UTEP's '66 win at Cole altered college game

UM's Williams saw upset

Denver's altitude noted

Maryland notebook

College Basketball

March 18, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

DENVER - In 1966, a skinny 20-year-old point guard named Gary Williams slipped in the back door of Cole Field House unnoticed. He quietly made his way through the stands until he found a seat, and from there, he watched as 10 young men - five of them white, and five of them black - played one of the most important games in college basketball history.

The game was the 1966 national championship, and Williams never forgot what he saw that day. Texas Western coach Don Haskins and his starting lineup of five black players defeated Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp and his starting lineup of five white players, forever altering the face of college basketball.

So much has changed since 1966 - including Texas Western, which in 1967 became the University of Texas at El Paso. But the impact of that game, which opened the door to basketball players of all races and backgrounds, has perhaps never been more obvious.

Today, when Williams leads Maryland onto the court against UTEP, the two teams will have not only African-American and Caucasian players, but also three with Hispanic and one with Brazilian heritage.

"They should be congratulated as a university [for what they helped accomplish]," Williams said.

The 1966 national championship is never far from the mind of the Miners' second-year coach Billy Gillispie, but for different reasons.

Though Haskins retired in 1999, he is still heavily involved with the program and talks with Gillispie on a daily basis. UTEP is still the only school in the state of Texas to ever win a national championship in basketball, and Gillispie estimated that he thinks about what Haskins accomplished "40 to 50 times a day."

"There isn't anyone more passionate about UTEP basketball than Don Haskins," said Gillispie. "He attends all of our games, and he helps us out a lot. ... We invited he and his wife to come to this game, but Coach isn't really the traveling type.

"He doesn't like going places much unless he can drive there himself in his old truck, which goes about 30 mph. I think if he tried to drive from El Paso to Denver, he'd probably get here some time next week."

That Denver altitude

Several Maryland players said yesterday they definitely noticed the altitude change when they arrived to practice in the Pepsi Center.

"I have a cold, and I was definitely feeling more congested," said sophomore forward Nik Caner-Medley.

"I was just running around a little bit, and I ran out of breath pretty quick," said sophomore Chris McCray. "It didn't take very long to get used to it, though."

Gillispie said he thought the idea that teams struggle with the thinner air at higher altitudes (Denver is 5,280 feet about sea level) was mostly a myth.

"It's something I should study, because we're at about 3,800 feet [above sea level] in El Paso, and I don't think Maryland is nearly that high," Gillispie joked. "I don't think it's going to affect anyone."

Miners' Rivera a leader

Unlike many of his friends growing up in Puerto Rico, UTEP point guard Filiberto Rivera wasn't interested in playing baseball. In fact, he said yesterday he'd never even heard of Darryl Strawberry, former major league all-star and father of Maryland guard D.J. Strawberry. His first, last, and only love was always basketball.

"I've been playing basketball since I was 4 years old," said Rivera, a first-team all Western Athletic Conference selection this season after averaging 11.2 points at 4.7 assists. "All my life, I knew I wanted to be a basketball player."

It wasn't easy. When Rivera left Puerto Rico after high school three years ago to enroll at Southeastern Community College in West Burlington, Iowa, he didn't speak English.

"When I went to Iowa, I couldn't understand the coaches; I didn't know what they were saying," Rivera said. "Almost every night, I would cry. But after I took some [English as a second language] classes, I learned how to say a few sentences, and then I turned out to be pretty good. Now I have very little problem speaking English."

"This is not even close to last year," said Rivera, the 2003 Junior College Player of the Year after leading his team to a junior college national title. "There weren't as many people watching as there will be [today]. I think this is much better."

Coaching rumor

Gillispie, who has been rumored to be a candidate for the Texas A&M job, said he has not been contacted by the Aggies administration.

"Speculation for these things in this day and age is at an all-time high," Gillispie said. "I'm here to coach my team, and I'm focused on them. They appreciate the focus. We're just trying to survive and advance."

Sun staff writer Gary Lambrecht contributed to this article.

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