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Featherston On Glory Road

Al Featherston discusses fact and fiction in the new movie, Glory Road. But if you haven't seen the movie, please realize that it is thoroughly discussed, and there are several spoilers
When President Woodrow Wilson first saw D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, he reportedly exclaimed, “It’s history writ by lightning!”

Of course, today, you’d have to look long and hard to find a historian not wearing a white sheet who would label Griffith’s version of Thomas Dixon’s glorification of the Ku Klux Klan as an accurate account of actual post-Civil War American history. The problem is that you would be equally hard-pressed to find a film historian – of any political ilk – who wouldn’t acknowledge that Griffith’s racist propaganda was one of the seminal works of movie history – a groundbreaking masterpiece that essentially created the modern film.

Wilson was half right – The Birth of a Nation WAS writ by lightning ... but it certainly wasn’t history.

That’s the problem confronting a reviewer of Jerry Bruckheimer’s new film Glory Road – or any historical book or movie. Should the work be judged merely as its effectiveness as an entertainment? Or does the creator have a responsibility to treat real historical characters and events accurately?

I was pondering that dilemma Friday when I left the theater after viewing the new film Glory Road. It’s an issue that has bothered me in the past, especially when the film opens (as this one did) with the title: Based on a true story.

Well, Hoosiers was based on the true story of Milan’s improbable drive to the 1954 Indiana high school basketball title. Jimmy Chitwood’s final game-winning shot is a perfect re-creation of the shot Milan’s Bobby Plump hit to beat Muncie Central in the ’54 title game. But note that the movie character was named Jimmy Chitwood and not Bobby Plump. And the school in the movie was named Hickory High and not Milan High.

To me, that gives the filmmakers a lot more leeway. It doesn’t bother me that quite a few details of Milan’s story are changed -- because we’re not seeing Milan, we’re seeing Hickory. So what if Milan actually had a young coach, married with two children, who had led the team to the semifinals in 1953 state tournament? There was no controversy about his coaching methods. But who cares? No one would confuse crusty old Gene Hackman with Milan’s real coach. Hackman is playing Norman Dale, not Marvin Wood. And Chelcie Ross, who plays the evil barber George (his last name is never given), is not defaming any real person.

In contrast, the same actor plays a real historical character in the movie Rudy. Chelcie Ross portrays Dan Devine as the main obstacle to walk-on Daniel “Rudy” Ruttinger’s dream of playing for Notre Dame. The film obviously needed conflict, so some fictional situations are created to portray the non-fictional Devine as the evil, unfeeling coach who stands in the way of Rudy’s dream and only relents when confronted with a player revolt.

Actually, it was Devine who courageously decided to allow Ruttinger to dress out for his final home game, despite an incredibly wrong-headed NCAA rule in place at the time that required schools to dress out no more than 60 players at a time. Devine agreed to allow the screenwriter to invent the player revolt in order to add drama to the movie, admitting later, “I didn’t realize I would be such a heavy.”

When we get to Glory Road, there are some quite vile bad guys – but the interesting thing is that the worst characters (the three guys who beat up a player in a restroom; the racists who defile the players’ hotel rooms; the two unnamed men who spew venom in Don Haskins’ hearing at the Final Four) are all anonymous. The real historical characters are treated with kid gloves -- even Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who has long been the focus of controversy for his role in the story. That makes is doubly hard to separate the film’s historical foundation from its fictional embellishments.

Maybe the best idea is to give the film two reviews – one as a movie and one as a historical document.

I used to do film reviews for the defunct Durham Sun, but if I was still working for the evening newspaper and was asked to review Glory Road (as nothing more than a film), I would probably give it three (out of four) stars.

