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Originally published Tuesday, January 10, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Texas Western's crown helped open doorways

I was sitting near the top of Cole Field House in the first half when Bobby Joe Hill cleanly picked Louie Dampier near midcourt and drove...

Seattle Times staff columnist

I was sitting near the top of Cole Field House in the first half when Bobby Joe Hill cleanly picked Louie Dampier near midcourt and drove for the layup that stunned Dampier, Kentucky and the crowd and tilted that NCAA championship game toward Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso).

It was the first of many Final Fours I would be fortunate to witness and it was a play that 40 years later still loops on a mental highlight reel when I think about the many great moments in sports I've seen.

I was 16 at the time of the 1966 NCAA championship. Already I was in the throes of a deep love for basketball, but still very naive about the world.

In the ensuing years, this game would be mentioned as a historical breakthrough moment. It would be mentioned in the same list as Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball. It would be called the Brown v. Board of Education of basketball.

I sat there awestruck — we all did — watching the way this group of players we'd never seen before that weekend — Hill, Willie Cager, David Lattin, Harry Flournoy, Nevil Shed, Willie Worsley, Orsten Artis — bring down mighty Kentucky and its storied coach Adolph Rupp.

That night, the way disciplined and confident Texas Western — whose only loss that season was to Seattle University — played in beating Kentucky 72-65 was the issue to us. Race wasn't even mentioned at the top of Cole Field House. It didn't register until much later that the Miners had started five black players, the first time that had ever happened.

"Believe me, black people realized it," Texas Western's Flournoy said in a recent phone interview. "I remember a friend of mine telling me he was watching the game on television when our starting lineup was introduced.

"He saw the first black player and didn't think anything of it. Then the second was introduced and he didn't make too much of it. But then the third black player was announced and he leaned forward in his chair. And then the fourth and he was on the edge of his chair. And then a fifth and he almost fell out of that chair."

It was a landmark night. Forty years later we understand the importance of the game. Basketball changed forever on March 19, 1966. Only four years after Mississippi State had boycotted the tournament rather than play an integrated team, seven black players were winning a national championship.

Texas Western's win accelerated the advancement of black athletes in the South. All-white conferences like the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southwestern Conference and Southeastern Conference became integrated in the next couple of years.

Even Rupp reluctantly recruited his first black player three years after Texas Western had beaten his famous "Rupp's Runts."

On Friday, the Disney movie "Glory Road," opens, retelling Texas Western's epic 1966 trip from obscurity to history. Despite a few melodramatic Disney touches and some anachronistic references, it is an inspiring story.

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"The race issue hit us in the face all the time that year," said Flournoy, who was from Gary, Ind., and wanted to play for Indiana State, but was persuaded to go to Texas Western after Haskins visited his mother. "We heard a lot of insensitive stuff about how lazy we were. We heard the 'N' word, other words, a lot of cuss words. People would threaten us, things like that. They tried to mess with our concentration.

"But Coach [Don] Haskins always told us when we were on the floor, inside those lines, we had to block all of that out. He told us if we took all that negative stuff that was said about us onto the floor, we couldn't play the game the right way. When we played, it was like we had blinders on."

Flournoy remembers going to a hotel in Jonesboro, Ark.

"The manager was going to put us all in one room," Flournoy said. "He told us it was a big room and we would be more comfortable in there together. But coach Haskins wouldn't allow it. He told the manager we were leaving. As it turned out, we didn't have to stay in one big room after all."

The team got death threats. Haskins, who is white, received dozens of them.

"He kept a lot of the stuff from us," Flournoy said. "The really, really, really bad stuff, the letters he got, he didn't tell us about. He was a disciplinarian and he kept us busy running drills. He did it on purpose. He made the practices so hard that we looked forward to the games, no matter where we had to play."

Obviously great progress has been made in the past 40 years. The coach at Kentucky, Tubby Smith, is black and the son of a sharecropper and has coached an NCAA championship team there. And nobody thinks twice when they see an all-black starting lineup on any college basketball team.

"I see some progress and some regress," said Flournoy, who is a salesman living in Yorba Linda, Calif. "I see a lot of young, black basketball players coming out of high school and being told how good they are. But too many of them don't make it and then they don't go to school and they don't get an education. Sometimes it seems like it's two steps forward, then a half-step backward. Basketball becomes its own end, not a means to an end."

Every year, for many years, the NCAA champion appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Texas Western wasn't invited. But 40 years later, this groundbreaking team is getting its proper recognition.

"We went through a lot that season," Flournoy said. "We endured a lot and we came out of it with our heads up high."

That night from the top of Cole Field House, we cheered their game. Forty years later, we cheer their courage.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com.

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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