There won’t be a Final Four this year — Atlanta’s loss after the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Mark Bradley, a 2015 inductee of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association Hall of Fame, will present his list of the Top 10 Final Fours of all-time. The list will be presented in reverse order, culminating with the greatest men’s basketball championship.
Today: No. 3 — 1966
It’s known as basketball’s version of Brown v. Board of Education. All-white Kentucky, top-ranked and coached by Adolph Rupp, faced Texas Western (now UTEP), which had five African-American starters. Books have been written about this one. (“The Baron and the Bear,” by David Kingsley Snell.) A movie was made. (“Glory Road,” starring Josh Lucas as Texas Western coach Don Haskins, known as the Bear. Rupp, the Baron, was played by Jon Voigt.)
Larry Conley, a Wildcat who played sick that weekend in College Park, Md., was a paid consultant on “Glory Road,” though he says he did no real consulting. A long-time TV analyst for every network under the sun, Conley lives in Dunwoody. In 2016, he told me: “We didn’t think a thing about (race). It was just another game. People look at us (now) like we had never played against a black player in our lives. That part was not important to us as players. I can’t speak for Texas Western; I can speak for us. We were trying to win a national championship.”
Kentucky’s semifinal opponent was Duke, likewise all-white. Had the Blue Devils been Texas Western’s final opponent, would the game have carried such resonance? Maybe not. The ACC had just welcomed its first African-American player, Bill Jones of Maryland. Charlie Scott would soon enroll at North Carolina, where Dean Smith campaigned to break the color barrier. (The SEC’s first black player, Perry Wallace of Vanderbilt, made his varsity debut in 1967.)
Rupp, then the most famous coach in the land, didn’t sign a black player until Tom Payne – a 7-footer from Louisville who played one college season and was drafted by the Atlanta Hawks – in 1969. Conventional wisdom held that Rupp was a racist who didn’t want an African-American on his team. (Conley disputes this, saying he drove to Louisville in 1964 in the attempt to recruit Wes Unseld of Seneca High.) Had Duke prevailed in the semifinal, the dynamics would have been the same – five white starters from a Southern-based school against five black starters from a college in El Paso – but Rupp, the winner of four NCAA titles, wouldn’t have been involved.
Said Conley: “I wonder if the focus about an all-white team would have been as strong if we’d lost to Duke. Maybe the focus was on coach Rupp, maybe because of his age (64).”
Kentucky edged Duke 83-79, Conley scoring a vital late basket. Duke had finished the regular season ranked No. 2 to Kentucky’s No. 1. No. 3 was Texas Western. The Miners had begun the season unranked, but their only loss came in their final regular-season game against Seattle. They were largely an unknown, but they weren’t as massive an underdog as history has painted them. They were both bigger and quicker than the Wildcats, whose tallest starter was 6-foot-5 Thad Jaracz. (Not for nothing was this team known as “Rupp’s Runts.”)
The title game began with 6-4 Pat Riley – yes, THAT Pat Riley – jumping against 6-6 David Lattin, known as Big Daddy D. Riley tried to steal the tip by leaping too soon. The obvious violation was called. One minute in, Lattin threw down a two-handed dunk in Riley’s face.
Haskins had tweaked his starting lineup, inserting 5-6 Willie Worsley in place of 6-8 Nevil Shed to counter the Runts. With the Miners leading 10-9, the 5-9 Bobby Joe Hill blindsided Tommy Kron at midcourt, stealing the ball and scoring. On the next possession, Hill stole the ball from Louie Dampier and scored. Claude Sullivan told his Kentucky radio audience: “Say now, this looks pretty bad!”
Said Conley: “I had my back turned. I didn’t see either one. I asked Tommy, ‘What the hell’s going on?’ ”
Texas Western would hold its lead throughout, the Wildcats never quite going away but never appearing a likely winner. Final score: 72-65.
Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated spent the weekend embedded with the Wildcats. He hung out with them at their motel in Silver Spring, Md. He reported on Conley’s health. He met the team managers. His game story bears no mention of the racial components of the teams. (His story advancing the Final Four had.) Years later, Deford would say that, in the locker room at halftime, he heard Rupp use racial slurs to describe the Miners. Deford described Rupp as “a virulent racist.”
Said Conley of such slurs: “I’m not going to say it didn’t happen. I’m saying I never heard it.”
Whatever the case, the better team won, and the face of college basketball changed. Rupp would retire, grudgingly, after losing to Florida State – with five black starters, among them Ron King of Louisville Central – in the 1972 Mideast final. One year earlier, the Wildcats and Payne had been beaten by Western Kentucky 107-83 in a Sweet 16 game played in Athens, Ga. The Hilltoppers had five African-American starters, all hailing from the Bluegrass State.
The Baron never reached another Final Four. His time had passed. Thirty-two years after losing to Texas Western, Kentucky would win its seventh NCAA title. Its coach was Tubby Smith, an African-American.
No. 3: 1966
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