It’s a familiar, but thrilling story of an unknown coach who assembles a bunch of unwanted players at an unknown school and after some predicable internal conflict,
leads them to an improbable championship. It contains strong lead performances from Josh Lucas as Don Haskins, Derek Luke as Bobby Joe Hill and a relatively unknown cast of young black actors who very convincingly play the other stars of the 1966 Texas Western Miners (both on and off the court). Special mention should go to Jon Voight, who handles the brief, but delicate role of Adolph Rupp with real insight – Voight’s Rupp is a complex combination of arrogance and aging vulnerability. Best of all, the basketball sequences are reasonably realistic, unlike producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s previous sports movie Remember the Titans.

The only negatives are the formulistic aspects of the story that keep us from ever being surprised. We always know what’s going to happen next. I also hated to see a fine young actress such as Emily Deschamel wasted in the clichéd role of the long-suffering wife. Seriously, is there some federal law I don’t know of that requires the presence of such a character in every sports movie? Just for fun, try to match Rachel Griffiths, Patricia Clarkson, Amy Madigan, Connie Britton, Nicole Ari Parker and Mary McDonnell with their movie husbands in The Rookie, Miracle, Field of Dreams, Friday Night Lights, Remember the Titans and Blue Chips. The truth is, their roles are all interchangeable.

There is only one excuse for such a formulistic approach – fidelity to the historical record. If you add sports clichés merely to jazz up the story, that’s – to my mind – second-rate filmmaking. If the real story plays out like a cliché, that’s fine. Example: If Miracle were a fictional story about a bunch of kids beating the greatest hockey team in the world, it would be an unbearable bore ... but the fact that it is a remarkably faithful account of a real event makes it a wonderful historical film.


The question then becomes, how real is Glory Road?

I’m talking about fundamental historical reality, not insignificant details. Sure, I could complain about Josh Lucas’ neckties. The real Don Haskins was famous for wearing clip-ons. In truth, he hated wearing a tie at all, but Hank Iba, his coach at Oklahoma A&M, taught him that a coach
must dress the part, so Haskins would start every game wearing a clip-on tie. It wouldn’t last long – soon after tip-off, Haskins would rip off his tie and open his collar.

Does it matter that Lucas is usually dressed on the sidelines like Rick

No, except the business with the ties could have been used to introduce Coach Iba and his influence on Haskins. Or they could have identified Moe, the assistant coach played by Evan Jones, as Moe Iba – the son of Haskins’ coach at Oklahoma A&M.

Haskins’ Aggie roots are quickly glossed over. He’s described as a former star who “blew out a knee and gave up his dream.” In truth, there was no knee injury and no dreams (at least no dreams of pro basketball, if that’s what that was supposed to be). Haskins was a marginal player at Oklahoma A&M at almost the same time that Dean Smith was a reserve guard at Kansas. Haskins was good enough to play a little semi-pro ball, but he soon drifted into coaching, first at a small school in Benjamin, Texas.

Haskins is described in the movie as the girls’ basketball coach at Benjamin before going to Texas Western. That’s not entirely false – he did coach girls’ basketball at Benjamin. He also coached the school’s six-man football team and he drove the school bus. But his primary job was to coach the boys’ basketball team and he did that so well that after one year in Benjamin, he was lured to a bigger school at Hedley, Texas (where he continued to coach both the boys and girls teams), then to a bigger school still in Dumas, Texas. He was one of the most successful young high school coaches in the state when Texas Western came calling.

Now, I have no problem with the distortion of Haskins’ prep coaching career for cinematic purposes. It makes for a good story and nobody gets hurt.

It’s only with his arrival at Texas Western that Hollywood begins to twist the story in ways that bother me. It’s true – as depicted in the film – that Haskins was asked to live in the athletic dorm, to help control the rowdy behavior there. He did move his family into the dorm. But the Texas Western team that he inherits is depicted as an all-white squad, playing in front of a handful of apathetic fans. In his first season, the movie’s Haskins lures the seven black players who immediately turn things around, winning the national championship in his first season.

Great story, but it didn’t happen that way.

