Perception is a tricky thing, both in the moment and a half-century later.
March 19 marks the 50th anniversary of the 1966 NCAA championship game that saw the University of Kentucky Wildcats, winner of four national titles, lose 72-65 to the Miners of Texas Western, an obscure school in El Paso.
Final Four history is filled with such upsets, but this game is remembered because Texas Western was the first NCAA champion to start five black players. Kentucky had never had one. The game would come to be seen as a civil rights milestone: a dramatic wake-up call to universities across the South that if they wanted to win anymore, they would have to accept black players.
At the time, perception of the game varied remarkably. Some spectators say they were totally focused on the game’s racial significance. Others say they gave it little or no thought. The difference? The color of their skin.
But the players on both teams say they had only one thing on their minds that night in the University of Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse: winning a national championship.
“We actually didn’t treat it any different than we did any other game that we played all year,” said David Lattin, who was Texas Western’s center.
“We didn’t treat the guys from Kentucky any different than we treated any other team,” he said. “They didn’t treat us any different. No one said anything derogatory, you know. We were just 10 young men trying to win the game.”
This was an era when civil rights protests and legislation were reshaping American society. Blacks had been making inroads into basketball for years — except in the South.
San Francisco had won the 1955 NCAA championship with four black players, as did Cincinnati in 1962 and Loyola of Chicago in 1963. The National Basketball Association’s top four players in 1966 were black. But many white people believed then that black players needed at least one white man on the court to lead them.
Texas Western Coach Don Haskins, determined to turn the lackluster program he inherited into a winner, recruited players from all over the country, including inner-city blacks from New York, Detroit and Gary, Ind. It worked. The Miners made the tournament and surprised everyone as they worked their way across the bracket.
We didn’t treat the guys from Kentucky any different than we treated any other team. They didn’t treat us any different. No one said anything derogatory, you know. We were just 10 young men trying to win the game.
David Lattin, Texas Western’s center
Jerry Armstrong, a white Texas Western player, remembers a Final Four atmosphere free of racial tension. “Everything was all about the game, and everybody conducted themselves in that way,” he said.
But when Texas Western players saw Kentucky play Duke in the semifinals, they realized that whomever they faced in the big game would be an all-white team. Haskins decided to play only black players in that final game, and he used racial pride to motivate them.
“Right after the pre-game meal, like about 3 in the afternoon, he called all the Southern African-American players who were going to play in that game into my room and said, ‘Adolph Rupp said at a press conference that five African-Americans couldn’t beat his five white boys,’” Lattin recalled. “Then he said, ‘Well, it’s up to you.’ Then he walked out of the room. He didn’t say anything else about it.
“Bobby Joe (Hill, a guard) was my roommate,” Lattin said. “We were just in there together and I looked at Bobby and asked, ‘Do you really, really think he said that?’ And Bobby said, ‘I don’t know if he said it or not. But we’re not going to lose.’”
Pat Riley, a Kentucky player who went on to become one of the NBA’s greatest coaches and is now president of the Miami Heat, says Rupp never said that.
“He lied,” Riley said of Haskins. “Oh, no. He made that one up. Don and I talked about this. (Haskins was) a coach who really wanted to inspire his guys at that time to say, look, this is what you’re playing for. You’re playing for your race; you’re playing for your people. Adolph never said one word to us, I don’t ever recall him ever saying one word (about) black-white.”
“It wasn’t the first time we played against black players,” guard Louie Dampier said. “When we looked at the other end, that was just another team we wanted to beat.”
Texas Western players say the Wildcats team didn’t seem prejudiced. In fact, just the opposite. Kentucky had been suffering a dry spell since its 1958 national championship, and the 1966 team would become one of the university’s most beloved. The men were called “Rupp’s Runts” because none was taller than 6-foot-5.
It wasn’t the first time we played against black players. When we looked at the other end, that was just another team we wanted to beat.
Louie Dampier, guard on 1966 UK team
“They were the darlings of college basketball,” said sportswriter Billy Reed, who watched the game in Lexington on a small TV while laying out the Sunday Herald-Leader. “Clean-cut guys. Good-looking guys. It was impossible not to like them.”
Lattin remembers UK’s Thad Jaracz saying “nice play” after his third dunk. After the Wildcats’ heartbreaking loss, Riley shook hands with the Texas Western players and Dampier took the unusual step of going to their locker room to offer his congratulations.
“I had never done that before,” Dampier said. “I don’t know what motivated me. I just walked out of our dressing room and saw theirs just across the way. I wasn’t happy and hand-slapping and all that. I just congratulated them. And Coach Haskins said thank you.”
After a radio station reported the visit, Dampier said he received about 100 letters of appreciation from Texas Western fans.
