1965, a year in the thick of it. The fighting had just begun in Vietnam for Americans, Bob Dylan infamously went “electric,” and The Beatles performed the first stadium concert in rock history, all the while our country was fighting a war of its own: the Civil Rights movement — with Dr. King at its head — was in full swing.
It was an era that progressively and tirelessly demanded change, and gallantly challenged our nation’s perception of the constitutional philosophy: “all men are created equal.”
In the most unlikeliest place — a far West corner of Texas — a movement that would shake the bones of our nations racial issue– and alter the landscape of collegiate athletics– would begin to take form in 1965 and come to fruition in March of 1966.
50 years ago to the day, Don Haskins and Texas Western — now the University of Texas at El Paso — put together an unprecedented season that ultimately saw them become the first team in collegiate history to feature an all-black starting five in the Division I National Championship game against storied coach Adolph Rupp and his power-house program, Kentucky — who like most, if not all major programs, were putting out an all-white lineup and did so until 1969.
The Miners would go on to win the matchup 72-65 against the Kentucky Wildcats in a game that was convincingly dominated by Texas Western. But more importantly the win shifted the collegiate landscape for athletes of color everywhere that aspired to play college ball and beyond.
It had been done before, as mentioned by the Associated Press; major colleges like the great San Francisco teams of the 1950’s that included the likes of NBA hall-of-famer Bill Russell and K.C. Jones, proved to be successful behind their players of color. The legendary UCLA Bruins — coached by an unfamiliar name at the time, John Wooden — were also able to win their first national title with three black players in their starting lineup.
But it was the manner in which Haskins and the Texas Western Miners did it. Society told the world what was right: black was inferior, white was preferred. Haskins wasn’t hearing any of it. His plan was simple: build a team; the best team, no matter their skin color.
An unknown team and coach from an unknown city walked into the national title game and didn’t think twice about doing something no team had dared to do at that time: start five black players and doing so against a storied franchise and a team that coincidentally hailed from the South and showed no room for acceptance towards racial equality.
The very fight that was going on in the streets of Montgomery, and around the country — the fight for racial and civil equality — was in a sense being fought on the court at Cole Field House in College Park Maryland on March 19, 1966.
The fact that these athletes of color were able to overcome the odds on a national stage against a team that symbolized everything that was going against the push for equality at the time proved to be an integral part for the integration of black athletes in college sports and a step forward in our country’s on going battle with racial and civil inequality.
The unknown school from the small, but grand city of El Paso, Texas, helped spark a conversation and movement that was avoided and overlooked by many in the 1960’s; the team would eventually go on to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007 and will also be honored at this year’s Final Four in Houston.
And while there are the many out there who believe sports are nothing more than a mere distraction from our everyday lives, the 1965-66 Texas Western Miners proved that progress, even in its smallest form, can grow into something much larger than what was initially envisioned.
[Image via AP Photo/File]