The Most Important Basketball Game Ever Played

Sports have always been looked at as the world’s #1 common denominator. Regardless of your political beliefs, how much money you have or don’t have, or where you live, people will always come together and watch sports.

Don’t believe me? Go to an airport during March, where all the TV’s are playing college basketball and people are gathered around watching while they wait for their flight.

History also tells us that sports can be a catalyst to enforce change in more important areas in the world. As the sports industry (and the money behind it) have continued to grow exponentially, so has its impact in other areas of the world.

Now we see pro athletes publicly voice opinions on the shootings of  Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, college football players stand in student protests in Missouri, and so on.


Dec. 6, 2014 - Chicago, IL, USA - Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose wears a shirt reading ''I Can't Breathe'' while warming up for a game against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago. (Credit Image: © Chris Sweda/TNS/ZUMA Wire)
Dec. 6, 2014 – Chicago, IL, USA – Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose wears a shirt reading ”I Can’t Breathe” while warming up for a game against the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, Dec. 6, 2014 at the United Center in Chicago.


And of course, there are the “all-time moments” that have the most profound impact on sports today. Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball, the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey team upsetting the mighty Soviets in a symbolic victory, and Jesse Owens standing tall at the Munich Games.

The list goes on, but society seems to forget about one story that has the most profound effect on the game of basketball.

It’s a story that I fell in love with by chance at a young age. On a Martin Luther King Day in 2006, my mother and I went to a movie theater (I had the day off from school) and saw the movie Glory Road. 

Before I walked into that movie, I had no clue what the story was about. Today, as I watch the sport I love most dearly, I can’t help but to think that without the 1966 Texas Western Miners, basketball isn’t the same free-flowing, diverse sport it is today.

Coach Don Haskins (played by Josh Lucas in the movie) was one of the first to openly recruit black basketball players nationwide. From Detroit with guard Bobby Joe Hill, to Gary Indiana in Harry Flournoy and Orsten Artis, to New York with Willie Cager, Willie Worsley and Nevil Shed, and all the way down in Houston for David Lattin.

In total, Haskins brought in seven total black players to play for him in El Paso, all of which were extremely talented, yet were overlooked by just about every college coach because of the color of their skin.

It was a move that confused the media, angered alumni and the school itself, and infuriated the fans.

In 1966, white players dominated basketball, college or pro. There was a certain way the game was to be “properly played.” Many looked at black basketball players and saw undisciplined, selfish and showboating.

Haskins however, did not. As his players have said multiple times in interviews since the ’66 season, he didn’t see race, he saw talent.

On the court, it showed. The Miners won 23 straight, including an 86-68 drubbing of then #4 Iowa. Their lone loss came at the end of the season in Seattle, where the Miners (as the movie portrayed) battled a racist and raucous crowd, along with the referees, who did not call a single foul against Seattle the entire game. 

Yet, the Miners continued their cinderella season, making it to the national title game against powerhouse #1 Kentucky, a team that had a pair of Hall of Famers in Louie Dampier and Pat Riley, to go along with one of the all-time great college basketball coaches, Adolph Rupp.

It was in this game that coach Don Haskins decided to start and only play the black players on the Texas Western team. It’s also worth pointing out that this was as David v. Goliath as it can get. A world class basketball team vs. a group of unknown black players that weren’t recruited at all.

Texas Western out-classed Kentucky (and led majority of the game) winning 72-65.

Five black players vs. five white players. 50 years ago.

This past week, ESPN aired the entire 1966 championship game, something I had never seen before. Watching the game, it was evident which team was playing the modern brand. Kentucky played a 1-3-1 defense and relied on the jump-shooting of Dampier and Riley, while the Miners got out in transition, whipped the ball around, and drove to the basket with force.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Today, you look around the NBA and college basketball and you don’t think twice that both teams are possibly trotting out all-black lineups. Back then it was different, but at the end of the day, it was still a basketball game, as this medium post points out.

Later tonight the team (which was inducted into the Basketball Hall Of Fame in its entirety) will be honored at halftime of the second game in Houston, commemorating the 50 years since the team won the championship.

UNITED STATES - MARCH 19: College Basketball: NCAA Final Four, Texas Western (UTEP) Harry Flournoy (44) in action, getting rebound vs Kentucky Pat Riley (42), Cover, College Park, MD 3/19/1966 (Photo by James Drake/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images) (SetNumber: X11505)

A lot has changed in 50 years. Basketball has come a long way. The NBA is viewed as one of the most inclusive leagues in professional sports. Adam Silver made sure that ex-Clippers owner Donald Sterling and his plantation state-of-mind would never set foot in another NBA building again.

Becky Hammon became the first woman to coach in the NBA Summer League, and her time as an NBA head coach is coming soon. As mentioned before, the NBA’s most prolific players let their voices be heard on various racial topics outside the NBA.

50 years ago, when Bobby Joe Hill, Orsten Artis, Willie Worsley, Henry Flournoy and David Lattin lined up at center court as the starting lineup for the Texas Western Miners in the ’66 championship game, everybody knew it was a historic moment, but the game was still played like a regular game.

Tonight, at one point, a team will field an all-black lineup. CBS’ Jim Nantz will not mention it, Twitter won’t erupt. Nobody will do a second take.

Credit Don Haskins and 1966 Texas Western Miners, the team that changed everything in basketball.




2 thoughts on “The Most Important Basketball Game Ever Played

  1. I had the chance to meet one of the starters of that team. I’m talking about Nevil “the shadow” Shed. Truly one of the most inspiring people I’ll ever meet in my life. If not for Coach Shed I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was blessed with the opportunity to go all the way from my hometown in Mexico to the San Antonio Spurs Summer Camp. Before going to the camp, I didn’t even know who Mr. Shed was, but after spending 6 days playing 10 hours/day and listening to his amazing talks, I realized that I was very fortunate to have one of the all-time greats as my coach. The 1966 NCAA championship game will always be remembered as the biggest upset in sports history and the most important game in college basketball. The story will always be heard!

    1. Thanks for your comment. I graduated from Texas Western in 1964, and went to all of the home games. While a student, I knew the guys who became the 66 team. They were all nice to us fellow students, and even taught myself and a few others card games and fun athletic games. We in El Paso knew how great these guys were (ok, we never imagined the end of the season, but even Don could not have believed what would happen). They all became good, successful men in life, and are missed as they leave us (one team member died just a few days ago). As Haskins said, he was not trying to make history, just playing his best guys. And for the record, the best basketball player (and athlete) I ever saw play was some years earlier, an El Pasoan who also played for Haskins, Nolan Richardson. Nolan later was the first black coach to win a national championship (at Arkansas). He is also a terrific person and friend. Mike Bernstein.

Go ahead, test me...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s