More than 50 years after winning the NCAA men’s basketball championship, the legacy of Texas Western (now UTEP) lives on.
“After they won (others) had the ability to go to these major university because the doors opened up for them. And that was the impact nationwide,” said Tina Hill, the widow of Miners starting guard Bobby Joe Hill. “These kids now have so much to be thanfkul for. And they have the talent. But they also have this as a stepping stone. They can always look back and say, ‘This is where we came from.’”
They came from El Paso, Texas, to play basketball. But they won more than a game on March 19, 1966. Prejudice also went down to defeat in a transformational triumph for civil rights.
There's nothing remarkable today about an all-black starting lineup. But it made history when the Miners beat all-white Kentucky 72-65. They became the first all-black starting lineup to win the men's basketball national title.
The game changed everything, as Bob McAdoo told Pat Riley when he joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981. "He told me how much the game meant," Riley said, "how it opened up the world for black kids in the South.”
For Riley, who played for that Kentucky team, it was the worst night of his basketball life. McAdoo gave him a new appreciation of the game's larger impact.
“I guess I never really thought of it that way, that we were such a big part of history,” Riley said. “The loss remains. I’ve never felt emptier ... but I’m proud to have taken part in something that changed so many other people’s lives.”
The Miners remain the only Texas team to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. They were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and inspired the book and film Glory Road.
SIMPLY PLAYING THE BEST PLAYERS
In the mid-1950s, Texas Western was the first public college in a southern state to integrate its athletic teams. But it wasn’t until the Miners’ victory in 1966 that the doors to integration opened wider.
Two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public schools, Texas Western overturned the ridiculous premise that a basketball team couldn’t win without at least one white starter on the floor.
A year after the Miners’ victory, the Southeastern Conference — with 10 of 11 schools in former Confederate states — admitted its first black basketball player. However, Kentucky’s roster remained all-white until 1969.
But from 1966-85, according to the NCAA, the average number of blacks on college teams increased from 2.9 to 5.7.
“I hadn’t thought of it as putting an all-black team on the court,” said Don Haskins, the Miners coach who died in 2008. “I was simply playing the best players I had. It’s what I had done all year. Then we came home, and the hate mail started pouring in. Thousands of letters, from all over the South.”
Undaunted, the Miners nearly went unbeaten that season. They finished 28-1, losing by two points in the regular-season finale at Seattle University. In the 22-team NCAA Tournament, the No. 3 Miners beat Cincinnati 78-76 in overtime to reach the Midwest Regional final, then beat No. 4 Kansas 81-80 in double overtime to reach the Final Four.
THE BETTER TEAM WON
An 85-78 victory against Utah in the national semifinals put the Miners in the national championship against Adolph Rupp’s No. 1 Wildcats. “Rupp’s Runts” featured no player taller than 6-5 in the starting lineup.
“It was more about young guys trying to prove who was the better team,” said Willie Worsley, a sophomore guard, “not to prove who was the better color.”
The Miners were clearly the better team. Their victory against the Wildcats was more convincing than the score indicated — they led by as many as 17 points.
“Our easiest games in that tournament were the first one, against Oklahoma City, and the last one, against Kentucky,” said Orsten Artis, a senior guard.
Rupp blamed his team's loss on illness, inept shooting, the referees — never acknowledging the Miners as the better team. In 1972, Kentucky lost the final game of the Rupp era to Florida State. The Wildcats were again all-white. The Seminoles started five black players.
“No one will remember him without remembering us,” said Harry Flournoy, a senior forward for the Miners. “And I guess there is a certain justice to that.”