We all know instances of sports driving or leading society. Jackie Robinson taking the field on a cool, rainy day on 15 April 1947 comes to mind. But what about 19 March 1966?
On that day in College Park, MD, Texas Western University, formerly Texas School of Mines and now known as the University of Texas-El Paso, defeated basketball legend and bigot Adolph Rupp and his University of Kentucky Wildcats to win the NCAA major college basketball title, 72-65.
David beats Goliath - so?
Two 'southern' schools competed for the title, one with an all-white starting five (Kentucky) and the other with an all-black starting lineup. That was the first time a school - from the North or South - had started an all-black lineup in the NCAA championship game. In fact, until coach Don Haskins started five blacks in a game earlier that season no major college had ever started an all-black team. And in that championship game, Haskins played blacks exclusively.
Why was this such a big deal? From Frank Fitzpatrick's excellent story on ESPN Classic:
In 1966, American cultural and sporting mythology insisted at least one white starter was necessary for success. Black athletes, prevailing wisdom implied, needed the steadying hand of a white teammate. Otherwise, games would dissolve into chaos.
"There was a certain style of play whites expected from blacks," said Perry Wallace, who a year later at Vanderbilt became the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. "`Nigger ball' they used to call it. Whites then thought that if you put five blacks on the court at the same time, they would somehow revert to their native impulses."
Chaos? Revert to their native impulses? WTF? More from Fitzpatrick:
Texas Western walked the ball up court, ran a rigidly patterned offense, and emphasized defense - allowing just 62 points a game.
"We were more white-oriented than any of the other teams in the Final Four (Duke and Utah were the others)," said Texas Western guard Willie Worsley. "We played the most intelligent, the most boring, the most disciplined game of them all."
How did Rupp hasndle defeat? Again, Fitzpatrick:
He always blamed the loss on a flu bug, on inept shooting, on the referees, sometimes embellishing his excuses with hints that Texas Western somehow had cheated by using ineligible players.
Haskins fumed at his counterpart's reaction. Later that year, when he and Rupp crossed paths at a sports banquet in Ohio, the younger coach nearly snapped. "I had been listening to all this damn crap out of him," said Haskins. "and it's a wonder I didn't say something to him about it. But I didn't."
You can bet Southern (and other) college basketball coaches started taking second looks at black players.
And college basketball - and society - changed for the better.
The tale has been the subject of a book and film, Glory Road.
Just a basketball game? Uh-huh. Just like 15 April 1947 Boston Braves v. Brooklyn Dodgers was just a baseball game.
"The running, gunning Texas quintet can do more things with a basketball than a monkey on a 50-foot jungle wire." - James H. Jackson, Baltimore Sun
"They can do everything with the basketball but sign it.'" - Rod Hundley, referring to the Texas Western starting lineup