Saturday, March 19, 2011

March 19, 1966: Black and White

COLLEGE PARK, Maryland - Their names were Orsten Artis, Harry Flournoy Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, and Willie Worsley. If not for the color of their skin, they would be but a footnote in the annals of college basketball history, remembered only on the campus of Texas Western University (now Texas-El Paso). But, because they were black, they are remembered forever. For those are the five starters Texas Western put on the floor in the 1966 NCAA Championship Game, the five starters that sped up integration in NCAA basketball.

Coach Don Haskins wasn't trying to make history by starting five black players in the national championship game. All he thought he was doing was putting his five best players on the court to start the game. But in picking those five players, Haskins became the first coach to have an all-black starting lineup in an NCAA championship game. That he was doing so against Kentucky, coached by the pro-segregation Adolph Rupp, made the game even more monumental.

The game is also sometimes viewed as a sort of David vs. Goliath affair, as tiny, unknown Texas Western was going up against national powerhouse Kentucky. In reality, though, the Miners entered the game with a 27-1 record, the same as Kentucky's, and the Miners had a decided height advantage over the Wildcats in the game. Plus, a flu bug had gone through the Kentucky starting lineup before the game, leaving the Wildcats wounded and sick in the final.

Still, though, it was quite a surprise that Texas Western won, and fairly easily at that. The Miners took the lead halfway through the first half and never relinquished it. Though Kentucky got within two in the second half, the Miners pulled away for a 72-65 victory, winning the national championship.

Though proud of the victory, Haskins later admitted that for a long time, he thought winning the national championship was the worst thing to happen to him. He didn't like all the attention his team and players were given after the victory. As he wrote, he "didn't expect to become a racial pioneer or to change the world." But by beating the all-white Wildcats, that's exactly what he did. By using an all-black starting lineup, he showed the basketball powers from the traditionally racist SEC and other southern schools that they should ignore black players at their peril.

Don Haskins and his Texas Western Miners didn't set out to change the world. They just wanted to win the national championship. By winning that game, though, they became immortal.

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