“Experts say the Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) vs. Kentucky game ranks as one of the greatest upsets in NCAA basketball history. It’s not even closed. North Carolina upset Wilt Chamberlain’s Kansas team en route to the title in 1957. North Carolina State pulled a buzzer-beating upset of Houston in 1983. Villanova upset Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown’s squad in 1985. In 1966, Texas Western didn’t upset Kentucky. It upset college basketball.”
Texas Western’s upset of Kentucky, A decision that went forward with ‘All Deliberate Speed’
As the NCAA national championship game between UNC and Kansas tips off Monday night, HBCU Gameday shares a story about the game that changed college basketball forever.
I was an 11-year-old basketball junkie when Texas Western beat Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA Basketball championship. And as the title of the movie “Glory Road” about the game released a few years ago indicates, as well as an ESPN Special that aired in 2016 on the 50th anniversary of the game, there was something glorious about it.
“Glory Road” tells, in Hollywood terms, the story of head coach Don Haskins and the five African-American players he started and two other African-Americans used against Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA final game, billed by many as the most important game in college basketball history.
It didn’t start out that way
All most folks knew about Texas Western headed into that final game was that it probably had little chance against Kentucky, one of the premier teams in big-time college basketball. Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp had built a reputation as one the best coaches in the land and one of the staunchest opponents to integration. He was going for his fifth national title. His ’66 team, known as “Rupp’s Runts,” a group of all-white players, none taller than 6-5, had compiled a 27-1 record and headed to the final game as the No. 1 team in all of America .
I and many others thought Texas Western coached by Don Haskins, despite being 26-1 and ranked third in the nation, had little luck.
That was until I turned on the TV and saw five players my color (that would be black) walk on the floor as starters. I shimmied up to within four feet of my family’s black & white TV and turned up the volume. Even at 11, I knew this was going to be something special.
Little did I know.
Primed and ready
I was raised in Danville, Va., one of the hotbeds of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and my father was an NAACP attorney. By then, Danville had seen its share of racial incidents from boycotts, downtown demonstrations and Woolworth lunch-counter sit-ins to intimidations, beatdowns and mass arrests by the local police.
Mass meetings, as they were called, had been weekly occurrences for the black citizens of Danville. In those days, we sang as much ‘We Shall Overcome’ and “We Shall Not Be Moved’ at my house – my sister sure did – than we did ‘The Lord’s Prayer.” My mother was on piano. I had been made keenly aware of the racial injustices that took place in Danville and throughout America, injustices that carried over to the playing fields of sports.
Setting the stage
This was a year after black AFL players had refused to play in that league’s All-Star Game in New Orleans because they had trouble getting a taxi or even basic services at a city restaurant. It was less than a year after the Watts riots in Los Angeles and three months before civil rights leader James Meredith was gunned down in Mississippi. Civil rights was slowly giving way to Black Power on the streets and the courts.
Older folks knew that Bill Russell and KC Jones had led San Francisco to back-to-back NCAA titles in 1955 and ’56. They knew Wilt Chamberlain had been the Final Four’s most valuable player for Kansas in 1957 and Elgin Baylor took the same title in 1958 while playing for Seattle. The University of Cincinnati had four black starters on national championship teams in 1961 and ’62 and on another Final Four team in ’63. UCLA’s Walt Hazzard won the MVP award in ’64.
I had watched Cazzie Russell, Bill Buntin and Oliver Darden off the great Michigan teams of the mid-60s beat Duke and lose a heart-breaker to UCLA in the 1965 championship game. But for me, most of those accomplishments happened before I was old enough to know about them, and for the latter ones, there was no place to see them. In those days there was no national telecast of the Final Four or the NCAA championship game. There were only four channels, no cable and no ESPN.
A new Texas Western fan
Maybe if a team from my part of the country like Duke was there, and it made the Final Four in 1964 and 1966, local TV would carry the game. Perhaps it was Kentucky, ably representing the Old South, that got the game on in Danville and throughout that region. However it happened, I was glad to see it, and knew I had just become a big Texas Western fan.
The names of the Miners’ players, all African-Americans, are etched in my mind, particularly, Bobby Joe Hill, who was like me, a point guard. Willie Cager – what a name for a basketball player (basketball players used to be called ‘cagers) – Neville Shed, Willie Worsley, Harry Flournoy, Orstein Artis and the center, David “Big Daddy” Lattin were all the players Haskins employed in the championship game. Shed had started his collegiate career playing at North Carolina A&T before transferring to Texas Western.
The all-white Kentucky team featured all-American guard Louie Dampier, Pat Riley, Thad Jaracz, Larry Conley and Bob Tallent, players whose names are also etched, in one way or another, in American basketball lore. Riley, of Los Angeles Lakers and New York coaching fame, is currently the head honcho for the Miami Heat. Conley was a longtime college basketball analyst.
A basketball clinic
The game was on March 19 at Cole Field House in College Park, Maryland. Historic and accomplished HBCU coaches like Clarence “Big House” Gaines of Winston-Salem State and Cal Irvin of North Carolina A&T who had fought years beside the great John McLendon to integrate college basketball were in attendance as were many other HBCU coaches of the day.
Hill and Lattin produced the game’s most memorable plays. Hill, cleanly swiping the ball from Dampier, the Kentucky all-American, early in the game and again later, and gliding in for layups, provided the grace. Lattin, with three monstrous dunks over the helpless ‘Runts,’ provided the thunder.
Riley reportedly said of Lattin, “In those days, players didn’t dunk. I hadn’t seen anyone dunk. But these guys came out, and after they had dunked on me about three times, I knew they had a lot more to accomplish than we did.”
What an understatement.
Between those highlights, the Miners put on a basketball clinic, never relinquishing the lead after going up early and playing with a cool confidence on the way to the shocking and relatively easy, 72-65 win.
‘With all deliberate speed’
Experts say the Texas Western/Kentucky game ranks as one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history. It’s not even closed.
North Carolina upset Wilt’s Kansas team en route to the title in 1957. North Carolina State pulled a buzzer-beating upset of Houston in 1983. Villanova upset Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown’s squad in 1985. In 1966.
Texas Western didn’t upset Kentucky, it upset college basketball. In racial terms, it was an ultimate showdown.
After Texas Western’s win, not only did Kentucky’s lily-white Southeastern Conference (SEC) integrate the following year, but so did the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and the Southwest Conference.
It was a landmark decision that truly went forward ‘with all deliberate speed,’ unlike another decision from the nation’s highest Court (Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas) that took nearly 16 years to implement.
This game and the rest, they say, is history.