In March 1966, I was the sports editor of The Daily Illini, the campus newspaper at the University of Illinois.
Taking advantage of the perks that that allowed, I scored some press tickets to the NCAA regional tournament at the University of Iowa and some friends and I piled into a car for the four-hour drive from Champaign-Urbana to Iowa City.
This was a different era for the tournament. Only about 20 teams from around the country qualified, mostly based on winning their conference championships, and then 16 of them gathered in four first-round sites. The four winners made up the Final Four. It took all of two weeks.
There were a handful of play-in games, and one of the teams to make it was the Hilltoppers from Western Kentucky, who thus got to join Michigan, Dayton and Kentucky for the weekend in Iowa City. There were a few undercurrents going on at that event, mostly having to do with WKU's hopes that it might get to face Kentucky at long last.
Apparently, the big school in Lexington had refused to play the little brother from Bowling Green for reasons unknown. Some have speculated race being a factor, though it's unlikely since WKU didn't integrate until 1963 with Dwight Smith.
But so much in the 1960s had to do with race. Schools had been integrated by the Supreme Court, voting and housing rights had been integrated by Congress, campuses had been integrated by the National Guard.
Race in sports had been bubbling for 20 years, ever since Jackie Robinson integrated major league baseball. Some of it was inspiring, much of it was ugly.
In sports, nowhere was racial equality becoming more of an issue than in basketball. The game was changing. Black players had begun to gain their opportunities in the early-to-mid-50s, when nobody paid much attention to pro basketball, and a decade later they were dominating the game – from Maurice Stokes to Bill Russell to Elgin Baylor to Wilt Chamberlain to Oscar Robertson. But more than just the superstars, the NBA rosters were filling up with black supporting players. Black basketball players were becoming tokens no more.
There probably still was the unspoken rule that you tried not to start more blacks than whites. But that rule had also become grist for the cynical joke of the time: You play two blacks at home, three on the road and five in the fourth quarter.
Famously, the Boston Celtics were the first team to start five blacks – Bill Russell, Sam and K.C. Jones, Tom Sanders and Willie Naulls, on Dec. 26, 1964, in St. Louis (incidentally at the time the Southern-most city in pro sports). Was it Red Auerbach's strongest lineup? Probably not. Auerbach could also have started John Havlicek, instead of Naulls, for the injured Tom Heinsohn. Clearly, he was making a statement. And in December 1964, whatever statement the multi-champion Celtics were making resonated around the NBA.
But Auerbach made a bigger statement in 1966, a month after the Texas Western win in the NCAA tournament, by naming Russell as Celtics coach, the first black athlete to coach a major professional team.
It's also worth noting that, in 1963, little Loyola of Chicago had won the national championship with four black starters. And in the two years before that, the University of Cincinnati had won back-to-back championships dominated by black athletes like Paul Hogue, Tony Yates, Tom Thacker and George Wilson. (I don't know how many blacks they started on either of those two teams, but the balance of the teams was undeniable.)
It wasn't just in basketball where race was roiling. In 1961, black players on the St. Louis Cardinals – a formidable group led by Bill White, Bob Gibson and Curt Flood – forced their team to address the situation of segregated Florida hotels during spring training. In January 1965, black American Football League players boycotted the all-star game scheduled for New Orleans because they couldn't hail a taxi or get served in many of the city's restaurants. The game was moved to Houston. In both cases, the black athletes had the support of their white teammates.
Back in Iowa City, there were black athletes sprinkled among the various rosters. Cazzie Russell led Michigan and was, in 1966, the most famous, most dominating, basketball player in college. Western Kentucky started at least three black players that I can recall: the Smith brothers, Greg and Dwight, and the star guard, Clem Haskins. Dayton's top two players, Henry Finkel and Don May, were white, but their best guard was a black player named, I think, Glindor Torain. (I'm hazy about that detail, more than happy to hear someone fill in the details.)
Anyway the fourth team, Kentucky, famously had an all-white roster. Rupp's motives have been the subject of controversy. Was he a racist who wouldn't recruit blacks? Was he a realist who felt the SEC wouldn't permit integration, so why try? Was he a victim who had tried but found out good black players wouldn't come to a Southern school?
It's noteworthy that Rupp's teams regularly played against black athletes in the tournaments. In fact, in the early 1960s Babe McCarthy's Mississippi State teams won a few SEC championships but refused to go to the NCAAs because of a state law about interracial competition. So Kentucky gladly went to those tournaments instead.
In Iowa City, Western Kentucky didn't get its chance against Kentucky, losing to Michigan by a point on a foul called on a jump ball in the last seconds of the game. The Wildcats beat Dayton and then Michigan, and on to the most famous Final Four in history.
You couldn't help but love that team, and skin color had nothing to do with it. Few players played with more charisma than Pat Riley, or shot sweeter than Louie Dampier, or ran the game more commandingly than Tommy Kron, or played with more heart than Larry Conley, or with more grit than the undersized center, Thad Jaracz.
Those of us from Illinois who wanted a glimpse of one of our own – Cliff Berger, the back-up center from Centralia, Ill., who'd delighted us in our state's 1964 high school basketball tournament – found satisfaction instead in this fab five playing great team basketball for 40 minutes.
I guess now I wish I'd followed the tournament to College Park, Md., where true cultural history ended up being made. But I had college to attend to, a job decision to make and a girl back on campus. So this story ends before an on-site, bird's-eye view of the game that, at least on the surface, stamped out racism in college sports. That fall, Perry Wallace enrolled at Vanderbilt and Charlie Scott integrated the ACC at North Carolina. In 1969, Rupp recruited Tom Payne to Kentucky.
My contribution to the history of it all pretty much ended after the Iowa regionals. In the other regionals, Duke had sailed through, with Bob Verga and Jack Marin; Utah was kind of a dark horse, with Jerry Chambers; and Texas Western had come out of nowhere to upset Kansas and JoJo White. Kentucky was the favorite.
Fifty years later, history has cast Adolph Rupp and his Runts in a supporting role – and the villains' role, at that – to the five black athletes from Texas Western. And while it's not hard to appreciate what the game meant to the progress of sports and culture in America, I just mostly recall the Kentucky team as a fun team to watch for a college senior from Illinois with little more than basketball on his mind.