The 1965-66 Texas Western Miners are best remembered as the first NCAA champions to start five black players.
The 1965-66 Kentucky Wildcats—their opponents in that year’s title game—are best remembered as racial obstructionists: bigoted holdouts borne stubbornly against the current of equality.
While it’s true that Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp didn’t recruit black players, the Wildcats were hardly alone on that front.
In 1966, there wasn’t a single black player in the entire Southeastern Conference.
Nor was there a black player in the then-mighty Southwestern Conference.
The comparatively enlightened ACC had one black varsity player, Maryland’s Billy Jones, who had broken the conference’s color barrier earlier that season.
This is not meant to exonerate Rupp—who, by many accounts, seemed to relish his role as racial separatist—but rather to enhance the historical context of Texas Western’s victory.
Kentucky wasn’t the exception in 1966 among traditionally white southern universities. Kentucky was the rule.
When the Miners beat Big Blue 72-65, it sent a message to the exclusionists: adapt or die. The wondrous meritocracy of sport was, once again, on the march.
Legendary Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson, an El Paso native and former Texas Western player under coach Don Haskins, would later say of the 1966 title game, “If basketball ever took a turn, that was it."
Two seasons later, Vanderbilt's Perry Wallace became the first black varsity player in the history of SEC basketball. A generation of pioneers soon followed all across the region, triggering changes in southern athletics that were as sweeping as they were swift.
By 1969, UNC’s Charlie Scott had become a second-team All-American. In 1975—still less than a decade removed from the ’66 title game—North Carolina State’s David Thompson was named Naismith College Player of the Year.
Seven years after that, North Carolina freshman Michael Jordan sank a game-winning jump shot against Georgetown in the 1982 national championship game. Nine of the 10 starters that day were black.
In 2007, the 1965-66 Texas Western Miners became the sixth team ever inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.