Don (the bear) Haskins sits, elbows resting against knees spread far apart. His forearms dangle between his legs, and much of the rest of him—the ursine swell of his torso, the melancholy wattles, the oddly serene latticework of his clasped hands—seems also to hang in the chasm between his knees. A basketball game is playing out before him, and occasionally its ebbs and flows move Haskins to hoist himself up by levering elbows on knees. He does so with such effort that it's hard to believe that this is how he would most enjoy passing the days as his 69th birthday approaches: watching as his team struggles to beat some mintjulep Princeton in a one-third-full building bearing his name.
It's tiny Samford of Birmingham that Haskins's University of Texas at El Paso Miners are hosting tonight, and an exam-period torpor leaves UTEP trailing at halftime. Four minutes remain when the Miners finally mince out to a two-point lead and the Bear orders them into a zone. Though Samford will not score again, Haskins does not watch UTEP's final two defensive possessions. A Miners assistant leaps up, waving, yelling instructions, as his boss closes his eyes and fingers the bridge of his nose.
It would be easy to conclude from this scene that the game has passed Haskins by. But while he no longer always looks, he still sees. If UTEP hadn't switched to that zone, Samford would have sustained its accustomed patterned style and very likely won. Game time still sets Haskins alight with passion, and only his physical inability to spring up in the faces of referees has spared him several technicals this season. Indeed, watch a Miners practice and you'll see players calibrated like seismographs to the sound of his voice, even as he rarely leaves his seat courtside. "He creates listening better than anybody I've ever been around," says Chicago Bulls coach Tim Floyd, who spent nine seasons as Haskins's assistant.
Still, the Bear is in winter. Penalties imposed with two NCAA probations have hamstrung his program virtually through the 1990s. Until this season the Miners hadn't turned in a winning record for three straight years, and twice they failed even to qualify for the Western Athletic Conference tournament. That UTEP was 16-9 as of Sunday and entertaining dreams of the NIT is one more tribute to the Bear's enduring effectiveness—yet the crowds in the Don Haskins Center have been even thinner this season than last. Little of this is remarked upon beyond El Paso, just as Haskins's 719 wins, with one epic exception, have passed largely unnoticed, and just as his name had to be suggested six times before an exhausted electorate finally waved him into the Hall of Fame two years ago. "He's still the fiercest competitor," says Utah coach Rick Majerus, who hooks up with Haskins in the WAC regularly. "He just doesn't have the players anymore to implement what he wants to do."
Once upon a time he did, famously so. Even Haskins's college coach, Henry Iba, picked Kentucky to beat Texas Western, as UTEP was then known, in the 1966 NCAA championship game. But Haskins knew that a small, quick lineup would give his Miners their best chance against Adolph Rupp's undersized Runts. He started 5'6" Willie Worsley in place of 6'8" Nevil (the Shadow) Shed, then saw his decision vindicated in the game's opening moments. Twice in a row Worsley's 5'10" running mate, Bobby Joe Hill, fleeced a Kentucky guard and sailed in for tone-setting conversions.
Today, to a generation that remembers them, the names of the players who unnerved Kentucky's shooters that night still resonate with a kind of forerunning cool. Not only Hill and Worsley and Shed but also Orsten (Little O) Artis and Willie (Scoops) Cager, David (Big Daddy) Lattin and Harry (Flo) Flournoy became outriders of a new wave, heralding basketball's inevitable evolution from roundball to hoop. Haskins played nobody but blacks in beating an all-white team, and for that he would get 40,000 pieces of hate mail and a dozen death threats. But over time, for presiding over college basketball's Brown v. Board of Education, he would also get credit for changing the game irrevocably.
At his home in Denver, a 38-year-old black postal maintenance worker named Herman Carr watched that game on a small black-and-white TV. Like Haskins, Carr had grown up during the 1940s in Enid, Okla., where the schools and neighborhoods remained segregated but where two kids, one black and one white, could quietly hook up on common ground, the basketball court in Government Springs Park. "I wondered if that was the same Don Haskins I used to play against in the park," Carr says. "He didn't look like I remembered him looking, but by then I didn't look like I'd looked when I was a teenager, either."
Today Haskins appears even more removed from the vigor of his youth, when he was a high school hero ticketed for Oklahoma A&M. In January 1996, at halftime of a game against New Mexico, he had a heart attack in the locker room. He underwent triple-bypass surgery and missed the next 12 games. Last month, at San Jose State, Haskins was so weak from a bout with the flu that he remained seated the entire game. He suffers from diabetes, an infected foot and lingering problems with his left eye, on which he had implant surgery before the season, an operation that accounts for his going to the bridge of his nose and missing those dying minutes against Samford, or so he'll say.
After a game, put at ease by a Scotch and company, Haskins might recall things he still sees vividly in his mind's eye. He might tell of a Mexican guy he watched in the early 1960s whacking golf balls out of a sand pile beside a construction site in El Paso, a guy daft enough to say he would someday play the PGA Tour, a guy who turned out to be Lee Trevino. Or of Mike Brumbelow, the football coach at Texas Western in the '50s, a spoonerizing raconteur who would call him Dan Hoskins. Or of his coach at Oklahoma A&M, whom even fellow coaches were careful to address as Mr. Iba. Or of how two years ago he went up to play Iowa State, which Floyd was then coaching, and did a little hunting with his former assistant before a game in which the officials would grant the Miners precisely four free throws. "Got me more pheasant that trip than foul shots," he might say.
He still talks that way, and it might sound like some carnival act for media folks who make their way through the fastness to Baja New Mexico. But it's not an act, if only because scarcely any media folks do come through, and there's no advantage to keeping such a shtick sharp.