To begin with, Haskins did not inherit an all-white team. Anybody ever hear of Nolan Richardson? The future national championship coach was a sophomore guard at Texas Western when Hawkins arrived in the spring of 1961 (not 1965). The school had had black basketball players since brothers Cecil and Charlie Brown had first played for the Miners in 1956. Richardson was recruited by former coach Harold Davis, along with several other black players. Haskins’ first black recruit, New York’s Willie Brown, was first recruited by Davis, although signed by the new coach.

In short, all the early scenes that show the resistance of people at Texas Western and El Paso to Haskins’ decision to recruit blacks is phony.

“By the time I was named coach, having a black player on the team was nothing,” Haskins wrote in his autobiography.

In the movie, the audience laughs when Haskins tells Harry Flournoy that El Paso is a “cosmopolitan city.” But is it a joke?

“By the standards of the day, not much was made [of playing blacks], probably because El Paso, by sitting on the Mexican border, is such a racially integrated place,” the real Haskins wrote.

The point is that while there were local critics of Haskins’ recruitment of blacks, as a whole the town of El Paso embraced the integrated team almost from the beginning. He didn’t inherit a program that nobody cared about – when he arrived the school had just completed a new arena for the team. It was almost immediately overwhelmed by the demand for tickets – so much so that the team moved to the city’s bigger downtown arena.

“El Paso had no other sports teams then and really no national identity at all,” Haskins wrote. “There were a couple of old country songs about El Paso, but most of the country thought we were located in Mexico. So the people of El Paso embraced something of their own and became Texas Western fans. It was great. We had people of all nationalities, people from Juarez across the border driving to games. The fans were unbelievable ... we would go on the road, win a big game and when he got back to the airport, there would be two or three thousand people waiting for us. Even after a little game, there would be hundreds.”

Haskins gave them plenty to celebrate even before the 1965-66 season. Texas Western upset defending Big Eight champ Iowa State in Ames in his collegiate debut. The next season, he recruited juco All-American Jim “Bad News” Barnes, who led the Miners to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances. Haskins suggests that his 25-3 1964 team was good enough to win the national title, but lost to Kansas State in the Sweet 16 because of what he called “ticky-tack” fouls on Barnes.

It should be noted that Haskins was starting five black players at that point – two years before the famous game with Kentucky. In fact, he’s not quite sure when he first started five blacks – it was sometime during the 1962-63 season, but he doesn’t remember the specific game. He does remember that the move didn’t create much of a stir in El Paso – “nothing happened,” he wrote. “Well, nothing more than had happened before. There were no extra hisses or boos. If letters came in the next week, it wasn’t much more than the week before.”

To me, this distortion of the film is much more important than the clip-on ties or the high school record. In fact, it’s fundamental to the place of the 1966 Kentucky-Texas Western in basketball history.

It’s become axiomatic that the 1966 title game changed college basketball by proving that blacks could play the game as well or better than whites. That’s certainly a major theme of the movie, there are numerous examples of white skepticism about black talent, including one character who sneeringly says to Haskins, “You talk like Negroes are the future of basketball.”

Well, it’s hard to believe anybody would say that in 1966 ... or that anybody doubted that blacks could play the game. As I noted in my previous column, that as far back as the 1957 Final Four, Texas A&M coach Ken Loeffler had joked about changing the rules to limit the impact of blacks on the game.

That impact was huge – long before the 1966 title game. In fact, in the month before Texas Western upset Kentucky, the NBA all-star game was dominated by black stars as Hal Greer, Bill Russell, Nate Thurmond, Willis Reed, Sam Jones, Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson. Seven of 10 players on the winning East team were black ... three of the five starters on the West team were black.

The NCAA Tournament had come to be increasingly dominated by blacks, going back to 1950, when a CCNY team with three black starters won the NCAA title. In 1955, Bill Russell was one of three black starters on San Francisco’s national champs. The all-white teams enjoyed a brief respite as UNC and Kentucky beat teams with black stars in 1957 and 1958, respectively, then all-white California beat all-white West Virginia in the 1959 title game.

