Reggie Warford, the second black player in University of Kentucky basketball history, arrived at UK as a freshman in 1972. Adolph Rupp, who was perceived to be hostile to the idea of integrating his teams, maintained an office in Memorial Coliseum even though he had retired as coach and program founding father that spring.
Perhaps emboldened by youthful bravado, Warford walked into Rupp’s office one day and asked a pointed question.
“Why didn’t you recruit black players?” Warford, in 2017, recalled asking Rupp.
It’s a question that continues to be asked.
On Tuesday, ESPN joined the throng who have pondered that question over the last half-century. To the many books, newspaper and magazine articles, television segments, emails and tweets devoted to Rupp and integration, the all-sports network planted its big foot.
ESPN announced the publication of a book titled “Basketball: A Love Story.” One example of this affection for the game centers on the impactful 1966 national championship game in which an all-white UK team lost to Texas Western, which became the first champion to feature an all-black starting lineup.
In addition to the book, tri-authored by Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew and Dan Klores, ESPN announced the accompanying 62 “short story” videos. Video No. 18 — titled “Rupp’s Reckoning” — explores the same why-didn’t-you-recruit-black-players question Warford asked Rupp almost 50 years ago.
“Well, son, I didn’t have to,” Warford recalled Rupp saying. “I got the best white guys in the country, and it just never occurred to me. He said, but it’s changing. And he told me he was glad I was there.”
The 1966 national championship game came to be regarded as, if not ushering in this change, at least speeding it along.
ESPN’s nearly 19-minute video, which is narrated by actress Julianne Moore, does not soft pedal the perception of some that Rupp was a racist who did not want black players on his teams.
“We all thought Rupp was a racist,” longtime New York-based sportswriter Peter Vecsey says bluntly.
In an interview Wednesday, former Herald-Leader and Courier-Journal sportswriter Billy Reed acknowledged the ease with which a one-dimensional view of Rupp as racist can be made.
“Coach Rupp was such a convenient villain,” Reed said. “By the way he looked. By being Germanic. By having the name Adolph. Being known as an autocrat. He became the stereotype like Bull Connor,” who as commissioner of public safety in Birmingham, Ala., symbolized institutional racism during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Supporters of Rupp can say he had black players on the high school teams he coached. That he offered scholarships to Butch Beard and Wes Unseld, both of whom appear in the ESPN video. And Kentucky regularly played against opponents who had black players at a time when other Southeastern Conference teams did not. Most notably, Mississippi State defied the wishes of the governor and legislature by quietly leaving the state to play in the 1963 NCAA Tournament against a Loyola of Chicago team that featured four black starters.
Detractors can cite newspaper clippings in the ESPN video which detail Rupp’s objections to being pressured to recruit black players, in one instance being quoted as using the n-word.
Unseld says in the video that Rupp did not recruit him enthusiastically. Unseld said he had to cancel a meeting with Rupp, a scheduling conflict which the UK coach said he understood. “Next day, Rupp put it out I didn’t have the courtesy to stay and talk with him,” Unseld says in the video.
Joe B. Hall, an assistant coach for Rupp and his successor as UK coach, said in 2017 that Rupp was not warm and engaging by nature.
“He came off as a stern, tough, hard-nosed corporate leader,” Hall said. “Not a soft-spoken father figure to the players. And the black kids misunderstood that.”
In the book “Strong Inside,” author Andrew Maraniss details how Kentucky recruited Perry Wallace, who ultimately played for Vanderbilt and was the first black player in the SEC.
Wallace says he warmed to assistants Harry Lancaster and Hall, but Rupp’s detached approach as a recruiter made it difficult to sign with Kentucky.
“I might have gone to Kentucky,” Wallace says in the book. “But to have the top guy say nary a word, that was a very important consideration.”
Mike Pratt, a contemporary of Wallace’s and a standout for UK, said Rupp was typically not a presence in recruiting. Rupp never saw Dan Issel nor himself play as high school players, Pratt said.
This was typical of top coaches at the time like Rupp and John Wooden, Pratt said. “They didn’t have to go out because they were king of the hill then.”
Wallace, an All-SEC player as a senior in 1970, played for Rupp in an all-star game after that season. The book Strong Inside describes a cordial meeting of player and coach at the first team practice.
“He was extremely welcoming and gracious,” Wallace says of Rupp. “If you think about it, by that point it was clear that Texas Western, my efforts, all were part of a great flood of progress.
“And in our talks, I discovered something compelling that I knew many people would not understand. For all his reputation as a classic racist power figure. . . . what I could see in those short talks and moments was an American man. Yes, white. But more important, a product of all of America’s good, bad and ugly.
“And more curiously, I found myself comparing him with older patriarchal men, both black and white. My father. My high school coach. And many others. The good ones pushed you, goaded you, but toward honorable goals and good conduct. Tough love personified.”