By Omar Tyree
Nearly a decade ago, my wife and I took our two basketball fanatic sons to the local movie theaters to watch a film called “Glory Road,” about a Texas Western (El Paso) University basketball coach, Don Haskins, who decided not only to recruit African-American student athletes to the school — during a tough era of American segregation in the 1960s — but to start them all in the 1966 NCAA finals against the all-White University of Kentucky Wildcats.
My oldest son, Ameer, who was already familiar with the popular college basketball programs said, “Wow, dad, so this all-Black team is gonna beat an all-White Kentucky team.” The concept of an all-Black basketball team as a college underdog to an all-White team was totally alien to my young son. In 1966, the year that he was born, Kentucky won its sixth title under then-coach Rick Pitino, with a team full of Black players, including Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Antoine Walker, Jamaal Magloire, Nazr Mohammed and a very athletic Ron Mercer. That 1996 Kentucky Wildcats team used a full-court press to dismantle the opposition, while sprinting up and down the floor, like a track and field relay team, executing acrobatic dunks and faced-paced lay-ups and jump shots.
The pre-desegregation Kentucky Wildcats teams, coached by the legendary Adolf Rupp from 1930-1972, had won four NCAA titles and multiple Southeast Conference Championships by 1966, all without any African-American players on the team until Tom Payne accepted a scholarship offer to attend Kentucky in 1969. Although it has been reported that coach Rupp had actively recruited Kentucky natives, Wes Unseld and Butch Beard as early as 1964, he also made no secrets about how difficult it would be for them to integrate Kentucky’s basketball team and with a populace of racially intolerant students, parents and alumni. So Unseld and Beard took their talents to the in-state Kentucky rival at the University of Louisville Cardinals.
NBA Champion coach Pat Riley, with the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat, was a member of that losing Kentucky Wildcats team of 1966, and he said the experience made an impact on his life and reminded him years later how fiercely proud and inspired African-Americans ball players were to have that Texas Western victory. He now seeks opportunities for the best players to be a part of his teams regardless of their race, class, color or creed.
Ironically, after Pat Riley was dunked on in the game by David Lattin, NCAA officials went on to band the intimidating and crowd-stirring art of the slam dunk from 1967-1976, right in time to deny one of the most dominant African-American big men in NCAA history — Lew Alcindor at UCLA — who would later take on the name Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and develop the most beautiful and unstoppable shot in basketball, the “sky hook.”
Fast forward 50 years later to 2015, and the Kentucky Wildcats basketball program is now led by top recruiter and inclusive coach, John Calipari, who is barely able to secure a minute of quality playing time for the White American players that are left at the end of his team bench. In fact, Kyle Wiltjer, one of the few White players to receive significant playing time over the past six years of Calipari’s Kentucky regime, transferred to Gonzaga, where he’s become a star of the team and a college standout.
Under Calipari, the present-day Kentucky Wildcats chase NCAA basketball history as one of the few undefeated teams to enter the NCAA tournament at 34-0, with a chance to win it all at 40-0, all with African-American starters, most of whom will turn pro a month later. Maybe it’s now the time, during our annual month of “March Madness” basketball talk, to remind millions of younger basketball fans how far not only Kentucky has come, but hundreds of other American colleges and universities, who now offer scholarships to African-American student athletes, where they didn’t before.
Coach John Calipari practically brags now about providing young African-American men and their families excellent opportunities to attend college, compete for championships, receive quality educations and ultimately a chance to increase their economic livelihood as professional players through his yearly program of intense competitive, team basketball.
Talk about turning around a program, Kentucky is now night and day from where it was in Glory Road days under Adolf Rupp and the America 1960s. Nevertheless, our next story needs to focus on how many of these new student athletes actually return to school and graduate, while learning something more than what it means to play college basketball as a celebrated phenom. That’s the next history lesson that needs to be told, and the next scholar-athlete movie that needs to written.
Omar Tyree is a New York Times bestselling author, an NAACP Image Award winner for Outstanding Fiction, and a professional journalist, who has published 27 books, including co-authoring Mayor For Life; The Incredible Story of Marion Barry Jr. View more of his career and work @ www.OmarTyree.com.