Monday, April 4, 2016

Paving Stones

I was simply playing the best players I had.
It was what I had done all year.
- Don "The Bear" Haskins

Contrary to popular belief (at least a belief popular in the general area of Boulder, Colorado), the 2015-16 men's college basketball season did not end in the late afternoon of Thursday, March 17.  It ends this evening - in Houston, Texas, where the 2016 National Championship Game will be played. Apparently, they continued playing the tournament even after the Buffaloes' loss to U. Conn.  Who knew?

You are to be forgiven if among the things to which you pay little to no attention this evening is the racial composition of the rosters of the two teams.  Here, just past the mid-point of the second decade of the twenty-first century, we have grown used to seeing youngsters of various ethnic backgrounds and nationalities wearing the uniform of the same school.  

A particular amount of time may be short or long, depending upon one's perspective and the point of view from which it is viewed.  In terms of the history of the planet, fifty years is but an eye-blink.  However, when viewed through the prism of a human being's life expectancy, fifty years is slightly less than two generations.  Same number of years viewed from two markedly different perspectives. The number remains fixed.  It is the way in which it is looked at that makes the difference.    

Fifty years ago - actually slightly more than fifty years ago because once upon a lifetime ago "March Madness" actually began and ended in March - history was made in the Men's National Championship Basketball Game, which was played on March 19, 1966 at Cole Field House at the University of Maryland.  On that evening, the underdog Texas Western College Miners - coached by Don Haskins - upset Adolph Rupp's top-ranked University of Kentucky Wildcats to capture the title. Although Texas Western's victory was then - and remains to this day - the only Division I men's basketball title ever won by a Texas university or college - the result was not (and is not) the historically significant part of the evening.  

Don Haskins had arrived in El Paso, Texas following the 1960-61 season as the head basketball coach at Texas Western, which at the time of his arrival played its games in the Border Conference.  Haskins, from Enid, Oklahoma, made an immediate impact upon his arrival.  From 1961-62 through 1964-65 (the year prior to the Miners' championship season) his teams won 78 games, lost just 25, and qualified for post-season play three times (2 NCAA Tournament appearances and 1 NIT appearance).  In 1965-66, the Miners clicked on all cylinders.  They finished the regular season 23-1 and ranked #3 in the Associated Press's final regular-season poll.  

Haskins was somewhat of an anomaly as a college basketball coach in the early 1960's - especially one who coached south of the Mason-Dixon Line - in that he actively recruited players of all races and from all over the United States.  It was not a white thing or a black thing for Don Haskins, it was a basketball thing.  His 1965-66 team had seven African-American players, four Caucasian players, and one Hispanic player

In the mid-1960's, Adolph Rupp's Kentucky team was among the nation's best.  During his long, illustrious career in Lexington, Coach Rupp's teams won four NCAA Division I National Championships, although the last of his four titles had come almost a decade earlier.  Kentucky finished the 1965-66 season with a record of 23-1 and was the #1 ranked team in the Associated Press's final regular-season poll.  

Kentucky's 1965-66 team was not blessed with height.  It was however, long on talent.  Among its starting five were Larry Conley, Louie Dampier, and Pat Riley.  Integration had not yet come to the Southeastern Conference - in which Kentucky played - and the Cats' starting five - and its entire roster - was comprised of white players.  

On March 19, 1966, for the first time in the NCAA Division I National Championship Game, a team that started five white players competed against a team that started five African-American players.  That night, Haskins played only seven of his twelve Miners - his seven African-American players - even after one of his better players, Harry Flournoy was injured in the first half and unable to return to the game.  Generally speaking, a coach who dramatically shortens his bench in a championship game opens himself up to being second-guessed if his team loses.  The Miners ensured that their coach would not be subjected to any second-guessing.  

At or about the halfway point of the first half, Texas Western seized the lead.  They never relinquished it.  At halftime, Texas Western led Kentucky by three points.  The final margin was seven, 72-65.    

Don Haskins never coached in another NCAA Division I Championship Game.  But he never left El Paso, Texas either.  Texas Western College - in 1967 - became "The University of Texas, El Paso" ("UTEP") and the Bear prowled the sidelines for the Miners until his retirement at the end of the 1998-99 season.  During his career, he won 719 games and lost only 353, which worked out to a tidy .671 winning percentage.  Coach Haskins died on September 7, 2008, at 78 years of age.  Of course, he died in El Paso.  

In the four-plus decades that followed the game, Don Haskins consistently and repeatedly rebuffed an effort to credit him for his role in championing civil rights in the arena of college athletics.  His decision to start five African-American players was one of strategy, not of sociology.  So he said.  

David Lattin (Texas Western) 
dunking over Pat Riley (Kentucky)

Irrespective of why he did what he did on that March night fifty years ago, the significance of what happened that night resonated with the young men from both teams.  

May it continue to do so.  Not simply for them but for us. 

There's always somebody, a group,
who has the courage to pave the way,
to overcome certain things and to
make it better for other people. 
- Pat Riley 


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