By Tim Reynolds
AP Basketball Writer
MIAMI — The opposing team’s locker room is a place Pat Riley has generally considered off-limits for almost all his basketball life: Do not enter except under extreme circumstances.
Fifty years ago was one of those circumstances.
Riley and his teammates on Kentucky’s all-white squad had just lost the national championship game to little Texas Western, which started five black players. It was a historic moment in both college basketball and U.S. race relations.
As he left the floor that day, Riley realized he had not shaken hands with the winners. So the Kentucky star found the nerve to venture into the Texas Western locker room.
“It was just joy,” Riley recalled recently. “Just joy. Their players were in there, their families were in there. I just went immediately, quickly through there, said what I had to say and left them to have their moment. And what they did that night has resonated for 50 years since.”
March 19, 1966. Texas Western 72, Kentucky 65.
At the height of the civil rights movement, it was much more than a basketball game. Immortalized — and introduced, perhaps, to a new generation — through the movie “Glory Road” 10 years ago, the game marks its 50th anniversary during the opening weekend of this year’s NCAA Tournament.
And in all eight of the NCAA men’s games that will be played on the actual anniversary date, black players and white players will compete alongside and against one another, not held back from attending a certain school because of the color of their skin.
“The contributions that that team made and the way those guys stuck together — they’re the reasons also why I have a job at the University of Alabama,” said Crimson Tide coach Avery Johnson, a former NBA player. “And why a lot of these other African-American players around the country can go and play at these Division I schools and play in such a way that they don’t have to look over their shoulders because of racial situations.”
Such is the legacy of what Texas Western did that night at Cole Field House in Maryland.
By winning a game, they changed the game.
“I never felt that we were playing against five black players,” said Riley, a winner of nine NBA titles and now president of the Miami Heat. “I don’t know what they felt. Only now, 50 years later can maybe the truth come out and all of the thoughts come out about that night. It turned out to be a rather significant moment in African-American history from the standpoint of what it did for college basketball and the segregation and the integration part of it.”
The latest data collected by Richard Lapchick and his Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida showed that at the Division I men’s level, more than 57 percent of the basketball players are black. And two years ago, 51 percent of women’s Division I players were black. (Most of the coaching and administrative positions in college basketball are still held by whites.)
“The greatest number of career prospects are in college sport rather than professional sport, because of the number of jobs available,” Lapchick said in issuing his latest college report. “That makes it even more important for us to create expanded opportunities in college sport for women and people of color.”
A Texas Western effect, if you will.
It happened for players 50 years ago, or at least started to happen.
Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo left his home state of North Carolina in the late 1960s to spend his first two years of college at a small school in Indiana. He said he did so in part because of the pressures that came with being a young black man playing in the South at that time.
Then his father fell ill, and McAdoo wanted to be closer to home. Then-North Carolina coach Dean Smith told him that coming to what was then a nearly all-white campus might not be easy.
“But I’ll treat you like a son,” McAdoo recalled the UNC coach saying. “So that told me I would be all right, and I went to North Carolina. Things were changing.”
Texas Tech coach Tubby Smith — who was Kentucky’s coach from 1997 through 2007, winning a national title there — remembers watching the Kentucky-Texas Western game on television. In black and white, of course. And he was rooting for the Miners.
“It was like pulling for Joe Louis, pulling for Jackie Robinson, pulling for a lot of African Americans playing sports,” Tubby Smith said.
He grew up in Maryland the son of sharecroppers, and doesn’t remember watching too many games before that one. But he remembers every detail of that day — for example, it rained.
“I was just going from my ninth grade to my 10th grade, and I was just going from a predominantly all-black school at George Washington Carver to Great Mills High School,” Tubby Smith said. “So that was really a watershed moment, a special time for me watching it because that very next year I was going to be playing at Great Mills High School with white classmates and white teammates.”
Just like that, he realized it didn’t have to be blacks vs. whites, even at that time in America.
Most games weren’t on television then, and even though Texas Western was 23-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation at one point, many people didn’t see the Miners coming.
“We didn’t even hardly know who Texas Western was,” Riley said.
Riley doesn’t remember any great motivational speech on game day from Adolph Rupp, the legendary Kentucky coach who, to Riley’s chagrin, comes across as something of a racist in the movie.
And on the Texas Western side, black Miners star David Lattin said he didn’t even realize that coach Don Haskins was going to play only the team’s black players. Lattin said Haskins barely even made any mention of race that season, including the day of the title game.
“He said, ‘You know what? It’s up to you.’ And he walked out of the room,” Lattin said. “So he didn’t tell us that he was just going to play the black guys. He didn’t say that. I had no idea that’s what he was talking about. We never even realized that until the game was over.”
Over the years, Riley has been invited to plenty of Texas Western reunions. He’s been to a few, and got to shake those same hands again, as he did in the locker room that night.
Riley abhors losses. This one, he has practically embraced. Beaten, he said, by a most deserving team.
“When it comes down to how good were they, they could have been one of the best ever,” Riley said. “The best ever.”