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WHEN IT WAS OVER WE GOT THE
ALL I EVER WANTED TO DO WAS DANCE.
Pat Riley, Kentucky '67, Hollywood forever, his glorious clothes matched only by his looks, is still dancing. Willie Cager, Texas Western '69, in a sweatshirt and windbreaker, his head cocked from an awful stroke that nearly killed him five years ago, can barely walk. Yet 25 years ago Cager's team won and Riley's team lost a college basketball game that changed the sport forever. And maybe changed a nation as well.
Oh, nobody knew it back then. Nobody realized the significance of the NCAA championship game in College Park, Md., on March 19, 1966, in which Texas Western, playing black men exclusively—five starters plus two reserves—defeated Kentucky, suiting up only whites, 72-65. Would the amazing racial transformation of basketball, of college athletics, of all sport, have happened if dust-blown, independent, absolutely unheard-of Texas Western hadn't shocked traditional, blue-blooded, four-time NCAA champion Kentucky? Certainly. Just as humanity would have lifted off without the Wright brothers and rocked around the clock without Bill Haley.
But to everything there is a season...turn, turn, turn. An all-black team had never played an all-white team in the NCAA title game, much less beaten one. And it would never happen again...turn, turn, turn. Curiously, in the explosive mid-'60s, black-white was for the op-ed pages. In Games 'R' Us, college basketball, folks wore the phrase "color blind" on their cardigan sleeves. Black-white? Following the '66 championship game, Don (the Bear) Haskins, the 36-year-old white coach who masterminded the El Paso-based Miners to the title, met the small press contingent covering the game for a full 10 minutes, and black-white never came up.
"A landmark game?" said Tommy Kron, one of the Kentucky guards in '66, just the other day. "Nobody looked on it as that important. If it was, it was luck. Just a happenstance."
"That part [black-white] never crossed our minds," says former Texas Western guard Orsten Artis.
"Just business," adds Artis's backcourt mate, Bobby Joe Hill. "We weren't on a crusade."
Color-blind or blind fools?