Sports post of the day: Maryland honors 1966 Texas Western team

This year is the 50th anniversary of Texas Western’s upset victory over the University of Kentucky in the NCAA basketball finals. The victory, achieved at Cole Field on the University of Maryland campus, was a landmark sports event because Texas Western’s starting lineup was all-black, while the entire Kentucky squad was white, coach Adolph Rupp being an avowed racist.

To commemorate the anniversary, the University of Maryland invited members of the Texas Western team to campus. Five members of the Texas Western players made it for the occasion: David “Big Daddy” Lattin, Willie Worsley, Willie Cager, Nevil Shed, and Louis Boudin. Cager wore a Texas Western letter sweater (the school was renamed the University of Texas at El Paso not many years after the championship season).

The five players visited Cole and then attended Maryland’s game at the Xfinity Center, the team’s new home. Apparently, this was the first trip back to the Maryland campus for all five since the historic night.

Kentucky went into the 1966 championship game heavily favored. Looking at the two rosters, they probably deserve to have been.

Kentucky was led by Pat Riley (yeah, that guy) and Louis Dampier. Riley had a solid 11 year NBA playing career. Dampier averaged nearly 20 points per game during nine years in the ABA and then played two more in the NBA.

In addition, Tommy Kron played for four seasons in the NBA. Larry Conley had a cup of coffee with Kentucky’s ABA team.

For Texas Western, only Lattin had a decent pro career — two years as an NBA benchwarmer and three seasons in the ABA, only of which was very productive. Worsley had a season in the ABA during which he played 24 games. As far as I can tell, that’s it. (Texas Western’s Jim “Bad News” Barnes was an NBA semi-star for a few seasons, but he was class of 1964).

Account must be taken of the fact that blacks didn’t have an equal opportunity to play pro basketball in the late 1960s. Spots towards the end of the bench tended to go to white players. Even so, Kentucky’s team looks on paper to have had better personnel.

But on the court, Texas Western set the tone early. Big Daddy Lattin dunked on Riley in his team’s second offensive possession. Dunking wasn’t so common in that era, so Lattin’s jam sent a message.

Shortly after that, Bobby Joe Hill, Texas Western’s other star, sent two messages — a pair of layups off of steals that put the Miners ahead 16-11. Texas Western never trailed after that. The game remained fairly close, but my impression (I listened on the radio; the game wasn’t televised, at least not in Maryland), was that Texas Western was always in control. The final score was 72-65.

The Kentucky team was known as Rupp’s runts because its tallest starters (two of them) were 6’5. Lattin, though, was only 6’6.

My impression is that Texas Western prevailed not because of height or overall size, but due to superior defense. Coach Don Haskins insisted on tight defense and disciplined offense. Contrary to the stereotype of the day, it was all-white Kentucky that favored run-and-gun offense.

Perhaps more than Lattin’s dunk, Hill’s steals intimidated UK (Rupp reportedly was furious about them). They slowed the Wildcats down. Consequently, the game was played at the tempo Texas Western wanted.

For years, the 1966 title game has been viewed as a game-changer for race in college basketball. It’s psychological impact cannot be disputed, but the extent to which it actually hastened the integration of college basketball in the South is unclear (at least to me).

College basketball coaches are a shrewd and opportunistic lot. It didn’t take the 1966 game to convince many of them that they would profit from integrating their teams. Even college administrators were coming to understand this.

As for Rupp, he pretty much stuck to his racist guns. In 1972, in his final game, Rupp’s Kentucky team lost to Florida State. Kentucky was all-white; Florida State (which made it to the NCAA finals that year) started five blacks.