The names roll trippingly off the tongue: Bobby Joe...the Shadow...Big Daddy D...Orsten Artis—quaint handles found in any trivia collector's basic answerthon as well as flesh-and-blood survivors of the 1965-66 Texas Western basketball team. A team with no past or future. A once-in-a-millennium team. A team that changed the course of civilization. Or something like that. The Texas Western Miners, the only team to win the national championship between 1964 and 1973 that wasn't called UCLA. The all-black-starting-five Texas Western Miners.
Where are they now? Orsten Artis is a detective on the Gary, Ind. police force. David (Big Daddy D) Lattin does public relations for a liquor company in Houston. Nevil (The Shadow) Shed is a college basketball coach in San Antonio. And Bobby Joe Hill—why, Bobby Joe works in the purchasing department of the gas company right there in El Paso where the latest edition of the Miners—the school has long since gone high tone from Texas Western to, excuuuuuuuuse me, the University of Texas at El Paso—is unbeaten, untied, practically unscored upon and virtually unknown.
Texas Western. Awwww, you bet. The name conjured up visions of the frontier: sagebrush, chaps and spurs, tough and nasty bandido hordes. But they don't make men—or name schools—like they used to. So heavily macho before, UTEP now seems to have gone to gossamer. A swingman grows roses behind a picket fence. A couple of the guards wear braces on their teeth. The best player is a man named Fred, who sports two gold teeth and dresses in Ralph Lauren signature stuff when he isn't hamming it up across the border in Juárez, modeling sombreros. Dang! Pass the feather duster, bar-keep. Make mine sarsaparilla. And come back, Shane.
Lest a stranger get the impression that coach Don Haskins, the girthsome, growling, legendary Bear, has turned into a Paddington and enlisted a bunch of finesse wimps in the name of progress or style, it should be noted that the Miners have fashioned their 13-0 record mostly out of the same ornery defense and bushwhack rebounding that Haskins has been teaching for 23 seasons. And, oh yes, a raw tenacity and low estimation of themselves that Haskins vociferously encourages at the hint of a missed assignment. "Are we this God-awful sorry or what?" he keeps asking his friends. "You're the biggest bunch of mess I ever did see," he keeps screaming at his players.
In truth, it has been difficult to judge how sorry UTEP may or may not be. The Miners beat Indiana and knocked off strong Louisiana Tech and Michigan, too, but most of their pre-Western Athletic Conference schedule has been sprinkled with Texas Southerns, Southern U's and injuries. Leading scorer Fred Reynolds has missed the last two games with back spasms. The team's best rebounder/defender, 6'7" senior Paul Cunningham, who prowls the middle of UTEP's zone like an enraged panther, has missed the last five games with a sprained ankle. "I got everybody hurt. We can't cover man-to-man. Nobody can rebound a lick. We should be eight and five. We got to be overrated." On and on Haskins groans about the team ranked eighth in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Top 20 this week, which only means that El Paso Eddie, as Haskins' friend Bobby Knight calls him in honor of his proficiency at hustling golf and pool games, is back in the saddle again.
It's Haskins' M.O. to ream out, poor-mouth and sandbag his troops just about every day that the sun shines over the Sun Bowl city, which, by the way, has been precisely 6,511 of the last 6,561 days, according to informed sources.
"The old players swear the man has softened up since the championship year, but if that's true there's no way I could have played for him back then," says Reynolds. "I think he's having flashbacks to '66. We win a game and get all hopped up. Then he comes in the locker room bitching and moaning about how we should've got our tails kicked. He's made me a complete player, though. And he's made this team. It's good that he won't let us get complacent. I bet if we won the national championship, he'd still be ticked off."
UTEP is probably too small to realize that lofty goal—6'10" sophomore Dave Feitl is the only Miner over 6'7"—but if determination, character and, uh, savagery are prerequisites, the team has a good chance to go a long way in the NCAA tournament, a destination UTEP hasn't reached since 1975.
Last season, after losing two starters to injury before their fourth game, the Miners regrouped to win 19 and gain a share of the WAC title with Utah and BYU. In the first round of the NIT, UTEP outscored Fresno State from the floor by six baskets but lost 71-64 when the home-standing Bulldogs were awarded 35 foul shots to the Miners' 12. That's home as in j-o-b. Fresno State went on to win the tournament. UTEP has avoided hazardous road trips so far this winter with the result that Haskins still can't figure out how good or bad his team is.
"We may not even be the third-best team in our league," he grumbled last week after the Miners embarrassed the national security wing of the schedule, U.S. International, 85-59, and the U.S. Air Force Academy, 72-50. The yawn-inspiring week was saved only by U.S. International's bearded, 5'2½" Zach Lieberman, who dribbled four times through his legs each time he shouted out a play called "hully gully." Said UTEP's Kent Lockhart: "I thought the plane had landed, and I was on Fantasy Island."