Basketball is basketball thanks to one team
“I said for a long time that the worst thing to ever happen to me was winning the national championship. I wished we had lost. My life would have been a hell of a lot easier if we had lost.” -Don Haskins
This weekend I went to see “Glory Road” which is a Disney version of the story of the 1966 NCAA champion Texas Western Miners basketball team. Hollywood never cares much about facts when making a movie. In fact, just about every sports movie based on a true story gets rewritten in some way. So while the trashed room or player beat up by rednecks in a bathroom may have never happened that season to that team or it was actually coach Don Haskins’s fifth year at the school when he won the title, it doesn’t change the significance of that game in 1966.
Haskins’s decision to play only his seven black players against all white Kentucky helped changed the face of basketball. It destroyed the ridiculous notion that you needed at least one white player on the floor to help lead Black players who were thought of as just athletes. But maybe even more importantly, it allowed coaches the freedom to play the best five players regardless of race. Winning can overcome bigotry sometimes.
But this column is really more about me wanting you to read Yahoo.com’s Dan Wetzel’s column. You can find his column in the sports part of yahoo.com under the title “The Long and Winding Road.”
By making basketball better for the rest of us, as is the case with any pioneer, Haskins and his players paid a huge price.
Wetzel co-wrote Don Haskin’s autobiography also entitled “Glory Road.” He makes the argument that what Haskins and his players had to endure after the game was worse. Here is an except from that column.
“It is easy for white America to deal with the convenient parts of this story. We comfortably can condemn as rednecks and racists from a bygone era those people who shouted slurs, who threw things at the players, who trashed hotel rooms. But that's the small stuff, almost as meaningless as the little slights the team dealt with, such as how when Texas Western won the title game, no one even brought out a ladder so the Miners could cut the nets (Shed had to hoist up Willie Worsley to do the honors). Or how the team never was asked to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as was customary for NCAA champions. ("Gee, wonder why," smiles Shed these days.)
“No, the worst came from the institutions with the real power – the media, the NCAA, the iconic Rupp, who was overcome with petty jealousy and ugly anger. Sports Illustrated, ever the limousine liberal of sports magazines, proudly boasts that it never even mentioned race in its championship story, like it was some evolved, color-blind medium. It conveniently forgets that the week before it built an entire preview of the Final Four around race. And SI must want to forget that in 1968 it published one of the most scurrilous stories imaginable, an "exposé" of the Texas Western program which concluded that the players weren't real students, that El Paso was a viciously racist city and that rather than being a hero to blacks for giving them a rare chance at an education, Haskins and the school ‘thoroughly and actively exploited black athletes.’ It went on and on.”
After winning the title, Wetzel writes Haskins found himself hated not only by some whites for having the audacity to play five blacks at one time but also by blacks who believed the Sports Illustrated allegations that he exploited his players and took advantange of them. Haskins took shots from all corners. But still he felt worse for the players according to Wetzel.
“What they did to my players still makes me sick," Haskins said. "Say what you want about me, go ahead. But those were just college kids trying to help their families out.”
You can find Glory Road’s official website located at http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/gloryroad. There you will find not only a true timeline of Haskins arrival at Texas Western to his championship, you can click on each of the players to find out just how successful they became as adults in the next 40 years.
Lutheran West coach Phil Argento (see sidebar on page 2b) was a freshman at Kentucky that season. He was at the game and had no idea it was a black vs. white game until years later. He said he just saw basketball players. Haskins himself didn’t see color either, just basketball players, which is why his stance to play just his black players in that game was huge and changed basketball. It was so that the rest of the world could get past skin color and just see basketball players as well.