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Long ago Haskins had a chance to coach the Dallas Chaparrals of the ABA, and over the years he was courted by his alma mater, now known as Oklahoma State, and by Washington and the University of Detroit, which offered three times what he was earning in El Paso at the time and ended up hiring a man named Dick Vitale. Haskins turned everyone down. "If you're gonna make money," he says, "you've gotta go to a high-profile school."
Nothing, however, set Don and Mary further back every which way than the death in 1994 at age 42 of the oldest of their four sons, Mark, after a long illness. Insurance covered most of Mark's medical care, but bills still gouged out a piece of the Haskins's savings, which included a $500,000 annuity arranged for Don in the late '80s by a circle of wealthy UTEP boosters. His son's death is one of those places Don resolutely won't go. "I didn't take care of myself real well," he will say. "Fifteen years ago I thought I was going to coach forever. Now I know better."
Yet he continues to show up faithfully at the Don Haskins Center—right across Mesa Avenue from where Mary works part time as a travel agent—not so much because there isn't enough money in the bank, but because there's so much of himself invested in the program. "They should almost have exit counseling for some of these guys," says Majerus. "Tark [Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian] wants to win one more. [Former Dayton coach Don] Donoher hung on, and now he doesn't remember the Final Four he went to or the 437 wins—only the last few seasons when he lost. Don Haskins reminds me of the milk horse my grandpa had in Sheboygan. Once he'd hitched it up, that horse didn't want to do anything else its entire life."
"Don't know what it was like where you grew up...." Haskins has launched into another story, one that throws light on his sympathy for the customerless waitress, for the family whose car broke down, for Norm Ellenberger. It illuminates what Floyd calls Haskins's "tremendous appreciation for people who have been through hard times." Haskins is telling the tale of Herman Carr: "...but Enid was set on a town square. I lived on the east side, and like in most towns of that era, blacks lived on the other side of town. Back then I played basketball daylight to dark. It was my sophomore year or so that I met Herman in the park. I was supposedly one of the better players at my high school. He played for [all-black] Booker T. Washington. He was 6'2". We'd play, never more than the two of us, and it was always a battle."
Though only 6'1", Haskins could dunk. He loved the game so much that he spent the nights of his junior and senior proms shooting hoops in the gym while his classmates swanned on the far side of a curtain. "Thought everybody was crazy but me," he says.
But being called one of the best players in the state, being invited to play for Mr. Iba, didn't mean quite as much when you knew there was someone just across town who might be better than you but wasn't permitted to play with you. "Would have been nice to have played with Herman in high school," Haskins says. "I remember just thinking how unfair it was that this guy couldn't play. Unfortunately, there wasn't a little more equality back then."
That's the closest thing to a ringing social statement you'll get from Haskins. "They made it a big deal after the Kentucky game," he says of his long-ago role as basketball's Earl Warren. "That particular night, believe me, I'm not thinking about that. We got home, and all of that was a total shock to me. The mail, it stalled a week or two later. Got about a year of it. 'Dear Nigger-lover.' And every once in a while a letter from a black leader saying that I was an exploiter. That hurt a little bit. To say I went in there waving the flag, that's not true. I just played my best guys, like any coach would do. There were three black players on the team when I arrived in El Paso. It's not like I started it."
But there's this thing about stories: Others can tell them, too. Andy Stoglin, the coach at Jackson State and a former Miner, tells of a time during the 1962-63 season that Haskins called him into his office: "Coach Haskins isn't a real talkative guy, but I could tell something was bothering him. He asked me to sit down in his chair, his chair, and he pulled out a drawer. He dumped a bunch of letters on top of his desk and asked me to read them while he left the room. They said he was playing too many niggers, stuff like that: hate mail. He came back 15 minutes later and asked me if I'd read enough. He said, 'I know you realize you're one of the starters. But the reason I don't start you at home'—and he said he hated this—'is that we have to win enough games and then maybe someday we can change things.' "
Richardson was also a Miner that season and, like Stoglin, is black. He remembers Haskins telling him the day of a game that he wouldn't be stalling that night. The coach told Richardson much the same tiling he'd told Stoglin, adding that he believed Richardson—a senior and an El Pasoan—could cope better than any of his black teammates with what Haskins made clear he regarded as an injustice. Says Richardson, "Right before game time he says, 'Richardson! Piss on 'em, you're starting. Piss on what they'll say.' "
In their recountings both Richardson and Stoglin stress that they respected Haskins that much more for having shared his anguish. And their stories suggest that if he really was oblivious to the significance of what he did in 1966, it's because he had first taken a stand several years before. Yet Haskins denies any recollection of Richardson's and Stoglin's accounts. Read them to him, so his memory might respond to the prod of detail, and he's even more emphatic. "I don't recall this sack of letters," he says of Stoglin's story. "Andy said that?" And of Richardson's story: "Don't remember that ever happening."