As we prepare for tonight's NCAA Championship Game featuring Butler University and the University of Connecticut, my thoughts—as they do every year—are drawn back to another title contest, 45 years earlier, when the Texas Western College Miners faced the University of Kentucky.
On March 19, 1966, the Texas Western Miners defeated the Kentucky Wildcats, 72-65. It was an amazing game. It was a piece of basketball, if not cultural, history. Four and a half decades later, it still stands in my memory as one of the most important sporting events ever to be played.
I'm far too young to remember the 1966 NCAA tournament. In fact, until 2006, I had no interest in basketball, college or otherwise. I'm almost ashamed to admit that it took me seeing the film Glory Road for me to become aware of the Texas Western story.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I cried at the end of the film, because that story hit home.
In 1966, the Texas Western Miners were given almost no chance to even have a decent season. They ended up nearly going undefeated, only losing their final regular-season game at Seattle by two points.
They then made history by having an all-African American starting five in the national final against a heavily-favored Kentucky team. As if that wasn't enough, they beat Kentucky and became the 1966 national champions.
It's a victory that's been credited with setting in motion the desegregation of college basketball. I've heard it referred to as the "Brown v. Board of Education game," comparing it to that landmark legal decision.
I'm in awe of the game's cultural and social ramifications, certainly. But almost as admirable in my book are the smaller things. Several members of that 1966 team went on to become teachers, coaches, or otherwise involved with young people, including Harry Flournoy, Nevil Shed, and Willie Cager. They made the choice to continue helping the lives of others.
As for head coach Don Haskins, he continued to coach at Texas Western (now known as the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP) until 1999—almost 40 years after he had become head of the Miners in 1961. (Sadly, Haskins passed away in September 2008, almost six years after the December 2002 death of leading scorer Bobby Joe Hill.)
These were people who, while they didn't set out to make history (Haskins wrote in his autobiography that he "certainly did not expect to be some racial pioneer or change the world"), changed lives, and didn't stop with that one night. They continued to help others long afterward.
In this day and age, when it seems I'm always hearing some story about improper benefits or recruiting violations, I reflect on that. My stomach turns when I realize that Jim Calhoun can be suspended by the NCAA in February and on the verge of being celebrated as a national champion in March.
Forty-five years is a long time, and call me a shameless optimist, but I admire the integrity of that Texas Western team, and their embracing of what the game—what any sport—can do even after the game has been played.
I can't personally speak to every single effect of that 1966 championship season. I'm the wrong ethnicity, the wrong gender, and a few decades too young. All I know for sure is that game definitely touched my life.
I guess you could call me an expert on the 1966 Texas Western Miners. After I saw Glory Road for the first of what is now some three dozen times, I sought out the actual film from that 1966 championship game and watched the real game.
I've read every book that has been written on the subject. There's a replica Bobby Joe Hill jersey hanging in my closet, and an autographed Don Haskins basketball that sits in a case on my desk. I even wrote my graduate school entrance essay on the 1966 championship game. There are a lot of things I can trace back to the Texas Western Miners.
Most important among them is that as someone who is different, I was emboldened to hold my head high, and know that I could still be a part of something that mattered.
I've loved sports for my entire life. Yet as both a woman and as someone who is handicapped, I have had many times in my life where I've also been told that I don't belong or won't succeed.
Hearing that sentiment over and over again—the majority of it from teachers and coaches—eventually made me give up. While I never faced the level of adversity that the Miners did, it was an incredible inspiration to know that there were people who were also ostracized for being different, who had faced worse and come out not just survivors, but champions.
In Don Haskins, I found someone who saw the world the way I do—who just saw players. He didn't care about race, he just wanted to win the game.
His example reminded me that there are people out there who are tolerant, and that there's still a place in the world for hard work and integrity. He conducted himself the way I wanted to carry myself.
Motivated by Coach and his team, I decided to resume my own athletic career, and I've never been happier. It goes without saying that I've also become a college basketball fan.
To me, the 1966 NCAA championship game is still relevant, and will always be relevant. Not only for its cultural and social significance at the time, but for the values it furthered, and for its countless lasting effects.
At the very least, I know I never would have played sports again if not for that game.
I'll be watching tonight's national championship, of course. But when I do, I'll do it wearing my Texas Western College pin, and with a toast to the late coach Haskins.
Without him and his team 45 years ago, who knows where we might be tonight?