With Hollywood's enshrinement of the 1966 NCAA basketball champion Texas Western in the 2006 film Glory Road, the Miners' story would seem to have been mined down to its last vein. The first title team with five black starters subdued all-white Kentucky to deliver a new day, with Don Haskins the accidental agitator, a coach who wanted only to play his best players. But on the eve of a new college hoops season an obscure footnote to that story has surfaced, and it provides a worthy new insight into how a predominantly white school in the old Confederacy came to recruit a bounty of black players, even before passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
This is an article from the Nov. 23, 2009 issue
Turns out the answer begins in the spring of 1962 with the friendship of two men, both from the El Paso barrio and neither of them Hispanic: Bert Williams, a white city alderman and former Miners basketball captain, and Nolan Richardson, an African-American hoops player then in his junior year at Texas Western (now known as UTEP). Richardson, who would go on to coach Arkansas to the 1994 NCAA title, was a good enough outfielder to be offered a contract by the Houston Colt .45s, and Williams roped him into ringer duty on his softball team. After a game the two swung by the Oasis, a restaurant owned by former mayor Fred Hervey. Richardson knew exactly how they'd be received, but Williams dared their waitress to deny them service. "She looked me in the eye—she wouldn't look at Nolan—and said, 'I can't serve him,'" says Williams, now 83. "I went into my whole 'Don't be that way, these are different times' mode. Jack Kennedy had just come into office pushing civil rights. She didn't budge. I said, 'I'll be back.'"
In mid-century El Paso, nonwhites wanting to eat out had to go to so-called "black-and-tan" places on the South Side. Growing up during the Depression, Williams learned Spanish while being reared by a single mom on $12 a week. Mishearing his first name Bert, kids called him Pàjaro, Spanish for bird, and the name stuck. In college in the 1940s, "seven of the top 10 guys on the team were [Hispanic]," says Williams, who as a result got a taste of discrimination: After road games players had to take all-night bus rides home because few motels around the Southwest would accommodate them.
At the time of the Oasis incident, Williams held a job in the city attorney's office, where he had already sketched out an antidiscrimination ordinance. At the next city council meeting he thumped a draft on the table and persuaded the other three aldermen to sign it. Mayor Ralph Seitsinger vetoed the measure, but despite threatening phone calls and the ostracism of purported friends, Williams led a unanimous override.
Only weeks later Haskins, who had just finished his first season as the Texas Western coach, signed the nation's top recruit, a black junior college star named Jim (Bad News) Barnes. In local lore Barnes signed because Haskins beat him in a free throw shooting contest. (According to Haskins, Barnes made 17 of 25; after sinking his 18th straight without removing his sport coat, the coach said, "Sign.") Less known is that during his campus visit Barnes had a chance to meet Williams and told him that he wouldn't attend a four-year college where he couldn't go to the movies. That wasn't a problem in El Paso, thanks to Williams's ordinance, and Barnes went on to anchor Haskins's first two NCAA tournament teams and become the top pick in the 1964 NBA draft. As a result every black ballplayer in the country knew of the unlikely basketball power on the Rio Grande. It's a straight line from Williams's indignation, to Jim Crow's exile, to Barnes's arrival, to the signing of players such as Willie Cager, Bobby Joe Hill and David Lattin, the nucleus of the 1966 title team.
Williams became mayor in 1971 but was ousted after one term by none other than Hervey, the Oasis's proprietor. But the Oasis incident—and Williams's fierce and principled work in its aftermath—had built the on-ramp to Glory Road. Indeed, today Williams and his wife, Barbara, a former host of the children's television show Romper Room, live on East Baltimore Drive, the thoroughfare that, as it reaches the Don Haskins Center, now goes officially by Glory Road. The couple is bewildered by this year's explosion of recognition, including Bert's name on a new bus station. "So often politicians take what's popular and try to make it right," the current mayor, John Cook, said at one ceremony. "You took what was right and tried to make it popular." Adds Rus Bradburd, a former Haskins assistant whose forthcoming biography of Richardson, Forty Minutes of Hell, highlights the Oasis incident, "This wasn't like Rosa Parks, who had the entire civil rights movement behind her. This was a Power of One kind of story."
Or a Power of One Thing Leads to Another kind of story. As Richardson says, "You could say Pàjaro was ahead of his time. And you could say that he was right on time."
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