Today, there’s nothing remarkable about an all-black starting lineup in basketball — the greatest testament to Texas Western’s NCAA championship 50 years ago.
The Miners made history with the first all-black starting lineup to win the men’s basketball national title, defeating all-white Kentucky, 72-65, on March 19, 1966 in College Park, Md. Two years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed racial segregation in public schools, Texas Western overturned the ridiculous premise that a team couldn’t win without at least one white starter.
Prejudice went down to defeat in a transformational triumph for civil rights.
When Bob McAdoo joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 1981, Pat Riley recalled, “he told me how much the game meant, how it changed everything, how it opened up the world for black kids in the South.”
Riley, the former Lakers head coach, played for that Kentucky team. “I guess I never really thought of it that way, that we were such a big part of history,” he said. “The loss remains. I’ve never felt emptier. It was the worst night of my basketball life, but I’m proud to have taken part in something that changed so many other people’s lives.”
In the mid-1950s, Texas Western — now UTEP — 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.
A year after the Miners’ victory, the Southeastern Conference — with 10 of 11 schools in former Confederate states — admitted its first black basketball player, though Kentucky’s roster remained all-white until 1969. 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. They finished 28-1, losing by two points in the regular-season finale at Seattle. In the 22-team NCAA Tournament, the No. 3 Miners beat Cincinnati in overtime to reach the Midwest Regional final, then beat No. 4 Kansas in double overtime to reach the Final Four.
A 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 for the Miners, “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 for the Miners.
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.”
The Miners remain the only Texas team to win the NCAA men’s basketball championship. The team was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and inspired the book and film Glory Road.
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