But that was the last gasp of the segregated powers. Starting in 1960, every NCAA champion that followed has boasted at least two black starters. In the 1963 title game, Loyola played just five players in a double-overtime victory over Cincinnati – and four of them were black. Three of the Cincinnati starters in that game were black. The consensus national player of the year in 1966 was black, Michigan’s Cazzie Russell. Three of the five first-team consensus All-Americans in 1966 were black.

So whatever historical importance is attached to the Texas Western-Kentucky game, please don’t try and tell me that it somehow “proved” that blacks could play. Sure, there were plenty of bigots (and not just in the South) who didn’t want to see blacks playing such a prominent role in the game, but their fear was that the white man would be squeezed out by the more talented or hungrier black players.

It has been alleged that Texas Western’s victory finally convinced the white schools in the South to integrate. There’s a grain of truth there – the 1966 title game probably did speed up integration in the South. But it’s also true that the process was well on its way before the title game.

It’s interesting that even though Haskins has always refused to buy into the grandiose theories about the impact of his game, he does assert in his autobiography: “Before we beat Kentucky, there was not a single black basketball or football player in the Southeastern, Southwest or Atlantic Coast Conference. Not one. A couple of months after we won, Vanderbilt of the SEC recruited the first black basketball player and the floodgates opened.”

Since Coach Haskins so emphatic that there was “Not one” black player in the SEC, SWC or ACC, I want to point out that he’s wrong. There was one – Billy Jones of Maryland played in the ACC during the 1965-66 season.

More than that, there were already two more black players already enrolled in ACC programs – Pete Johnson, who was redshirted in 1966 after playing freshman ball for the Terps in 1965, and C.B. Claiborne, who completed his freshman year at Duke in 1966. That spring, not only did Vanderbilt finally break the SEC color line by signing Perry Wallace, but ACC schools were heavily in pursuit of black prospects such as Charlie Scott, Norwood Todman and others.

In fact, when Maryland’s Jones sat behind the Kentucky bench during the 1966 title game, he was hosting a couple of black prospects the Terps hoped to sign. Instead, Charlie Davis and Gil McGregor went to Wake Forest, where Davis became the ACC’s first black player of the year.

The whole question of when the all-white Southern programs finally began to pursue black athletes is an issue that’s still being hotly debated. While I recently cited N.C. State’s Everett Case’s claim that he tried to recruit Wilt Chamberlain in the mid 1950s, I’ve never taken it seriously. But I’ve recently learned that Case did have a real interest in New Bern, N.C., big man Walt Bellamy in the early 1960s and perhaps a few other black prospects. I know that Bones McKinney tried very hard to land Lew Alcindor in 1965 and actually came closer to getting the future superstar than many realize.

The debate about Adolph Rupp’s efforts to recruit black players is at the flashpoint of the whole debate about Rupp’s alleged racism. He did recruit both Butch Beard and Wes Unseld out of Louisville in the early 1960s – before the Texas Western loss – but there is one school of thought that he merely went through the motions at the order of a liberal school president and never wanted blacks on his team.

I’m not qualified to judge this debate, although I would suggest that sometimes history is not as simple or as straightforward as we would like. There are shades of gray and confusing facts and contradictory behavior by real human beings. In the case of Rupp, let me note:

-- In 1929, he coached at least one and probably as many as three black players at a high school in
Decator, Ill.

-- Rupp failed to recruit a black player in the first 38 of his 41 years at Kentucky, before finally signing seven-footer Tommy Payne in 1970.

-- Rupp is alleged to have asked newspaper publishers to identify black players in their high school box scores, so that he wouldn’t waste time recruiting them.

