March 19, 1966: one day that should live in sports infamy

April 16, 2005|By Gregory Kane

MARCH 19, 1966.

Anyone looking for a reason why the Orioles have not one black American player born in any of the 50 states on this season's roster needs look no further than the above date.

The place was Cole Field House on the University of Maryland, College Park campus. The occasion was the NCAA basketball championship game between the University of Kentucky Wildcats and the Miners of Texas Western University, now known as the University of Texas at El Paso.

A little after the 10 p.m. tipoff, Texas Western guard Bobby Joe Hill whipped a pass to his teammate Dave "Big Daddy" Lattin, who jammed a hoop over Pat Riley, who would later play for and coach the Los Angeles Lakers. That set the tone for the game, which the Miners went on to win.

What would have been a routine NCAA championship game became a landmark: Kentucky's team was all-white. Texas Western's team, though integrated, had five black starters. The game literally changed the complexion of college and pro basketball. What had been black America's casual love affair with basketball became an all-consuming passion.

If there is a nutshell explanation for the decline of black Americans in Major League Baseball, it would be the year 1966, and not only for the Texas Western-Kentucky game.

That was the year Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, defying the conventional wisdom of the day, started five black players.

It was the year Michigan State and Notre Dame played one of the most memorable college football games of the era, a 10-10 tie that secured the national championship for the Irish. Michigan State's starting quarterback, Jimmy Raye, and many of its players were black.

That same year Vince Lombardi did the unthinkable in pro football: He started six black players on defense, including one at the "thinking position" of linebacker.

Paradoxically, 1966 was perhaps the best year that Frank Robinson had in baseball. Newly acquired by the Orioles from Cincinnati, Robinson won the Triple Crown and was the Most Valuable Player of both the American League and that year's World Series.

Robinson is among the many who recently lamented the decline in African-American players in Major League Baseball. He can count me as one of his fellow lamenters. In fact, I'll go even further.

If I see an increase in the number of black players in either the National Basketball Association or the National Football League, I'll let out a scream that can be heard in Luke Skywalker's galaxy.

We have too many black professional basketball players. We have too many blacks in the NFL. Enough already.

And it all goes back to that March day in 1966. Some hail it as a landmark day in sports. I say it was a disaster. It started a mania among black youth for basketball -- and to a lesser extent, football -- that some say harms more than helps black America.

"The sports fixation damages black children by discouraging academic achievement in favor of physical self-expression," author John Hoberman wrote in his 1997 book Darwin's Athletes. Just so you know where Hoberman stands on this issue, the subtitle was "How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race."

One of those myths -- at least until last summer -- was that basketball is "a black man's game." The spanking that black NBA players received from white guys who live in places like Serbia and Argentina in last year's Olympic games should, we hope, put that myth to rest forever. A group of black American men not winning Olympic gold in 2004 was a bittersweet moment for me.

At first I was outraged that we got schooled in our own game. I even urged Congress to revoke the American citizenship of every guy who played on the team.

Of course, I was joking.

A little.

But then I was elated. The 2004 Olympics proved basketball isn't a "black man's game." It's a skilled athlete's game, and athletic talent knows no color.

The black boys in our nation's schools need to know that. When I visit middle schools, the common answer black boys give to my question about what career they will choose is either pro football or basketball.

But the time I asked one group to multiply four times $33,000 -- what it would cost them to go an expensive college -- they couldn't do it. When I pointed out that there are only about 50 guys on a pro football team and 32 teams in the NFL, I asked them to do the math.

They couldn't multiply 50 times 32 either.

Since the Kobe Bryants and LeBron Jameses who go straight from high school to the pros are few and far between, you have to wonder what college these boys hope to go to when they're unable to do even this simple math.

The answer is: none. When I ponder that, I sure as heck wish the University of Kentucky had beaten the pants off Texas Western on March 19, 1966.

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