| Indianapolis Star
In a tiny motel room in College Park, Maryland, the Black players had been summoned. They had just finished their pregame meal and Texas Western coach Don Haskins had cornered his big center David Lattin with a demand.
Have all the African American players come to your room. I want to talk to them.
The meeting was swift and to the point. Lattin and roommate Bobby Joe Hill sitting on their beds. Willie Worsley, Harry Flournoy, Orsten Artis, Nevil Shed and Willie Cager standing.
Haskins stormed in, smelling of the cigarettes he’d smoked that day.
“He came into the room and he said, ‘Coach Rupp said in the press conference you couldn’t beat five white guys,'” Lattin said this week. “The only other thing he said was, ‘It’s up to you.’ Then he walked out of my room.”
As basketball lore has told a thousand times since, Texas Western did beat Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats in the 1966 NCAA championship. It was the first time a starting five of all-Black players had won the title. They did it against Kentucky’s all-white squad.
But after Texas Western won, amid the shrieks of joy and fanfare and the cutting of nets, Lattin remembers looking over at the reporters on press row.
“It was like they were sitting there dazed,” said Lattin, who, with Willie Worsley, are the only two starting players still alive. “They didn’t know what to write. It was like they just sat there, ‘What are we going to write about?'”
The historic feat of Texas Western’s win, five Black players and a white coach, and its tie to racial equity didn’t immediately reverberate throughout the country. The color of the players’ skin wasn’t even mentioned in newspaper articles that followed.
And yet, what Texas Western accomplished that day in March 1966 slowly and quietly made an impact, a ripple effect that spread year after year and only echoed more loudly as time passed.
“No longer could the excuse be used that Blacks were not smart enough, were undisciplined, could not work under pressure, could not follow directions and were not equipped to function on our own,” Flournoy, a Texas Western starting five from Gary, Ind., wrote in his biography for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “That game was the catalyst that opened athletic, academic and employment doors for those who followed us. No longer would we be kept out of mainstream America.”
‘They happened to be Black’
The game was played during an era of racial unrest and as the civil rights movement was gaining power.
“I call it a watershed moment in college athletics. It’s like a Jackie Robinson moment,” said Derrick Gragg, the NCAA’s senior vice president for inclusion, education and community engagement. “Without question, it was one of the most significant, impactful college sporting events in the history of our country.”
One year before Texas Western won the NCAA title against Kentucky, 72-65, John Lewis led more than 600 people on a 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, to the state capitol in Montgomery. It was a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday” as white troopers assaulted the Black marchers, beating them with nightsticks, firing tear gas.
Two years before Texas Western went on a 37-minute stretch hitting 26 of 27 shots in that NCAA championship game, Martin Luther King had given his “I Have A Dream” speech.
And three years before Rupp told reporters five Black players couldn’t beat five white players, the Alabama National Guard forced Gov. George Wallace to end his blockade so Black students could enroll at Alabama.
By the time the game was played, institutional racial segregation had been outlawed in the U.S., the result of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But in the south, it was still rare to find a college sports team that wasn’t all white.
Coach Haskins didn’t think that made any sense.
Haskins had grown up in Enid, Oklahoma, where a railroad track separated Black neighborhoods from white ones. On his side of the track, literally right by the track, there was a basketball goal. On the other side of the track sat another goal.
“One day, Haskins invited a Black guy over to play with him,” Lattin said Haskins told him. “That’s how coach Haskins found out Black guys could really play.”
Lattin remembers Haskins telling him so many times about that player. This guy could jump out of the gym. He was so good.
Through the years, before his death in 2008, Haskins repeatedly said he didn’t play an all-Black starting five to make a social statement.
“I wasn’t out to be a pioneer when we played Kentucky,” Haskins told The Los Angeles Times later in his career.
“I was simply playing the best players on the team, and they happened to be Black.”
‘Treated us all the same’
Willie Worsley can’t disagree — Haskins’ starting five were the best players on the team. He was one of them. Worsley is a jokester, who still likes to talk about his glory days, when he won the high school city championship in New York City, which was played in Madison Square Garden.
Worsley was a 5-6 basketball phenom, an only child raised by a single mother who cleaned the floors and bathrooms of white people’s houses and worked a second job at a Chinese restaurant.
Julia Worsley never talked to her son about Black and white, he said. Just about treating people kindly.
“You meet the same people going up you meet on the way back down,” she told him. “If you get too high, it’s a long fall down. If you get too low, it’s a long way back up.”
Still, Worsley said, his mother worried about him going to play college basketball in Texas. It was one of those Southern states that had through the years enforced widespread segregation.
“What the hell is in El Paso?” Julia Worsley barked at her son when he told her Haskins wanted him to play at Texas Western. Two of Worsley’s friends, Cager and Shed, were playing there, too. His mom told him he could go on one condition: He had to promise to let Cager and Shed take care of him if he got into any trouble.
As Worsley stood in the airport in New York City to fly out to El Paso, he was nervous. He had never been on a plane.
A white woman from Queens saw his confusion. She took his hand and walked him through the airport. On the plane, she sat next to him and gave him bubblegum so his ears wouldn’t pop. She held his hand during the flight.
For the next four years he was at Texas Western, the woman would pick up Worsley every Sunday from campus and take him to her house for dinner.
Worsley said he never felt any discrimination being Black in college. “I had it pretty good,” he said. “Even coach.”