“We weren’t even picked to win our conference,” said Kentucky guard Larry Conley. “The irony of it was Texas Western was right behind us moving up in the polls. For us as players, (race) never really entered into the contest. The only thing I was doing was playing for a national championship. That’s all I cared about.”
The press was as basketball-focused that night as the players. Sports Illustrated published a long story about the game and never mentioned race. Neither did most newspapers.
“At the time, it was not a big deal, especially for people in basketball,” said Frank Deford, who wrote that Sports Illustrated story. “I mean, the Boston Celtics already were starting five black guys … blacks were already dominating the NBA. Of course, all the Southern schools were white.
“The main point at the time was not the racial angle,” he added. “It was much more the little team that nobody ever heard of beating the big royalty, and, oh, by the way, they started five black guys. The race thing only took on significance in the later years.”
Of course, virtually all sportswriters and editors then were white. So were the vast majority of Kentucky basketball fans. But many of the Kentuckians watching and listening to the game were black, and they knew history was being made that night.
African-Americans all across Kentucky identified with Texas Western.
Porter G. Peeples, longtime president of Lexington’s Urban League
“A lot of people won’t like to hear this, but we were rooting for Texas Western,” said Porter G. Peeples, longtime president of Lexington’s Urban League. He was then a Southeast Community College student from Harlan County preparing to transfer to UK the next fall.
“We identified with them,” he said. “African-Americans all across Kentucky identified with Texas Western.”
Chester Grundy, then one of about 50 black students at UK, said he and about eight friends gathered in a room in Haggin Hall to watch the game. They used a towel to seal the crack under the door so others in the dorm wouldn’t hear them cheer for the Miners.
“It was clear we needed to be for them,” Grundy said. “It was also clear that we needed to find a safe space to view that game. We had no expectation for Texas Western to win. Kentucky was so dominant. But once we saw how the game opened, then we got excited.”
After Kentucky’s loss to Texas Western, the pace of integration quickened across the Southeastern Conference. The game had made a powerful statement. But change still came slow in Kentucky basketball. Lexington was still a very segregated town, and UK’s basketball fan base was overwhelmingly white.
Gov. Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, who was then by law also chairman of the UK Board of Trustees, was pushing the football and basketball teams to add black players, said Don Mills, his press secretary.
Breathitt personally recruited Nate Northington and Greg Page in 1966 to become UK’s first black scholarship athletes. The next fall, Northington would be the first black athlete to play football in the Southeastern Conference. Tragically, Page would die the night before that game from an injury suffered in practice.
Kentucky would not have a black basketball player until Tom Payne in 1970-71. Rupp tried to recruit Wes Unseld and Butch Beard, who went to Louisville instead. He also tried to get Perry Wallace, who went to Vanderbilt and in 1967 became the first black varsity athlete in the SEC.
“He just didn’t make the effort that he should have,” Mills said of Rupp. “I would say he was very lukewarm. The established community was very much opposed (to black players), and he was aware of that.”
Players I coached in the NBA said, ‘The reason I went to North Carolina or the reason I went to Mississippi is because of Texas Western beating you guys. I feel very proud of being part of that moment.
Pat Riley, Kentucky player, now president of the Miami Heat
Over the years, it has been a controversial question without a clear answer: Was Adolph Rupp racist, or just a man of his place and time?
Long after the coach’s death in 1977, Deford wrote that he was allowed in the UK locker room at halftime and heard Rupp refer to Lattin as a “coon.” Kentucky players who were there dispute that.
Rupp’s image took another hit a decade ago when producer Jerry Bruckheimer and Disney Studios told their version of the Texas Western story in the movie Glory Road. The film invented some incidents and was criticized as more Disney fairy tale than documentary.
What is clear is that Kentucky didn’t attract many black players or fans until Rupp was forced to retire in 1972 after 42 of the most successful years in college basketball coaching history.
Rupp was succeeded by his assistant, Joe B. Hall, who was more aggressive about recruiting black players and, as a consequence, black fans. Kentucky got its first black head coach in 1997 when Tubby Smith, who had been a UK assistant coach, succeeded Rick Pitino and held the job for a decade.
In hindsight, many people believe the Texas Western-Kentucky game hastened the integration of college basketball, especially in the South.
“It was a watershed moment for integration, unbeknownst to us,” Riley said. “Players I coached in the NBA said, ‘The reason I went to North Carolina or the reason I went to Mississippi is because of Texas Western beating you guys.’ I feel very proud of being part of that moment.”
“There are a lot of people who try to downplay the significance of it,” said Grundy, now a diversity adviser to the dean of UK’s College of Medicine. “But it was just a very powerful moment, and college basketball has not been the same since.”