By Shaquille Hill, For TheAfricanAmericanAthlete.com
How fitting that the 2019 NCAA Tournament starts on the 53rd anniversary of what is it’s most significant game: the 1966 National Championship between Kentucky and Texas Western. Texas Western head coach Don Haskins started five black players in the game, while Kentucky head coach Adolph Rupp started five White players. Both teams came into the game with 27-1 records.
Before the game, Rupp promised that his all-white lineup would be Texas Western’s five black starters. Haskins used that as motivation for his team. Kentucky was led by forward and future Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley, who averaged 21.9 points a game that season. Texas Western was led by point guard Bobby Joe Hill, who averaged 15.0 points and center David Lattin averaged 14.0 points and 8.6 rebounds.
Lattin would send an immediate message to the Wildcats with two dunks at the beginning of the game. Due to Kentucky’s 1-3-1 zone defense, the Miners started three guards.
Possibly the most famous plays of the game are the back-to-back steals by Hill in the first half, which were both converted into layups.
The game was played at a grinding, slow pace. Texas Western often passed the ball ten times before taking a shot.
This allowed the Miners to melt the last three minutes of the clock to seal the game. They’d win the game, 72-65.
Hill led all players with 20 points on 7-17 from the floor, while Lattin finished with 16. Ortsen Artis added 15.
The game took place at the height of the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. Just as Black people fought for their rights in the streets, athletes made statements on the gridiron, hardwood and the track.
The result hushed – at the time at least – the thought that black athletes could play the game, but not think it. In other words, they could perform physically, but the game of basketball would be too complicated for black players to truly understand. When games came down to crunch time, they would fold.
Clearly, this game showed the world otherwise.
Afterward, big schools began the slow process of integration in Division I sports, notably football and basketball. Kentucky wouldn’t have a black player on its roster until 1970.
To put this game and its significance into context, Michael Jordan was only three years old when this game took place. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were still 13 years from beginning their process of saving the NBA.
For a game with such history and victory, it seems to reign silently among players and fans of my generation, despite a hit movie that was released only 13 years ago. Although many of the game’s greats share the same hue as our Texas Western captains, their contributions are largely forgotten.
Their one shining moment may be the biggest and brightest of them all. May it shine forever for every Black person touched by the triumphs, talents, and
the greatness that takes place on the hardwood.
Thank you Texas Western. Champions forever.
(Shaquille Hill is a freelance sports journalist based in Flint, Mi.)