiever Haskins typically cultivates. At Jesse H. Jones High School in Houston, Reynolds was second fiddler behind Rickie Thompson in basketball and the high jump. UTEP assistant coach Tim Floyd nabbed both, and even before Thompson transferred back home to Houston Baptist, for which he won the NCAA high jump in 1983, Reynolds had eclipsed him in basketball. As a junior he was the leading scorer with a 14.3 average (he is currently averaging 13.1) and he was on the 1982 World Cup team in Bogotà. After tearing a calf muscle in December of '82 and not playing for six months, Reynolds made the Pan American team last summer, and helped win a medal to match the gold in his teeth. "My stats won't be overwhelming. I'm just getting back to banging and slamming down inside," Reynolds says. "But it doesn't matter. Now we can come at you from any direction."
According to his teammates, the presence of Lockhart guarantees that one of those directions will be outer space. "This is one strange dude," says Reynolds, pointing to Lockhart's dorm room, which resembles what would happen if the Guggenheim Museum and F.A.O. Schwarz combined for a fire sale. Planting that rose garden outside his window was weird enough; in addition, Lockhart, a 6'4" junior and the Miners' second-leading scorer, is an accomplished artist, collector of clown memorabilia and provider for Kuka, his pet mouse. The other Miners have come to better comprehend Lockhart, the flower child of an original flower child, Marlinda Fitzgerald, whose growth experiences included residence in a commune near L.A., joining the freedom marchers in the South and go-go dancing in North Hollywood. This was before she settled down in Palo Alto as a multifaceted artist.
Some of her framed works combined with her mother's seascapes and Lockhart's own 6' √ó 8' unfinished mural, Circus Favorites, give Lockhart's room the flavor of an art gallery until one notices the Christmas tree lights strung along the wall. And the stuffed panda wearing a bowler. And the live mouse, which Lockhart called Eurydice until a girl told him the name didn't sound appropriate. "I'm jealous of Kuka's jumping ability," Lockhart says. His black teammates are equally envious of Lockhart's dancing ability, a trait obviously inherited from his mother. "The man can dance," says Reynolds, "...for a white guy, excuse the expression."
Meanwhile back on earth...Even Haskins admits that his wonderfully bizarre and exciting team is as much his assistant's doing as his own. The preppy Floyd, 29, rescued Haskins just when the UTEP program was falling apart in the mid-'70s: three straight losing seasons, a burned-out grizzly of a coach contemplating, well, maybe hibernation. With a new 12,200-seat Special Events Center to attract recruits, Floyd went out and beat the bushes to get them. "I needed Tim as much as the new building," says Haskins. "Nobody who's been in this business as long as I have likes recruiting, but I just told Tim one thing: Don't bring me somebody who's used to gettin' beat."
Of course, none of the Miners is that, especially now. What Haskins calls "population center politics" undoubtedly has obstructed his path to the NCAAs in recent years, but UTEP may simply be too good to deny this time. "It seems like each year they've taken a little bit away from us," says Cunningham. "But now we might get it all back at once. Plus, Coach's insults will always keep us going."
Did someone suggest that the Bear had mellowed? The other day Haskins ordered Lockhart to join him as a guest on the coach's TV show.
"Can I bring Dave Feitl?" said Lockhart.
"Hell, no, Lockhart," roared Haskins. "Only one white guy at a time."
Now that's what a hungry Bear might call rationing.