May 20, 2014 Letter to Editor: Published, Caller Times – Corpus Christi, published.
In looking at the glass half full rather than half empty, I wrote to the CT during the men’s NCAA basketball tournament and commented that in the 1966 title game, Texas Western, now UTEP, started five African-Americans and beat favored Kentucky with five white players in the line-up. Fast forward to 2014, African American college players dominated positions on most of the teams on the road to the Final Four, including in the title game. I see that as a sign of progress indicating that many racial issues have disappeared in college basketball and in our culture in general. Last week in Corpus Christi, I noticed on a couple of week-day afternoons a young mom dropping off two elementary school age boys of color at a local coffee shop. Mid-afternoon, after school, the two boys, still wearing their official school shirts, hurried from the family SUV through the front door of coffee shop. I watched this little drama from an outside table unfold on a couple of different occasions and became curious as to where the two were going. I took a quick look and saw these two young guys sitting up on their knees in chairs on one side of the table intently sizing up chess moves with the opposition, a senior citizen, who resembled slightly (physically) the 1966 Kentucky coach, Adolph Rupp. The elder was equally intent on the chess game, making an occasional comment as strategic moves unfolded – it was a positive snapshot of the glass more than half full variety.
April 12, 2014 Letter to Editor, Caller Times – Corpus Christi, published.
1966 NCAA Title Game to 2014 Version – A Long Distance Traveled
In 1965 I received a letter from a college friend and basketball teammate who was stationed in the US Army at Fort Bliss in El Paso. He told me that the local college there, Texas Western, now called UTEP where Tim Floyd coaches, had an exceptional basketball team and would be a great to all comers as the season progressed. He was right. He was referring to the team that the then young Don Haskins coached to the 1966 NCAA Championship stopping Kentucky and its legendary program cold in the final game. The match between these two teams had social and historical implications as Texas Western’s team started five African-Americans and the Kentucky Wildcats went with five white players.
The Miners from El Paso had a group of unknown players in their line-up with unique names like Willie Cager, Nevil Shed, Willie Worsley, Big Daddy Lattin and the irrepressible point guard, a blur, lefty Bobby Joe Hill. The legendary Kentucky Wildcats, under the wing of the famous Adolph Rupp, countered with the likes Larry Conley, Louie Dampier, Thad Jaracz and NBA legendary coach to be, Pat Riley. The Miners stopped Kentucky, 72-65, and made basketball history. Bobby Joe stole the Cats blind and Daddy B stormed the boards.
Kentucky signed their first African-American basketball player three years later in 1969, playing his first varsity season in 1970-71. The 7 foot 2 inch Tom Payne, a raw, powerful talent who was named at Southeastern Conference in his sophomore year, but, tragically, after one year with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, has become known more for his prison record than his basketball statistics, having spent over 30 years behind bars for rape.
In 2014, things have changed – it was Kentucky this time which lined up with five African-Americans against a predominantly white team from Wisconsin in the Final Four Semi-Finals in Arlington, Texas at the AT & T Stadium as the culmination to another run of March Madness. Kentucky slipped past Wisconsin, 74-73, on a sensational, fated last second shot from well behind the three point arc. The Badgers matched the Wildcats’ athleticism and the Cats were equal to Wisconsin’s vaunted team play. Both teams did what you have to do to win – score consistently, rebound and make key stops on defense.
Kentucky coach Calipari, with similar aplomb on the sideline to Adolph Rupp himself – only much, much more physically active – chose the strategy of having his players put their head down and drive to the basket at all costs, probably a better plan than Bo Ryan’s swing the ball offense. Opposing coaches Calipari and Ryan had to scream to get the refereeing team’s attention; while Mr. Rupp, The Baron, only used to whisper or snap his fingers to get the same reaction from the zebras. There were a few hard fouls and pushes after whistles, but no fights. There seemed to be little friendly, sportsmanlike communication between the players on the two teams, but also little blatantly hostile interaction. Were the victors humble and the losers respectful – maybe, it was hard to discern what was in their hearts from my front row TV seat.
I loved the game, but had no desire to be among the 80,000 squashed into and sprawled throughout Cowboy Stadium for the double-header and stacked up in the parking lots afterwards. Were most of the people of color across our fruited plain pulling for Kentucky and most white for Kentucky – probably, but not entirely, Kentucky’s fan base is mainly white, yet such a match-up is always more than just a basketball game. The President of the U.S., also African-American, is known to be a basketball fan, but not much of a player, we have learned, and we assume he watched the game from the White House. Of course, he had to remain neutral in his cheering.
Is this scenario not a snapshot of the reality of the progress this country has made and continues to make regarding opportunities for minorities? It seems to be. Not perfect, of course, which it will never be, as much of the call is in the eyes of the beholder (s). But moving in the right direction – seems like a lot of progress since the ’66 Miner-Wildcat NCAA title game.
(by Dave Adkins)