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'Glory Road,' fiction & reality

| Sunday, Jan. 22, 2006


A Division I college basketball program is not the sort of enterprise easily confused with a seminary or a seminar on ethics. But according to what is currently America's most popular movie, 40 years ago one such program became a nation-shaking, history-shaping moral force.

The movie, although not too noble to palter with facts, is no more parsimonious with the truth than movies often are when turning history into entertainment.

"Glory Road" celebrates the 1965-66 basketball team of Texas Western College (which in 1967 became the University of Texas, El Paso). The Miners included seven black players, most recruited far from mining country -- the South Bronx; Gary, Ind.; and other mostly urban places. The drama was that five of them started the 1966 NCAA championship game that Texas Western won, beating an all-white University of Kentucky team, 72-65.

The game was not quite, as the movie insists, David against Goliath. Granted, the Kentucky Wildcats, then college basketball's aristocrats, were college basketball's winningest team in the 1940s and '50s. But Texas Western had lost only one game and was ranked third in the nation as the tournament began.

The game's racial dimension looks much larger in retrospect than it did then. In the movie, a Texas Western official urges coach Don Haskins to abide by an unwritten rule: play one black at home and two on the road -- three if behind. And another white character scoffs at the idea that blacks might be "the future" of basketball. But Ron Rapoport of the Chicago Sun-Times notes:

A decade before the game that supposedly changed basketball, the undefeated 1955-56 University of San Francisco team won the NCAA championship with a team that played four blacks -- Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Hal Perry and Gene Brown. In 1958 the coaches' All-American team was all black -- Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas, Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati, Bob Boozer of Kansas State, Guy Rodgers of Temple and Elgin Baylor of Seattle. In 1962, the University of Cincinnati started four black players when it won the NCAA championship, and Loyola University of Chicago started four when it won in 1963.

Frank Deford, a distinguished writer, covered the Texas Western-Kentucky game for Sports Illustrated and did not mention the fact of five black starters. Neither did The New York Times or The Washington Post. Already the ascendancy of blacks in basketball was such that the four best players in the NBA were Chamberlain, Russell, Baylor and Robertson.

In the movie, Haskins tells his team the day before the game that he will play only black players the next night -- he used all seven -- in order to make a social statement. But former Georgetown coach John Thompson, a black man famous for his bluntness, minced no words when talking to Eddie Einhorn for a book, "How March Became Madness," a history of the NCAA tournament, that Einhorn is publishing next month (with Rapoport's collaboration). Thompson told Einhorn that Haskins said his only goal was to win, so he played his best players.

And what of the movie scene where the players' motel rooms are trashed and racist epithets are painted on the walls• One of the players, Nevil Shed, recently told Sporting News columnist Dave Kindred, "Could have happened." Kindred calls that Shed's way of handling "the fiction."

Although the movie shows Haskins emphasizing basketball fundamentals and telling the players that "showboating is nothing but insecurity," the movie also makes much of the black players successfully seeking his permission for the more flamboyant style of play they learned on city asphalt. This much is true: Between 1967 and 1976 the NCAA banned dunk shots, even during warm-ups. What do you suppose that was about?

In his just-published "At Canaan's Edge: America in the King Years, 1965-68," Taylor Branch writes that when in 1950 Kentucky lost to City College of New York's integrated team, Kentucky's Legislature flew the flag at the Capitol at half-staff. Two months after the 1966 championship game, a black player received an athletic scholarship from one of Kentucky's Southeastern Conference rivals, Vanderbilt. Kentucky's coach, Adolph Rupp, was born in 1901 and probably was not much different from his peers in his time and place.

According to Branch, Rupp complained of incessant calls from his university president: "That (expletive) wants me to get some (expletive) in here. What am I gonna do?" But Kentucky had no black professor until 1965.

When Rupp retired in 1972 his team was all white. Today Kentucky has a black coach, Tubby Smith, whose 15-man team includes 10 blacks. They play in Rupp Arena.

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