If you were in front of the television on the evening of March 19, 1966, you might have witnessed what many have since described as "the most important game in the history of college basketball," Texas Western's 72-65 upset of Kentucky in the NCAA championship final. This was the night in which the Miners' all-black starting lineup (a first in NCAA title game history) and two reserves, also black, toppled coach Adolph Rupp's all-white Wildcats. The story was so compelling that in recent years Texas Western coach Don Haskins received several overtures to turn the tale into a movie before producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Black Hawk Down) persuaded him to serve as a consultant for Glory Road, which opened nationwide last week.
Race helps fuel the movie, but 40 years ago that part of the drama was underplayed by the media to the point of being ignored. Newspaper and magazine accounts, read today, make it seem as if an epidemic of color-blindness had struck press row. The New York Times printed 750 words (March Madness was merely a mild neurosis then) but not one about skin color. The Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune each ran Associated Press copy that avoided the subject entirely. As for SI, the great thoroughbred Native Dancer and Smokey Bear somehow cropped up in the magazine's five-page game story, but the elephant in the room did not.
So why the disconnect? Why wasn't there even a hint of the moment's social significance in contemporary accounts?
Perhaps it was liberal squeamishness, a feeling that right-thinking people never noticed, and after they of course did notice certainly never mentioned, the racial makeup of a person, a team or a room, even if the room was Maryland's Cole Field House. Or perhaps, in some cases, the silence was born, if not exactly of racism, then from the desire to placate readers who wouldn't want to be reminded that black Americans had something new to celebrate--the kind of people who, speaking in code, might say, "Just give us the sports news."
For another, bigger story--this one not only ignored but never even observed by the mainstream media--was then unfolding in Harlem, Watts and other places where Texas Western's victory resonated powerfully. NBA Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, then 14, remembers that he suddenly walked around his almost all-white Ben L. Smith High in Greensboro, N.C., with his chin higher, realizing that his dream of playing for a big-time college program was possible. (He attended North Carolina.) In Nashville 17-year-old Perry Wallace, who starred at all-black Pearl High, summoned strength from the Miners' win and one month later signed with Vanderbilt, becoming the SEC's first black scholarship athlete.
Though Cincinnati had won the NCAA championship in 1962 with four black starters and Loyola had used four black starters to beat the Bearcats for the title the next year, Texas Western's defeating an all-white team felt, in the black community, like history. "Being black, how could you not see the significance?" recalls Charlie Scott, 57, who was a senior at Laurinburg (N.C.) Institute in 1966 and became the first black basketball player at North Carolina. "You're talking about an America that at that time still had segregated schools. So as a black individual, how could that not be your shining moment?"
As the years passed, the stories of McAdoo, Scott, Wallace and others were told. Racial barriers continued to fall in the SEC, ACC and the Southwest Conference. Rupp signed his first black player, Tom Payne, in 1969. Each of those events added to the tapestry of that '66 championship game, eventually turning it into the social landmark that we recognize today. "I feel this game was probably the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966," says Heat coach Pat Riley, a guard on the '66 Kentucky team, during the end credits of Glory Road. "It wasn't until history started to talk about this game in that context that we realized that we were part of something that was bigger than just five blacks and five whites."
With the release of Glory Road, the No. 2 movie at the box office last weekend, the story will get bigger still. The film, which stars Josh Lucas (SI, Jan. 9) as Haskins, does a skillful job of conveying the importance of this team in an entertaining way. (It should be noted that I worked on the movie as a researcher, primarily on the subject of Rupp.) Sure, the filmmakers took some dramatic license. Haskins won the title in his fifth, not his first season at El Paso; he never intended to make a political statement with his starting five; and Kentucky didn't lead by eight points with 10 minutes left--or, for that matter, at all in the second half of the real game.
But so what? It's good to know that hundreds of thousands of people sat in theaters and saw the larger truth and cheered every Miners basket over a weekend commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. We're in a different place than we were in 1966, and in its own way a basketball game helped us get here.
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