"He was kinda crusty," I answered to my friend who asked what Adolph Rupp was like, as we walked back from the Kentucky basketball coach's office in early April 1967.
University of Kentucky Athletics Director Bernie Shively had arranged for me — in my capacity as president of the Black Students Union — to meet with the venerable coach, who was then two years younger than I am now.
Most 66-year-old people are set in their ways, especially a Southern white man looking into the face of a 21-year-old, framed by a massive Afro, dressed in a dashiki and pressuring him to recruit black basketball players onto his then all-white team, which the BSU picketed and boycotted.
Rupp seemed neither edgy nor agitated by my presence, more was not said than said; it was as though the burden was on me to frame the dialogue, which turned out to be very short. The record of the coach's achievements and experiences, festooned on the walls, were perhaps his answer as to why he had no black players. The Baron of the Bluegrass mirrored his surroundings.
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Recently, while watching the all-black Kentucky lineup play Notre Dame during the NCAA Tournament, I read that Maker's Mark, the premier bourbon distiller in my Old Kentucky Home, had unveiled a special commemorative all-white bottle in honor of Rupp.
Crusty and grumpy about some things myself now, I darn near detonated because the very act of saying "Adolph Rupp" and "all white" in the same breath is a racial double entendre that was most apparent in the 1966 title game when an all-black lineup from Texas Western beat Rupp's all-white team for the NCAA title.
My knee-jerk response to the label turned reflective when I thought about how that meeting with Rupp influenced the course of my life, how some of the people and things that repelled me also propelled me — and many people of my generation — to work to change unprincipled and immoral arrangements.
In hindsight, more than anything, my Rupp "all white" experience put me on a path that merged with others who would not accept the idea that we were badly behaved if we spoke up against injustice or that if we just kept quiet, things would change.
Not long after the meeting, I stood next to Shively, moderating an event the BSU called a "bitch-in" that attracted thousands to the Student Center patio to hold a conversation about race relations. After that, I was labeled a "black militant."
In the spring of 1968, as a senior, I traveled with Rupp's assistant and successor, Joe B. Hall, to Scottsville, Ky., in an effort to recruit their first black player, Jim McDaniels. He went instead to Western Kentucky University. That same year, I took my first job after graduating with the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights. Over the years, I intentionally sought the company of progressive people, studied enlightened ideas, and spoke truth to power — often to my professional disadvantage.
"I never thought I'd live to see the day UK would hire you as a senior administrator," a fellow vice president said to me in 2004 on the day I was hired to head up multicultural affairs. The position reminded me of what is expected at a wake: People show respect, but they don't expect the corpse to say anything. The same colleague warned me on another occasion "not to do or say anything to embarrass this fine university."
In 2007, I received the Governor's Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the high spot in my life. All thanks, in a very tangible way, to my UK experience.
Toni Morrison, one of the greatest writers in American history, tells a story that frames what I meant in 1967, when I described Rupp as "crusty."
There was a man who lived in New Orleans. His name was Big Lunch, called that because he came around at midday, asking for whatever food people had to spare. He put the food in his pockets, his coat, his pants and when that food went bad, he didn't mind. And of course, over time all that food and dirt began to crust and cake over his skin.
Big Lunch got into an accident, and when they got him to the hospital, they washed all of his dirt and crust off. But as days passed, instead of getting better, he began to get sicker and sicker, until finally one day he took his last breath and died. Why? "Because those people didn't know that all of that crust was what had been keeping him alive," Morrison said.
I am as crusty now as I thought Rupp was in 1967. I walked away from him then determined that I would be just as firm in my convictions as he was in his; that I would never bow to pressure or political correctness on principled matters.
He made an indelible mark on my life. That's why I can toast him today.