WASHINGTON -- A Division I college basketball program is not the sort of enterprise easily confused with a seminary or a seminar on ethics. But according to what is currently America's most popular movie, 40 years ago one such program became a nation-shaking, history-shaping moral force. The movie, although not too noble to palter with facts, is no more parsimonious with the truth than movies often are when turning history into entertainment.
``Glory Road'' celebrates the 1965-66 basketball team of Texas Western College (which in 1967 became the University of Texas, El Paso). The Miners included seven black players, most recruited far from mining country -- the South Bronx, Gary, Ind., and other mostly urban places. The drama was that five of them started the 1966 NCAA championship game that Texas Western won, beating an all-white University of Kentucky team, 72-65.
The game was not quite, as the movie insists, David against Goliath. Granted, the Kentucky Wildcats, then college basketball's aristocrats, were college basketball's winningest team in the 1940s and '50s. But Texas Western had lost only one game and was ranked third in the nation as the tournament began.
The game's racial dimension looks much larger in retrospect than it did then. In the movie, a Texas Western official urges coach Don Haskins to abide by an unwritten rule: play one black at home and two on the road -- three if behind. And another white character scoffs at the idea that blacks might be ``the future'' of basketball. But Ron Rapoport of the Chicago Sun-Times notes:
A decade before the game that supposedly changed basketball, the undefeated 1955-56 University of San Francisco team won the NCAA championship with a team that played four blacks -- Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Hal Perry and Gene Brown. In 1958 the coaches' All-American team was all black -- Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas, Oscar Robertson of Cincinnati, Bob Boozer of Kansas State, Guy Rodgers of Temple and Elgin Baylor of Seattle. In 1962, the University of Cincinnati started four black players when it won the NCAA championship, and Loyola University of Chicago started four when it won in 1963. Frank Deford, a distinguished writer, covered the Texas Western-Kentucky game for Sports Illustrated and did not mention the fact of five black starters. Neither did The New York Times nor The Washington Post. Already the ascendancy of blacks in basketball was such that the four best players in the NBA were Chamberlain, Russell, Baylor and Robertson.