Decades after it made history by becoming the first NCAA basketball championship team to start five African Americans, Texas Western’s 1966 squad is finally having its moment. On the fiftieth anniversary of the win, media outlets across the country have highlighted the team’s historic feat. In a way, things have come full circle: the Final Four is in Texas, and the grandson of Texas Western’s star center played for Oklahoma on Saturday.
During halftime of Saturday’s Syracuse and North Carolina game, the remaining members of the team were honored at mid-court. Two members of the team were absent—according to the New York Daily News, they had passed away. Three players made their way onto the court in a wheelchair. Another wore hearing aids in both ears.
So the story of Texas Western’s 1966 team appears to have been etched into sports history—but why did it take so long to write it?
In game reports at the time, no newspapers noted that Texas Western (which is now the University of Texas-El Paso) was the first championship team to start five African Americans, according to CBS. But this game was played in 1966, a time when basketball (and the media) was hardly in a post-racial paradise, so often race became a factor in unflattering ways. The New York Times‘s report of the game was less than one hundred words, and used racially coded language to describe the team’s black roster as “six fancy players from the concrete school yards and high school gyms of the north [and] one Texan.” The Baltimore Sun described the team in 1966: “The running, gunning Texas quintet can do more things with a basketball than a monkey on a 50-foot jungle wire.” Incidentally, the players weren’t even “running” and “gunning”— they ran a methodical, disciplined offense. But that didn’t fit the stereotype.
Meanwhile, Frank Deford, America’s basketball writer laureate, penned a 3,000-word cover story about the victory a year later for Sports Illustrated. Race was not mentioned once.
Even when the team appeared in later media musings, the tone was still strangely critical. In his 1976 book, Sports In America, Pulitzer prize-winning writer James Michener wrote that the Texas Western players were “loose-jointed ragamuffins ready for a brawl…hopelessly outclassed” by the all-white Kentucky team. Setting that language aside and assessing Michener’s description purely from a basketball perspective, it’s a puzzling characterization. Kentucky only held the lead once (when the score was 1-0), and Kentucky’s own coach, Adolph Rupp, said after the game that his team, which had no players above six-foot-five, didn’t match up physically to Texas Western. Years later, Rupp told the Louisville Courier-Journal that his team had lost to “a bunch of crooks.”
Sports Illustrated finally wrote another feature about Texas Western’s championship win, 25 years after the fact, which appears to be the first time the mainstream media recognized the team’s historical importance. But even from there the spread was extremely slow. The team was honored on a Wheaties box in 2005, but it wasn’t until 2006 that a Disney movie about the team’s season, Glory Road, elevated Texas Western into the national consciousness.
Of course, more detractors popped up to excitedly point out the artistic liberties Disney took, and used that as a jumping-off point to diminish the moment’s racial significance. In 2006, a Chicago Sun-Times columnist told NPR that the film turned the team’s win into a “fairy tale.” When asked about the white media’s failure to recognize the team’s historic starting lineup, he explained that it just wasn’t a “big deal at that time.” That sentiment was echoed by columnist George Will later that year in the Washington Post.
Still, Texas Western players were invited to the White House to watch Glory Road with President George W. Bush the year it came out. In 2007, the team was finally enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, only eleven years after the players’ white head coach made it in.
Last week, ESPN showed a video tape of the game and interviewed a former player during the broadcast. It was the first time the game was replayed on television, even though, as the New York Times noted, there are many TV stations dedicated to replaying classic games. And this wasn’t even the actual, original televised broadcast—instead, it was a coach’s game reel shot by one of the teams. The original broadcast has apparently disappeared.
And even today, recognizing the team’s historical significance is met with resistance. Just two weeks ago, the Associated Press wrote a story arguing that Texas Western’s win was relatively unimportant:
“Today… people tend to think it was an immediate watershed moment in sports and civil rights. It wasn’t. … Time has the ability to keep the facts straight while changing certain things to the way we want them to be. Texas Western wasn’t the first college basketball team with African-American players and it wasn’t the first to have success with them.”
Both of those last two statements are true. African Americans had long been on college basketball rosters, and Bill Russell led the University of San Francisco to two national titles well before Texas Western won one. But that has little to do with what made Texas Western’s win so important: it was the first team to start five black players and win, and it did so playing most of its games in the deep South during a time when the public largely believed teams needed at least one white starter to “lead.” Why Texas Western’s win would be disqualified as a “watershed moment” is unclear, but it is apparent that, fifty years later, the dismissive tone coursing through media coverage of the team hasn’t completely changed.
At least people know about Texas Western’s 1966 team now. That’s more than can be said about another Texas Western history maker, Charles Brown, who was the first black athlete at a major Southern college. Brown was a six-foot spark plug who averaged 21 points and an astounding-for-his-height ten rebounds per game as a sophomore at Texas Western in 1957, when he earned the conference’s Most Valuable Player award. But he remains mostly unknown. Brown is not a hall of famer—he didn’t even make it into UTEP’s Hall of Fame until 2008. Unfortunately, any further recognition for Brown will have to be posthumous; he died in 2014.
Had it not been for a Disney movie, Texas Western’s starting five may have suffered that same anonymity. They finally had their time in the limelight this weekend, but it came fifty years later than it should have.