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Monday, May 22, 2006

And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Blacks in Basketball

I have yet to see "Glory Road," a Disney movie based on the true story of the 1966 NCAA men's basketball championship game, in which then Texas Western (Now Texas at El Paso -- their basketball web page has a 40th anniversary headline), with five black starters, (the white coach said that he started his best players) beat Kentucky's fabled Wildcats. The movie presumably gives a lot of background.

I have read And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Basketball Game that Changed American Sports, about this game, by Frank Fitzpatrick, thanks to one of my daughters. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1999) This book is, most likely, more accurate than the movie.

A previous post dealt with race in basketball. In it, I cited national columnist George F. Will, who pointed out that there had already been NCAA men's champions who started a majority of black players, and that Texas Western was ranked number 3, so its win shouldn't have been much of a surprise. Yet, as Fitzpatrick indicates, it was a surprise, and it did make a difference. He interviewed a number of black athletes, and many of them said that this game motivated them to strive for success in (then) white-dominated big-college athletics. He also documents how the result of the game changed big-time college basketball. (Kentucky's last championship came with a black coach, Tubby Smith.) There had been a perception that blacks were too dumb to play point guard successfully.

The book details racism in many places, and indicates that there wasn't much of it in El Paso at that time. It indicates what happened to the players from the Texas Western team. (All of them have gone on to successful careers. Most of them graduated from college.) It tells what happened to Adolph Rupp, the coach of Kentucky, and Don Haskins, the coach of then Texas Western. It also indicates that Texas Western's style wasn't freelance playground-type basketball, but disciplined, careful play, as was Kentucky's.

Prejudice dies hard. Although there is still some prejudice in men's athletics, much of that is gone, thank God. Much of this, and most of the next, generation of coaches, athletic directors, and general managers in big colleges and the NBA will be black. There should always be a place for good players, and good thinkers, in basketball, based on their ability, regardless of their race. The same should be true in other sports, and in the more important world outside of sport.

Pat Riley, currently the coach of the Miami Heat, who are about to start their series for the NBA Eastern championship, was one of the stars of the Kentucky Wildcats, in the 1966 season.

Thanks for reading.

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