Fifty years ago, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament started with just 22 teams in the first round. When it came down to the championship game: on one side was the all-white Kentucky basketball team, as most college basketball teams were at the time; the challenger was Texas Western, an all-black team from El Paso – the university has since become the University of Texas at El Paso, or UTEP.
The matchup was historic, but film from that game has been buried in the archives, until now. Tomorrow ESPN will broadcast the game for the first time in five decades.
In 1999, Frank Fitzpatrick wrote the book on the game, quite literally – “And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: The Basketball Game that Changed American Sports.”
Fitzpatrick says he first noticed how slow-paced basketball used to be. “It’s the sociological significance and the historical significance of that game that make it so special fifty years later,” he says.
He says it was striking how, at the time, there was little comment in the nation’s newspapers on the racial makeup of the teams.
“It wasn’t until afterwards that people started to look at this game through a new lens,” he says, “and saw the dramatic contrast in the game and how that contrast helped affect college sports in the future.”
Fitzpatrick says one of the players on that championship team told him that they “played more ‘white’ than the white team.”
“The stereotypical thinking back then was that you couldn’t play five blacks together in a starting line-up because they would play an undisciplined, uncontrolled sort of style,” he says. “It sounds ridiculous now, but these were the notions that people held to be true then.”
He says that in fact, Texas Western played “an extremely disciplined style” with moving the ball up-court, playing a tight defense, and passing the ball a lot before shooting.
“(It was) atypical of what America had been led to believe what would happen if an all-black team played together on that court,” he says. “That’s why the game was so significant – it proved that that was nonsense. And almost immediately after that game, you began to see an increase in the number of black (players) at major colleges, not just in the South but all around the country.”
Fitzpatrick says when you see the footage, look sharp for some future legends of the game: early on, Texas Western player David Lattin, a native Houstonian nicknamed Big Daddy, dunks on future NBA player and executive Pat Riley, who plays for Kentucky. Five decades later, Lattin’s grandson Khadeem Lattin is playing for Oklahoma in this year’s Final Four.