After 50 years, Miners’ historic victory still resonates in basketball

What did I do?

Don Haskins, the late Hall of Fame basketball coach, was having a conversation with one of his star pupils — Nolan Richardson, Arkansas’ “40 Minutes of Hell” coach — a few years before Haskins died in 2008. Over coffee and huevos rancheros at Lucy’s Cafe near campus, Haskins asked Richardson why Texas Western College’s 72-65 NCAA basketball championship win over Kentucky in 1966 had captivated a nation.

What did I do?

Fifty years have passed since the then-unheard-of Miners used a historic all-black starting five to defeat the all-white Wildcats in the NCAA championship game at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House.

What did Haskins do? He made history.

“Coach Haskins never seemed to realize what he had done,” Richardson said last week, recalling that conversation at Lucy’s. “I told him history will someday tell him the story.”

All Haskins did, Richardson recalled his old coach say, was play the best players he had. But Richardson knows better.

“I know what Don Haskins did because I am an African-American,” said Richardson, who played for Haskins from 1961 to 1964. “I know what my coach did for the game and for our society.”

Texas Western’s iconic victory still resonates at the old college, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso. When the players from that 1966 team gathered for a reunion during the UTEP-Western Kentucky game in February, some 12,222 spectators witnessed a double-overtime victory at the Don Haskins Center. It was the team’s only sellout of the season.

“I honestly feel the love affair El Pasoans have with that 1966 basketball team will never fade,” said Eddie Mullens, who was the school’s sports information director for the ’66 team. “To many, many citizens, this is one of the greatest things ever in the city’s history.”

‘We thought we were better than Kentucky’

David “Big Daddy D” Lattin didn’t understand the impact that Texas Western’s victory would have in El Paso until the team returned home the day after it had dethroned Kentucky. The pilot circled the gate twice to give players and coaches on both sides of the plane a chance to see the crowd, which was estimated at 10,000 strong.

The university’s orange-and-white-clad band played the team fight song as players walked down the steps of the plane. Some held banners welcoming their heroes home. Players took turns holding the championship trophy aloft. It was a moment shared by a city that still boasts about its 1966 Miners, who finished the year 28-1, won the national championship, changed college basketball and, in 2007, were inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame. The entire team.

It was the start of a party that continued for an hourlong parade before a crowd of thousands on Montana Avenue, a large artery near the El Paso International Airport.

“There is a relationship between the fans and the team and what we had accomplished,” said Lattin, who is retired and lives in Houston. “Had we not won the national championship, I think the people would have still embraced us. Probably not to the same magnitude. It’s gone from generation to generation, and then the movie (“Glory Road,” 2006) came out. That instilled even more pride to a fan base that had already been amazing.”

Texas Western-Kentucky was anything but an ordinary game. These were the four-time NCAA champion Wildcats, part of the blue-blood establishment of college basketball. Kentucky was coached by an icon of its own, Adolph Rupp, who often said a black man would never play on one of his teams.

“Adolph Rupp was saying a lot of stuff about us. We used that for inspiration,” said Harry Flournoy, a forward for the Miners. “Our mindset was that we were going to win. We had no other thought. We thought we were better than Kentucky.”

Joe Gomez, a Texas Western freshman that year, watched the championship game at his fraternity house on a black-and-white TV that required rabbit ears and a flag made of aluminum foil to get decent reception.

“People at Texas Western have pride because this was the town’s school,” Gomez said. “Pride is just as strong now, and we all know we’re still the only school from the state of Texas ever to win the national championship.”

‘Coach worked the snot out of you’

“Don Haskins — I hated that SOB!”

Nevil “The Shadow” Shed, Texas Western’s 6-9 center, did not hold back any emotions while speaking about his early years with Haskins. Shed, Willie Worsley and Willie Cager were lured to El Paso from New York City by ace recruiter Moe Iba to be coached by a man known around El Paso as “The Bear.” It was a culture shock for three young men accustomed to high-rise buildings to find themselves in a desert oasis.

“I was his whipping dog,” said Shed, now a retired educator living in San Antonio. “Coach would always get the most out of you without killing your spirit. He growled but never cursed. He’d say things like, ‘Nevil, you’re such a wild man’ or ‘Nevil, you’re nothing but a big girl!’ ”

Haskins was old school. He believed in hard practices with no water breaks. He often would tell Shed and Bobby Joe Hill, his superstar point guard from Detroit, to quit if they didn’t like it. Haskins knew they had nowhere else to go.

In 1966, Texas Western’s starting five — Hill, Lattin, Worsley, Flournoy and Orsten Artis — were good enough to play at Duke or even Kentucky. But blacks weren’t allowed to play basketball in Southern-based conferences, including the Southwest, Southeastern and Atlantic Coast leagues.

Haskins, who was 37 years old when he won the NCAA title, thrived in El Paso, with its rich Hispanic culture and a bustling military presence in Fort Bliss, the country’s second-largest Army installation. He was given a new pickup truck from a local dealership before each season. The back of the truck was used to store coyote carcasses, guns and empty beer cans. There was nothing more beautiful or peaceful than a West Texas sunset far removed from downtown noise, he used to say.

