A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis...
Credit Texas Western
You can’t make a movie about four black guys starting for a college basketball team in the 1960s, which is why George Wilson will never be a movie star. It has to be five black guys, a starting five. And they have to beat all-white Kentucky in the national championship game.
Then you get your movie.
“Glory Road” comes out Jan. 13. It’s about the 1966 Texas Western team that took down Adolph Rupp’s UK club and, not coincidentally, a senseless barrier. You say you want a revolution? Don’t bring bombs. Athletes will do.
Rupp wanted white boys on his team, but he wanted to win more. Same as Bear Bryant, four years later. Bryant didn’t integrate football at Alabama; Sam “Bam” Cunningham, a Southern Cal fullback, did. Cunningham did more to integrate the South than a month of Martin Luther King Jr. days. After Cunningham destroyed the all-white Tide Sept. 12, 1970, Bryant brought him into his Crimson-faced locker room and said, paraphrasing, “Boys, this is what a football player looks like.”
Texas Western coach Don Haskins wasn’t looking to be a basketball pioneer. He wasn’t seeking space in some sociology textbook. He just wanted to win. The blacks he recruited to Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) were better than anybody else. The movie will celebrate the mountains sports can move. George Wilson can’t wait to see it. He also thinks our sight needs to be broadened.
Everybody gets amnesia,” said Wilson. For the amnesiacs out there, Wilson starred at UC from 1962-64.
“The ’62 team won a national title. It also had four black starters: Wilson, Tony Yates, Tom Thacker and Paul Hogue. UC could have been Texas Western four years earlier, if the Bearcats had started five blacks.
That assumes the team had five blacks. It didn’t.
“Four blacks, four starters,” Wilson said Friday.
There was an unspoken rule back then. Wilson and Oscar Robertson attribute it to the Boston Celtics, but it applied to college teams as well:
Two at home, four on the road.
Starting two blacks at home was acceptable. Four on the road was deemed OK. So it was that George Wilson didn’t start until the eighth game of his sophomore season (freshmen were ineligible then) at the Holiday Festival in New York.
Years later someone asked him, given his credentials as a first-team high school all-American, why he hadn’t picked Kentucky over UC. Wilson got a big kick out of that. “In 1960,” he explained, “I had a better chance of becoming pope than going to Kentucky.”
Haskins gave scholarships to blacks that weren’t offered elsewhere. He can’t recall if the title game was the first game he used an all-black lineup, and he didn’t think much of it when he did. “I was just wondering who could guard Louie Dampier and Pat Riley,” he said.
It hit Haskins soon after the championship game, in the form of a hate-mail barrage that left him stunned and saddened.
“There probably wasn’t a person who won a national championship who enjoyed it less than I did,” Haskins said Thursday. Haskins said his team had been cursed during the season. “I had a rule: During the game, if I ever turned around, get me out of there. If I never turned around, (players) couldn’t turn around. Whatever was said, was said on deaf ears.”
When it comes to changing racial perceptions, the ’66 title game ranks with any event in sports history. It opened scholarship doors for black athletes everywhere and, by extension, improved the level of play across the board. For three decades, the notion of playing “too many” blacks has been absurd.
What Haskins started, John Wooden furthered. As Robertson says, “What really pushed African-Americans to fully integrate was UCLA. Other teams had one black player, maybe two. Coach Wooden got five and six. And they won.”
Said Harry Flournoy, one of the starters on that ’66 team, “I see people all the time (who) tell me how much that game helped them become who they were. I’m proud to have been a part of that. It couldn’t have been done by anybody but the group of guys we had.”
Wilson sees Thacker, Yates and Hogue all the time. He plays poker with Hogue every Friday night. All four still live here. Wilson will see “Glory Road.” He thinks he might like to see it with Thacker, Yates and Hogue.
That’d be fitting.
And he wonders how that ’62 title team would have done playing 4-on-5. Not bad, he guesses. What a movie that would have made.