-- Rupp is alleged to have asked St. John’s coach Frank McGuire not to bring black star Solly Walker to Lexington for a 1951 game. I can’t find any hard evidence for this claim. Walker did make the trip and Rupp did speak to local reporters and through them, he did ask Kentucky fans to treat Walker with respect.

-- Rupp is known to have given clinics at black coaches’ conventions and to have helped black players in Kentucky find scholarships at Northern schools.

-- When he helped coach the 1948 U.S. Olympic team that was built around his “Fab Five”, he was particularly helpful to former UCLA player Don Barksdale (the first black to play basketball for the U.S. in the Olympics), who was vocal in his appreciation of Rupp’s support.

-- While there is no written or film evidence that Rupp said anything racist during the 1966 Final Four, Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, who was in the Kentucky locker room at halftime of the Texas Western game, reported almost 30 years later that Rupp berated his team for losing “to a bunch of coons.” Just to be fair, that quote has been disputed by every other person I’ve seen interviewed about it, including Pat Riley (who strongly supported the Glory Road project).

[Just a word about language. Growing up in the 1950s, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rupp used words that we would now find offensive. It was pretty common – at least in the South. President Harry Truman, who was considered a Liberal on racial matters, frequently dropped the N-word in casual conversation and told what I would consider offensive jokes. In the film Glory Road, Voight frequent refers to Haskins’ ‘boys’ in a way that may be taken as subtly racist. But it doesn’t take much research to see that Rupp almost always referred to his own white players as ‘boys’ too.]

None of that answers the basic question – was Rupp a racist who didn’t want to see blacks play for his beloved Kentucky or was he a pragmatist who was afraid that integrating the Wildcats would hurt his program?

It’s easy to take the first position and I see that a large proportion (maybe even a great majority) of my compatriots in the media have jumped on the Rupp/racist bandwagon. Again, I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s not that simple.

To begin with, once established as a coaching giant (let’s say after winning national titles in 1948, 1949 and 1951), Rupp might have used his stature and his location in a border state to lead the way on integration. On the other hand, that would have created a crisis in the SEC and probably broken up the league – Deep South schools such as Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State refused to play integrated teams at that time.

Kentucky did formally notify the rest of the SEC in 1961 that it intended to start recruiting black athletes. By that time, only Mississippi State objected.

However, it would be another nine years before Rupp signed Payne. Did he intentionally lag or was he unable to overcome black resistance to his (and Kentucky’s) past? It largely comes down to Unseld and Beard – two Louisville prep stars who clearly were good enough to play for anybody. At different times, I’ve seen both players give various explanations for their decision to reject Rupp and sign with Louisville – including their suspicion that Rupp didn’t really want them and was only going through the motions. Then again, Rupp – who very rarely went on the road recruiting in his later years – made 13 trips to see Beard. I’ve also seen a copy of a letter Rupp wrote to a wealthy Kentucky booster in Louisville, berating him for his refusal to help in the recruitment of Beard.

I honestly don’t know the truth ... and I suspect few of my colleagues do either. I just know that whether Rupp was a racist or a pragmatist, he didn’t stand alone in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s and early 1960s. I can’t believe it’s fair that Rupp and Kentucky have become the scapegoat for an entire region’s racist past. Yes, we should condemn the Kentucky program for taking so long to integrate. But we should also condemn Duke and North Carolina and N.C. State and Alabama and Texas and Florida and Virginia and everybody else in the South who refused for so long to sign players because of the color of their skin.


It’s a funny thing about Cole Field House.

The old Maryland arena always seemed to be in the middle of college basketball’s racial revolution. It was at Cole that Billy Jones broke the ACC color line. It was at Cole where Charlie Scott blew up to the press for a racist All-ACC vote – then responded by beating Davidson in the 1969 East Regional finals.

And it was at Cole Field House where all the threads of the story come together for the 1966 national title game.

Actually, the Kentucky-Texas Western game wasn’t supposed to be played in College Park. Originally, the NCAA had slated Chicago Stadium as the host for the 1966 Final Four. But a labor dispute in the Windy City forced a last-minute change of venue.