But Haskins, an avid outdoorsman who took yearly hunting trips with Indiana coach Bobby Knight and New Mexico’s Norm Ellenberger, was all business when he stepped onto a basketball court, his players said.

“When you work out for four hours a day, you don’t have much time for anything else. Coach worked the snot out of you,” said Togo Railey, one of Texas Western’s four white players that season. “On our down time we might play a little pool, go across the border into Juárez or shoot pool.”

Shed softened his stance on Haskins after he graduated. And Haskins lightened up as well, helping Shed land his first job after college. Shed, who later coached under Haskins at UTEP, referred to him as “my big daddy.”

“When Coach Haskins died, you would have thought the president of the United States had passed away,” Shed said. “In my eulogy, I spoke about how great this man was. As young men, it was gratifying to play for him, even though he was hard on us.”

The state’s gold standard — still

Lattin, 72, is the only player from the ’66 team who experienced professional success. Selected in the first round of the 1967 draft by the San Francisco Warriors, he spent two years in the NBA before jumping to the old American Basketball Association for three more seasons. He also played with the Harlem Globetrotters.

With no Texas team playing in this weekend’s Final Four in Houston, Texas Western’s status as the only team from the state to win an NCAA championship remains unchanged.

A source of pride? Absolutely, Lattin said.

Two of Lattin’s best friends are Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Hall of Famers who became household names when they starred for the University of Houston’s Phi Slama Jama teams of the 1980s.

Houston was an overwhelming favorite to win the 1983 championship until the Guy Lewis-coached Cougars ran into North Carolina State and coach Jim Valvano. The Wolfpack rallied in the second half and won 54-52 on a last-second dunk by Lorenzo Charles in what some say is the greatest upset in NCAA Tournament history.

“We’ll go out for sushi sometimes, and I kid them every time I see them,” Lattin said of Olajuwon and Drexler. “They knew they should have won that game.”

One true shining moment — for America

Texas Western’s victory was probably the nation’s biggest cultural watershed moment since Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947.

This was 1966, the height of the civil rights movement. The mid-’60s brought nightly TV images of the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr., LBJ, street riots and space exploration. Closer to home, CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite informed America that Charles Whitman had shot and killed more than a dozen people from atop the University of Texas Tower.

On March 18 — the day before the national championship game — Haskins huddled his team and revealed that he would use only the black players against Kentucky. The Wildcats, known as Rupp’s Runts, had no one taller than 6-5. The coach’s move was to minimize a quickness advantage that Kentucky had over most opponents.

On game night, Haskins demanded that Lattin dunk the ball with brute force on the first offensive possession to establish momentum. Lattin obliged, giving the Miners a quick 2-0 lead with a monster slam over All-America forward Pat Riley. It set an early tone.

Hill showed his defensive quickness by making consecutive steals that turned into easy layups. These were the key moments on grainy TV film that have endured over time. Riley, who went on to play and coach for the Los Angeles Lakers, has often said the game was not as close as the 72-65 score might indicate.

Hill led the Miners with 20 points. Lattin contributed 16 points and nine rebounds, and Artis scored 15 points. Riley and guard Louie Dampier scored 19 points apiece for the Wildcats.

After the game, Riley walked into Texas Western’s locker room to congratulate the victorious Miners. He was followed by Dampier, who went on to a 12-year professional career with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels and San Antonio Spurs.

“Pat Riley was a great player and an even better person,” said Miners guard Jerry Armstrong, one of the team’s best defensive players.

“The Kentucky players could not have been classier after the game,” recalled Flournoy, who played only six minutes — long enough, though, to make Sports Illustrated’s cover the following week — after hurting a knee.

Once more, with feeling

The 1966 team was scheduled to be honored at halftime of Saturday night’s Final Four semifinal between North Carolina and Syracuse. Mullens predicted that this will be the last time the ol’ gang will be together. After 50 years, how many reunions can be left?

“Let’s face it: None of us are getting any younger,” Mullens said.

Shed joked, “At our gathering in El Paso (on Feb. 6), we were all comparing pills and pot bellies.”

Gomez, who organized reunions for the 20-, 25- and 50-year anniversaries, also was partly responsible for organizing a trip to the White House after the release of “Glory Road” 10 years ago. Texas Western players and coaches watched the film with President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush at their private theater.

Of the 20 starters on this year’s Final Four squads of Oklahoma, Villanova, Syracuse and North Carolina, 17 are African-American. Among them is Oklahoma forward Khadeem Lattin, the 6-9 grandson of Texas Western’s star power forward. North Carolina, which did not permit blacks to play in 1966, is the only team with five black starters.

Oklahoma’s Lattin said he understands the legacy that his grandfather helped create a half-century ago.

“He definitely took the blunt force of a lot of the negativity and all that, and paved the road for us,” Lattin told The Associated Press in March. “Now my job is to make it even longer and stretch it even further. My job is to carry on that lineage.”

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