The disparaging talk began almost as Robert Hughes took his first step onto the campus of Fort Worth’s segregated I.M. Terrell High School, bringing with him a fast-paced, pressing and up-tempo style.
Considering the year was 1958, the attempt to degrade was typical of the recurring theme of the nearly century-old Jim Crow era that ruled the deep South and Texas.
No one at Terrell had been in a classroom or athletic competition with anyone who wasn’t black.
That was segregation, and that was still the “law” in many communities even 12 years after Brown v. the Board.
“They said we played ‘colored basketball,’ we were sandlot, we didn’t call any plays and that meant we were dumb,” Hughes said. “This wasn’t just one or two coaches. This was the bulk of coaches statewide. If they claim they didn’t say it, tell them, and I quote ‘they’re damn liars.’
And then along came Texas Western.
The Miners’ victory 50 years ago this month over Kentucky at Cole Field House in College Park, Md., didn’t immediately stop the talk about “colored basketball.”
But Orsten Artis, Nevil Shed, Willie Worsley, Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Willie Cager and Harry Flournoy were, in effect, the Brown v. the Board in bringing about social change in college athletics.
On March 19, 1966, Texas Western proved once and for all that the symbol of white athletic invincibility was a myth, soundly defeating the all-white Wildcats, whose coach, Adolph Rupp, in 36 years had never even considered recruiting a black player up to that point.
Texas Western — today UT El Paso — was the first team to feature an all-black starting five in a national championship game. In fact, the Miners didn’t play a white player against Kentucky, using only its seven black players.
A decade later, Texas Western coach Don Haskins, who played for Henry Iba at Oklahoma State, said the worst thing that had happened in his coaching career was not coming in second in 1966. The hate mail and even a stinging critique of his team from author James Michener, considered one of the great thinkers of the era, were burdensome. (Haskins’ feelings changed as time passed.)
The boys of Terrell, in the midst of a run of two Prairie View Interscholastic League titles in three years, never felt any such regret. The victory was a source of pride and symbolic vindication for Terrell’s players and Fort Worth’s black community.
“There were many symbols of assumed superiority of white athletes, especially Kentucky in basketball and Alabama in football,” said James Cash, who was finishing his first semester at TCU in the spring of 1966. “The level of celebration equaled those associated with a Joe Louis victory over a ‘Great White Hope!’ or passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”
In Fort Worth, Cash, today the senior associate dean, emeritus, of Harvard Business School, said several families planned a party in Greenway Park to celebrate the victory. Many similar celebrations took place in Como, and the city’s north and south sides, and Stop Six.
“Without a doubt, it lifted the spirits of the black community in Fort Worth,” Cash wrote by email, “and encouraged many to embrace and accelerate the social changes that were happening.”
Haskins and his assistant Moe Iba knew the Terrell basketball team well. The 1966 team was Hughes’ first to be ranked No. 1 in the state.
Cash was offered a scholarship there and took a visit. Ollie Ledbetter, a senior off the Panthers’ state runner-up team in 1966, did sign with Texas Western.
Star guard Wayne Lewis was recruited to El Paso, but said he was “turned off” from the beginning. The coaching staff said he would likely be the third string.
“They told me they had the best guard in the nation coming,” said Lewis, 68. “At that time I thought I was the best guard in the nation. We didn’t’ know too much about national competition.”
As it turned out, that guard was Nate Archibald.
“They made the right choice,” Lewis said.
The game itself received little fanfare. In those days, the NCAA championship game had no TV contract and most could only watch on tape delay. The game didn’t start until 9 p.m. on a Saturday.
When it was shown, Lewis recalled most, if not all of the team, watched the game at his family’s house.
“We were elated,” Lewis said. “The pride was overwhelming. We talked about that on and on. For the first time, it was understood that young black men could play that game probably better than anybody who has ever played it. It was exhilarating.”
Lewis and another teammate, Sherman Evans, said Hughes allowed the team to “absorb and appreciate” the moment, but he didn’t dwell on the moment.
After all, Terrell basketball already had a sense of pride about who they were. And high school basketball observers knew the Panthers were one of the best teams in the state, white or black, whether they were in denial or indifferent to the truth.
“The way we were, we didn’t let things like [segregation] bother us, no matter the circumstances,” Lewis said. “We dealt with the situation as it presented itself. Some things you can change, some things you can’t. You have to work through or around or whatever.
“That’s what we did.”
Because that’s how the coach did things, he added.