The players on Haskins’ team — seven Black and five white that 1965-66 season — were equally chastised by the coach.
“He treated us all the same, like (expletive deleted),” said Worsley. “I say it with love because you couldn’t tell the 12th person from the No. 1 person. He treated us all poor. He loved us.”
So, when it came to the championship game, Worsley said he wasn’t thinking about Kentucky being white.
“Hell no. That was furthest thing from my mind,” he said. “You know what I was thinking about? How I was going to get back to see my mother.”
There were no racial slurs from Kentucky players. No mention of skin color. Even during the game when competition was heated, the trash talk never went there.
Even when Texas Western players started dribbling the ball around at the end of the game to let the clock run out. So they could cut down the nets. Get their watches. Make history.
‘Cross the aisle’
As the 1960s were an explosion of unrest, Pat Riley said college basketball at the time was “the toy department of human affairs when it compared to what was going on in society.”
Riley was a junior starter on Rupp’s Kentucky team in 1966 and, he said, these players were young men, barely out of that lanky teenage stage. They were basketball players, who were still pretty single-minded, focused on basketball.
“We didn’t see Black and white. We wanted to carry that trophy out of there,” he said. “For that moment in (19)66, it was simply about winning a national championship. That was it.”
Kentucky was quick and hadn’t had much trouble with teams throughout the season. They were known as Rupp’s runts. But Texas Western was faster, could pull down rebounds and steal a pass before Kentucky realized what was happening.
“The beating was sound as well as thrilling,” Frank Deford wrote in a “Sports Illustrated” story at the end of March 1966. “Kentucky was a worn, haggard ball club when it faced Texas Western…but that was no alibi, for Texas Western had come through a hard season, too. Essentially, the final game pitted Kentucky’s offense against Texas Western’s defense, and it was the defense that held up.”
Riley has one regret about that game, and it’s not the loss. It’s a regret he once heard Shed voice.
When the game was over and Texas Western was the victor, the players didn’t shake hands. It wasn’t a racial issue at the time. That just didn’t happen in those days of college basketball.
“Nevil (Shed)…I’ll never forget him saying back then,” Riley said. “‘I wish I could have done one thing and I didn’t do it. If we could have just gone over and shook their hands. I wish at that time we could have all just embraced each other.'”
Instead, Kentucky went back to its bench, heads hanging, humbled. Texas Western celebrated.
“We have to cross the aisle. Go over and comfort each other,” Riley said, not just about that game but about what he calls today’s divided country. “It’s just one of those things that sticks out to me about that game.”
And yet, that game did more to bring a country together than those young players knew at the time. It led to the integration of college sports.
“‘I’m so happy to have been a part of it,” Riley said, “even on the losing side.”
‘You can’t measure the importance’
Haskins has been credited for being a white coach who didn’t see color, for coming to Texas Western and aggressively recruiting Black players.
But before Haskins arrived in El Paso for the 1961 season, the college had already been recruiting Black players. It first signed Charlie Brown in 1956. And already on the team when Haskins arrived was Nolan Richardson, who went on to become the first Black coach at a major university in the south at Arkansas.
Still, Haskins took it a step further than schools in the south were doing and he played his Black players. That move by a bearish white man didn’t come without controversy.
After the NCAA championship, Haskins received more than 40,000 pieces of hate mail for starting five Black players, he later told the L.A. Times. The hate came from both sides.
“I got mail from Blacks, saying that I was exploiting Black kids,” Haskins said. “And those letters from the whites in the south, you can just imagine what they said. It was discouraging, but you had to consider the source.”
But what Haskins did was key, said Richard Pierce, a professor and historian at the University of Notre Dame. It had been a goal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for decades.
As early as the 1920s, the NAACP urged Black people to take part in sports, “as a way to demonstrate citizenship, reliability, sportsmanship, all those kinds of character issues,” said Pierce, who studies twentieth century America and specializes in the urban experience of Blacks.
“Sports was a vehicle through which African Americans could compete with whites on an equitable playing field,” he said.
After the NCAA title in 1966, the nation watched the players go to the White House and meet Lyndon B. Johnson. Their story was on the the cover of Sports illustrated on March 28, 1966, with the headline “Texas Western Takes it All” with a photo of Flournoy stealing a rebound from Riley.
“People got to see this for the first time,” said Gragg. “You can’t measure the importance of this game and the outcome of it.”
Just wanted to win
The night before that team meeting of Black players in his motel room, Lattin sat at the Cole Field House with his team and watched the first half of the Kentucky-Duke game.
Then Haskins turned to them and said they needed to go to bed, to rest up.
“Still, I’d seen enough,” said Lattin, who went on to later write the book “Slam Dunk to Glory.” “I kind of understood what we were getting into.”
Lattin isn’t talking about a team of white Kentucky players. He is talking about a team of aggressive, good players.
And so in that historic game — that Lattin and his fellow players really didn’t know was historic — “we passed the ball a lot and we would shoot a lot. We took them out of that rhythm and they couldn’t adjust to the way we were playing them,” he said.
Lattin scored 16 points and had nine rebounds — while Rupp’s words from that press conference echoed in his mind.
Those words, though, he never once felt on the court in that game.
“No one from Kentucky ever said anything racist. The players did not feel the way the coach felt,” he said. “The players were just out there, doing what we were doing. Trying to win a basketball game.”