Four teams came to College Park that March weekend in 1966 (although you wouldn’t know it from the movie Glory Road ... the only evidence of Duke and Utah at the Final Four is a banner in the background of one scene). The consensus of opinion was that the champion would be decided in the semifinal game matching No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Duke. The semifinal between No. 3 Texas Western and unranked Utah was an afterthought.

“Duke is the best team I’ve seen all year,” UCLA’s John Wooden said. “But I haven’t seen Kentucky. Let’s just say [the champion will be] the winner of Duke-Kentucky.”

Vic Bubas’ 1966 Blue Devils were built around second-team All-Americans Bob Verga and Jack Marin with future All-American Mike Lewis in the middle. Senior guard Steve Vacendak, the 1966 ACC player of the year (despite being only second-team all-conference) was the team’s floor leader.

Duke, ranked No. 3 in preseason, got off to a rocky start, losing its third game of the season at South Carolina and dropping to No. 6 in the polls. The Blue Devils were probably caught looking ahead to the next weekend’s two games with No. 1 and two-time defending NCAA champion UCLA. Duke routed the Bruins twice – on Friday night in Durham, then on Saturday night in Charlotte -- to vault to No. 1 in the next week’s poll.

But the dual victories did not come without a foreshadowing of the racial issues that would come to a head in College Park. Sports Illustrated’s account of the two Duke wins gave the Devils credit for the win, but also highlighted an ugly racial incident in the stands at Duke Indoor Stadium. Author Frank Deford suggested, “There was blood on the Carolina Moon,” and detailed racial slurs directed at the family of UCLA senior Kenny Washington, the Beaufort, South Carolina, native who had played such a large role in the Bruins’ victory over Duke in the 1964 NCAA title game.

The Blue Devils took 17 of 18 games after the UCLA sweep and won the ACC regular season by three games. Duke survived Dean Smith’s first extended use of the Four Corners in the ACC semifinals, 21-20, on a free throw by Mike Lewis, then got by upset-minded State in the finals, thanks to the heroics of Steve

Duke had to win two games in the East Regionals in Raleigh to earn a third trip to the Final Four in four years. But in one of those crazy early round matchups that happened so often in that era before the NCAA Tournament was seeded, the No. 2 ranked Blue Devils had to open NCAA play against No. 5 St. Joseph’s. Duke clung tenaciously to the lead down the stretch as four times either Verga or Marin went to the line after the Hawks had closed to within one point. On each occasion, the Duke star converted two free throws. St. Joe’s never had the ball and a chance to lead or tie in the final minutes and scored a meaningless basket at the buzzer to make the final 76-74.

The East Regional title game proved much easier. Duke’s 2-3 zone limited Syracuse All-American Dave Bing to just 10 points on 4 of 14 shooting and the Blue Devils, placing all five starters in double figures, coasted to a 91-81 victory, despite some late heroics from Bing’s backcourt mate, bespectacled guard Jim

That sent Bubas’ all-white team to College Park. Deford, in his pre-Final Four story about the matchup, noted that the one semifinal was between the two all-white teams. His words are interesting:

“All seven of Texas Western’s regulars are Negroes, hardly a startling fact these days [italics mine], but one that becomes increasingly noteworthy because of a likely meeting with Kentucky or Duke. Both of those teams are all white. It’s unfortunate – but it is a fact – that some Ethniks, both white and Negro, already are referring to the prospective national final as not just a game, but a contest for racial honors.”

Haskins writes the prospective racial aspects of a matchup with Duke or Kentucky, “wasn’t that big a deal to us at that point.” He was more concerned with stopping Utah’s fast break and the Utes’ black star, Jerry Chambers.

