January 13, 2006
Glory Road
Posted by Gordon Smith

Texaswestern I am a sucker for a good sports movie, and Glory Road tells a story that would be difficult to botch. In 1966 Texas Western (now UTEP) won the NCAA basketball championship with seven black players defeating an all-white Kentucky team that starred Pat Riley and was coached by Adolph Rupp. Although the color barrier in college basketball was broken long before and the NBA was then being dominated by Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlin and Oscar Robertson, this game has assumed mythic importance because Texas Western started an all-black lineup in the NCAA championship. (Contrary to the movie, Texas Western started five black players all year, not just in the championship game. Coach Haskins was fond of saying that he just played his best players, regardless of race.)

The film implies that Texas Western coach Don Haskins went from coaching high school women one year to the national championship in the next, but he actually started at Texas Western in 1961. The official movie site states that in 1962 "Haskins hits the road to recruit black players who would lead TWC to the national championship. He finds talented, intelligent players who often had no other college scholarship offers because of their race." This was an era when college basketball included players like Cazzie Russell, Dave Bing, Elvin Hayes, and Lew Alcindor, but perhaps lesser players were being ignored. In any event, the absence of a true superstar among the Texas Western players emphasizes the greatness of their team.

Roger Ebert observes that this is a film about race, and he is right. Although the movie takes some liberties -- for example, portraying one of the players being assaulted in a bathroom by a group of four "crackers," even though that didn't actually happen -- the reality was pretty horrendous. This is from Harry Flournoy, one of the players:

I remember my sophomore year, we played a game in a tournament in Arkansas at the Arkansas State Holiday Tournament. We got there late and they knew we had one black player, Jim Barnes, who was our star player back then, but they figured that was it. And when you came onto the court back then, you came out under the stands, so the fans couldn't see you. They figured we maybe had two, three black players at most, then we walked out with five. When that guy came into our locker room to tell us to take as much time as we needed, his mouth dropped. He got the word 'coach' out, but that's as far as he got for what seemed like five minutes. When we came out onto the floor, you could hear a pin drop in there. That was the kind of stuff we put up with from then, and we had the same type of situations in 65-66 when we won the championship. I think the worst place we had to play was in Canyon, Texas, right outside Amarillo where we played West Texas State. The fans sit right on top of the basketball floor, there was no space between the players and the fans, so they would trip you, they would spit at you, they would call you names. When you were sitting on the bench, people would throw things at you. It was terrible, but if we were in any place we thought was hostile, we would cover each other's back. If anyone was going to try something, they didn't stand a chance against some of the guys on our team.

This is a feel-good movie, and it follows a formula. But it's a good formula.

If you are interested in finding out more about the real team, try the UTEP site.

UPDATE: In related news, a former graduate assistant to Don Haskins has placed one of the jerseys worn in the championship game against Kentucky up for auction.

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