IN MARCH 1966 THE MINERS of Texas Western College—now the University of Texas at El Paso—upset the University of Kentucky Wildcats for the NCAA basketball championship, a contest still referred to around El Paso as The Game. But the win did more than put the school on the map; it signaled a sea change in American sports. Miners coach Don Haskins started an all-black lineup against Adolph Rupp’s all-white squad, a first for a team in an NCAA championship game and the beginning of the end of an unspoken color barrier in college athletics.
Haskins has never received the credit he deserves for helping break the color barrier in college sports, but Frank Fitzpatrick’s new book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down (Simon and Schuster), sets the record straight. A sportswriter for the Philadelpia Inquirer, Fitzpatrick shows how radically sports, not only college but also pro, have changed since that landmark game. He recounts anecdotes of prejudice masked as reasonable discourse, race baiting (sportwriter Frank Deford says Rupp used the word “coons” in his halftime pep talk during The Game), and how conservative the style of play was back then. All the more delectable is Rupp as antagonist, a cracker’s cracker who vowed that five blacks (“crooks,” he later called them) could never beat his Wildcats.
Although Fitzpatrick successfully puts The Game in the perspective of the times, he falls short in conveying the sense of place that characterizes the school and the town, portraying both as Southern but ignoring the reality that El Paso has more in common with Albuquerque than with Houston. Similarly, the university has a significant Hispanic student population. Both factors inform the more tolerant attitude toward race that made possible what was once unthinkable: putting the best players on the court, regardless of color. Fitzpatrick also could have devoted more pages to the players and how they turned out, since critics at the time said the black players were being exploited: Four of the seven earned degrees, including Willie Worsley, the dean of students at the Choir Academy for the Harlem Boys Choir, and Nevil Shed, who is the director of intramural sports at UT–San Antonio.
But he does right by Haskins, pegging him as the man who made it all happen. He couldn’t have invented a better character than the pool-hustling country boy who went to high school in Enid, Oklahoma, and grew up to be Texas’ undisputed dean of basketball, with more than seven hundred victories and a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame. Beyond his accomplishments, what makes him so endearing is his utter lack of pretension (he wears clip-on ties), his loyalty to his school (37 years in the same place—imagine that!), and his commitment to his players and staff (he has nurtured such standouts as Nolan Richardson, the coach of the University of Arkansas Razorbacks, and Tim Floyd, the new head coach of the Chicago Bulls).
Given the way that hoops has wrangled its way into our consciousness and Haskins’ recent observation that “it looks like maybe that game is never going to go away,” Fitzpatrick’s deification of the coach isn’t out of line. And the Walls Came Tumbling Down is required reading for anyone who thinks he knows Texas sports.