As it turned out, Chambers almost derailed the historic matchup with a spectacular performance in the semifinals – 38 points and 17 rebounds. Texas Western power forward Harry Flournoy hurt his knee and left the game and center David “Big Daddy” Lattin fouled out trying to guard Chambers. The Miners were saved by white forward Jerry Armstrong. Playing on a sprained ankle, he finally managed to slow down the Utah star enough for Texas Western to escape with an 85-78 victory.

“Maybe Jerry Armstrong is the white guy who should get credit for integrating college basketball,” Haskins wrote. “It sure as hell wasn’t me guarding Jerry Chambers.”

[To their credit, the makers of Glory Road try to acknowledge Armstrong’s contribution. The problem is, they don’t show the Utah game or even suggest that it is played. Instead, they shift Armstrong’s heroics to the regional finals against Kansas and have him shut down Jo Jo White. And they shift Flournoy’s injury to early in the Kentucky game].

Bubas went into the Kentucky game under a considerable handicap. Verga, his leading scorer, was hospitalized all that week with a throat infection. When Kentucky’s Rupp heard the news, he sent guard Larry Conley to the infirmary, telling reporters that his senior guard had the flu. Several years later, when Duke participated in the Kentucky Invitational Tournament, a member of Rupp’s staff bragged that Conley’s illness was phony and that it was actually all a clever ploy by the Baron of Bluegrass to prevent Duke from earning a physiological advance from Verga’s illness.

Whatever the truth, Conley played a normal game and scored 10 points (his average for the season), while Verga missed 5 of 7 shots and finished with a mere seven points (11 under his average). Bubas got 29 points from Marin, 21 from Lewis and 17 from Vacendak, but with Verga below par, Duke fell just short in an 83-79 loss to the Wildcats.

“I don’t want a man to go out of this room and write that I said we could have beaten Kentucky with a well Bobby Verga,” Bubas told reporters afterwards.

Naturally, Duke fans thought that ... and so did Bubas.

“I know Bobby is a better player than he showed and we are a stronger club when he is well,” Bubas said. “We are better, a whole lot better, when he is healthy.”

In view of what happened the next night, a lot of Kentucky fans have wondered what would have happened if Duke had won the semifinal and the all-white Blue Devils had played Texas Western in the title game. Would Duke have replaced Kentucky as the symbol of Southern resistance to integration? Would Bubas have been vilified as a racist as Rupp has been?

Personally, I don’t think a Texas Western victory over Duke would have carried the same symbolism. The young, articulate Bubas would have been harder to demonize than the long-established Rupp. He didn’t have a history of resistance to racial change and he could have pointed to C.B. Claiborne, already in the program and about to move up to the varsity, as evidence that Duke was integrating with all due speed. And despite Bubas’ successful seven-year tenure to that point, Duke simply didn’t have the stature of Kentucky ... or that Duke has now. It was a respected program, but not one of the elite programs.

It’s also possible that Duke would not have lost to Texas Western.

The Blue Devils, a superb ball-handling team that had handled UCLA’s pressure with ease, might not have wilted as Kentucky did under the pressure of Willie Worsley, Orsten Aris and Bobby Joe Hill. And Bubas had something that Rupp’s Runts didn’t – a genuine big man to match up with “Big Daddy” Lattin in the post.

“If we could have been at full strength, I’d have welcomed a shot at Texas Western,” Bubas said when asked about such speculation. “I don’t say we would have beaten them, but we could have given them a whirl.”

Who knows how the history of college basketball might have changed had Bob Verga not gotten sick before the 1966 Final Four? In the long run, it probably would not have changed college basketball’s future. Integration was coming,
no matter what. All it might have done was to remove the landmark game that symbolized the changes in the sport.


The makers of Glory Road had a tough job making the title game interesting.

In reality, there were three pivotal plays in the first 10 minutes of the game (all depicted in the film) – Lattin’s thunderous dunk over Pat Riley and Bobby Joe Hill’s two consecutive steals at midcourt from Louie Dampier. After Hill’s second straight breakaway layup, Texas Western was up 14-9 and never trailed again. So when you see the film and see Haskins’ team courageous rally from a 48-41 second half deficit, keep in mind that’s pure fiction.

