JACKI LYDEN, host:
It's been 40 years since the unheralded Texas Western College beat powerhouse University of Kentucky, for the men's college basketball championships. The game proved to be an important moment in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the story of Texas Western has never been told to a mass audience, that is, until this weekend. The film "Glory Road" opened yesterday in theaters around the country. It's about the Texas Western team and coach who won a title and broke down racial barriers in the process. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN reporting:
There's a scene early in "Glory Road" where one of the characters talks about the racial makeup of most college basketball teams at the time. `Loading up on Negroes,' he says, `it just isn't done.'
Indeed, during the 1965-'66 season, three of the country's premiere conferences, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern and Southwest, had a grand total of one African-American playing varsity basketball. James Gartner directed "Glory Road."
Mr. JAMES GARTNER (Director, "Glory Road"): And so, along comes this man, of course, Don Haskins, who violated expectations to a large degree.
GOLDMAN: Don Haskins was the head coach at tiny Texas Western, a non-conference independent school. Like all men in his position, he wanted to win. Unlike all coaches at the time, Haskins was willing to do whatever it took.
Mr. MOE IBA (Former Assistant Coach, Texas Western): He got players that he thought could win basketball games, and he didn't care about the color.
GOLDMAN: That's Moe Iba, a former Texas Western assistant coach. Over a four-year-period he recruited most of the players on the 1966 championship team. Iba is white and his travels took him into predominantly black neighborhoods in Detroit and New York City. During those racially charged times, he says not all residents welcomed him.
Mr. IBA: I was told, you know, to be sure to come in the afternoon and be sure I was out of there by night. If there was any problem, you announced that you were a basketball coach and you were recruiting, and everybody would leave you alone.
GOLDMAN: The recruiting message was a promise of Division I basketball and an education. Nevil Shed signed up. He was from the South Bronx and arriving in El Paso, he says, was like landing on the moon.
Mr. NEVIL Shed (Former Player, Texas Western): And not knowing anything about Texas itself or oil wells, steers or looking for people in cowboy boots, it was definitely a culture shock. But, you know, the main thing of it is that during the times we knew all the struggles and racism and everything, I went down there at first on guard.
GOLDMAN: Texas Western's seven black players encountered racism on the road, but Shed says he was surprised and relieved to be treated well in El Paso. He and the others soon realized their toughest challenge would be playing for a tough-as-nails disciplinarian basketball coach.
(Soundbite from "Glory Road")
Unidentified Man: (As Bobby Joe Hill) Hey, coach, I can't go no more!
Mr. JOSH LUCAS: (As Coach Haskins): I think you can go some more. You've got energy for all kind of nonsense instead of demonstrating some respect and being a leader!
GOLDMAN: In this scene from "Glory Road," Coach Haskins, played by Josh Lucas, makes star player Bobby Joe Hill run stairs at the Texas Western football stadium after Hill violates Haskins' rule of no fraternizing with young women.
(Soundbite from "Glory Road")
Mr. LUCAS: (As Coach Haskins): I never was the greatest player, and when I see the talent you've got and I see you wasting it ticks me off. Now if you couldn't get in the gym, there'd be nothing for us to talk about. But times are different. You're in the gym, Bobby. And if you're in the gym, you step out on that floor, you'd better respect my father, you'd better respect me and you'd better respect yourself and play some basketball.
GOLDMAN: Bobby Joe Hill and his teammates played dazzling basketball through that '65-'66 season largely because the unyielding Don Haskins yielded a bit. Realizing his walk-the-ball-up-the-court strategy wasn't always going to work with this team, Haskins loosened the reins. The Miners began running more using what Nevil Shed calls the poetic passing and fantastic dribbling many of them learned on their big-city playgrounds.
Texas Western lost one game during the regular season and on March 19th, 1966, found itself matched against basketball royalty in the championship game. The Miners would play the University of Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp. Texas Western's big man was David Lattin. In later years, he changed the pronunciation to La-TEEN. He remembers the white bus driver who drove the Miners to the game.
Mr. DAVID LATTIN (Former Player, Texas Western): And he was saying to me, `Why are you guys playing this game tonight? Do you know who you're playing against? Why don't you just get back on the bus, go back to the hotel and forget it?'
GOLDMAN: Why? Because the Miners believed they could win. They were bigger, faster and, arguably, hungrier for victory. Haskins told the Miners that only the team's seven black players would play. That would be historic. There had never before been an all-black starting lineup in an NCAA championship game. Haskins has long stated he chose to use his black players because they were his best. He'd done it before during the season. But the movie implies Haskins was making a statement. David Lattin thinks so. He remembers Haskins calling the Miners together before the title game and telling them Kentucky coach Rupp had said at a press conference that five black players couldn't beat Rupp's all-white team.
Mr. LATTIN: And he didn't say anything else after that other than `It's up to you.' Then he walked out of the room.
GOLDMAN: Kentucky players insist they never heard racial comments from Rupp, who died in 1977. Haskins was too ill to be interviewed for this story. The truth is elusive. Did Rupp make the statement? If he did, was Haskins motivated by conscience or did he simply want to fire up his team? Whatever the reason, it worked on Lattin and teammate Bobby Joe Hill, moments after Haskins left their room.
Mr. LATTIN: Bobby looked at me and said, `Listen, man, we are not going to lose this game.' I said, `Hey, I know we're not going to lose this game.'
GOLDMAN: Lattin's thunderous dunk early in the game set the tone. Texas Western won, 72-to-65, thanks to Bobby Joe Hill's game-high 20 points and the kind of tough defense Haskins always preached. Players on both sides say the game was hard-fought and insist there was no racial tension. Afterwards, Kentucky's star guard, Louie Dampier, went into the Miners' locker room to congratulate the winners.
Mr. LOUIE DAMPIER (Former Player, Kentucky): A disc jockey in El Paso must have said something on the air, and I got about a hundred letters from their fans telling me that they appreciate what I did.
GOLDMAN: Media accounts of the game from The New York Times to Sports Illustrated to prominent black newspapers like The Chicago Defender, mentioned nothing about an all-black lineup beating a team of white players. But the significance was unavoidable. Texas Western had obliterated the myth that black athletes don't have the skill or poise to win if they don't have help from white athletes. Later that year, the first black player joined the Southwest Conference. The following season, the Southeastern Conference was integrated. And as the years rolled by, Nevil Shed encountered more and more people like the black pro football player who came up to Shed in an airport.
Mr. SHED: He said, `My father was a great athlete and did not have a chance or the opportunity to really go and perform the things that he did so well. But what you did, winning that national championship, it opened the doors to allow athletes like me to go to any school of their choice. And I want to thank you for that.'
GOLDMAN: Chances are, Nevil Shed will have a lot more interactions like that one now that "Glory Road" is out. Does it bother him that it took Hollywood four decades to catch on? Forty years late, he says, but then again, 40 years right on time.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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