Cole Field House does not look a monument to college basketball. From the back, it has the appearance of some antiquated airplane hangar misplaced in the middle of a college campus. From the floor, the University of Maryland's gymnasium has neither the aura nor charm of other, more famous arenas.
But 25 years ago, the building played host to history. Or so everyone who witnessed the championship game of the 1966 National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament -- and some who didn't -- will tell you.
Kentucky vs. Texas Western.
All-white vs. all-black.
The Baron vs. The Bear.
"The end of an old era and the beginning of the new," says Joe B. Hall, then an assistant to Kentucky's legendary Adolph Rupp and later the Wildcats' head coach.
Undoubtably, there turned out to be a great deal of social significance to Texas Western's 72-65 victory over the top-ranked and highly favored Wildcats. As a result, doors opened throughout the South, some more slowly than others, for blacks to get their chance at playing major college basketball.
Yet at the time, those who played in the game gave more thought to their place in the record books than the history books. They knew the stark differences between the teams and their respective programs -- in terms of racial makeup, tradition and playing style -- but they didn't really care.
"We were just a bunch of kids trying to win a basketball game," says Dave Lattin, Texas Western's ferocious 6-foot-7, 245-pound center who now is a public relations man for a liquor distributor in Houston. "About a month after the game, you started to hear some rumbling about it. For the players it wasn't such a big deal."
"I look at it as an athletic event, not from the perspective of having great social relevance," says former Los Angeles Lakers coach Pat Riley, then one of "Rupp's Runts" and now a commentator for NBC Sports. "It's what the people on the periphery made it out to be. I don't look at it as some watershed game. There were a lot more significant events in the country than Texas Western beating Kentucky."
It had been two years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. It would be two years before Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the civil rights movement, was gunned down by an assassin. Although the Miners were the first Final Four team with an an all-black starting lineup, they were not the first to have a majority of black players in prominent roles.
The University of San Francisco teams that won back-to-back championships in the mid-1950s were led by Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. The Cincinnati teams that won titles in 1961 and 1962 started as many as three blacks.
The next year, the Bearcats lost in the championship game to Loyola of Chicago, which started four blacks. The 1964 UCLA team had Walt Hazzard in the backcourt, Fred Slaughter in the frontcourt and Kenny Washington off the bench.
"I'm not sure it's fair to tie any social movement to one event, as much to a period of time when attitudes in the country were changing," says ESPN announcer Larry Conley, a starting forward on the 1966 Kentucky team. "This particular game was totally magnified for social reasons, when in reality it was just a basketball game between two great college teams."
There was not much in the way of pre-game hype. The big matchup was supposed to have come in the semifinals, when No. 1 Kentucky played No. 2 Duke. After the Wildcats dispatched the Blue Devils, 83-79, Texas Western, ranked No. 3, was considered an afterthought. Hall recalls thinking differently after watching the Miners' 85-78 semifinal victory over Utah.
"I knew we were going to have trouble," he says.
While others were surprised by Texas Western's penchant fo discipline and defense, Hall was not. He knew Miners coach Don Haskins had played for Henry Iba at Oklahoma State. Haskins, then 36 and in his fifth year at the El Paso college, used to work his players extremely hard in practice.
"The games were easier for us than the practices," Lattin says.
Despite being heavy favorites, as much perhaps as Nevada-La Vegas is this year, the Wildcats were not at full strength. Conley had a fever of 102 degrees the night before the Duke game. Although the fever broke ("We fixed that up with some old-fashioned goose oil and vaporizer," Rupp said at the time), Conley had trouble running up and down the court. Star guard Louie Dampier also got sick.
"I haven't watched the tape of the game, but Riley told me that it looked like we were in a fog," Conley recalls. "We were supposed to be a quick team, but we looked like we were in slow-motion that night."