“We completely controlled the pace of the game,” Haskins recalled. “By the end, they never really threatened us.”

But the phony histrionics in the title game, while understandable from a dramatic point of view, point to my other major problem with Glory Road.

Let’s go back to Texas Western’s first big win in the 1965-66 season – an upset of then No. 4 Iowa in the finals of the Sun Carnival Tournament. In the film, the Miners are getting blown out – down 18 at the half – as Haskins tries to force his creative, instinctive players to play a structured game. During the break, Derek Luke (who played Boobie Miles in Friday Night Lights) as Bobby Joe Hill pleads with Haskins to turn the team loose and let them play it their way. After a slow start to the second half, he relents and his team – playing what appears to be a version of Streetball rather than basketball – rallies to edge the Hawkeyes at the buzzer.

It would be a great story, if true. But what actually happened was that Texas Western – playing it Haskins’ way – scored the first 14 points against Iowa and were up 34-4 after 10 minutes (and one of the two Iowa baskets was an accidental tip-in by Nevl Shed!).

“The first half against Iowa was the best my team played all season and probably the best any team of mine has ever played,” Haskins wrote.

But he was disgusted by his team’s second half performance. The players did it their way and turned that 30-point lead into an 86-68 victory. In short, the truth about the Iowa game is almost the exact opposite of what is portrayed in the film!

The story of Texas Western’s 1966 season was not about Haskins learning to let his players play playground ball, but his efforts to force them to blend their skills into the team structure that he learned from Henry Iba. That’s why I was disappointed that the filmmakers missed so many chances to bring out Iba’s influence on Haskins.

Texas Western’s one loss of the 1966 season was in the regular season finale at Seattle. In the film, the loss is largely attributed to racial friction within the team, something Haskins swears never happened. In fact, Nevil Shed was kicked out of the team’s second-round NCAA win when he slugged an opponent who had taken a cheap shot at Armstrong: “It wasn’t about race with us,” Haskins wrote. “They were all teammates.”

The truth (according to Haskins) is that Texas Western was the victim of some bad officiating and a lackadaisical performance by Bobby Joe Hill. He was so mad at Hill that he benched his point guard and team leader for the first 13 minutes of the NCAA opener against Oklahoma City. Haskins complained that the entire season was a battle of wills between his desire to enforce a consistent, disciplined effort from his players and their stubborn insistence on playing loose and easy.

“It was a draining season down to the last straw,” Haskins wrote.

But in the end, they did do it his way and that’s one reason the Kentucky-Texas Western game had the impact that it did.

You have to understand the stereotypes that were popular at the time. Even though only an idiot could deny that blacks had talent for the game, there were still those who insisted that physical talent was all blacks had. Intelligence and discipline remained the province of the white player.

But the nation saw the stereotypes turned on their head in the title game. It was the white team trying to play racehorse basketball, while the black team played a slow, defense-oriented game. Kentucky averaged over 90 points a game and threw up 70 shots against the Miners. Texas Western might have been a black version of Oklahoma A&M – Haskins’ team walked it up the court, took good shots and dominated the game with their defense.

To me, that’s the message of the 1966 title game. It’s not that an all-black team was allowed to play against or even beat an all-white team. In itself, that was just a small step forward in what had been going on in basketball over the previous decade. More important was that Texas Western beat Kentucky at its own game ... and I’m not talking about basketball. Rupp’s teams always prided themselves on playing with more intelligence and more discipline than their opponents ... but on this night, Texas Western was the team that played with more intelligence and more discipline.

That’s an aspect of the game that I didn’t see in Glory Road.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the movie and if you like basketball, you probably will too. Just don’t take what happens on the screen as fact. Remember that it was merely “based” on a true story.