In 1966, band of brothers rattled college basketball

Bill Knight
The El Paso Times

Fifty years, half a century, the better part of a lifetime, and it can slip past in the blink of an eye.

The El Paso and UTEP families celebrate a special championship this week, remember a special group of young men who banded together and conquered the college basketball world 50 years ago.

These special men are no longer young. They can no longer run and jump and make a basketball court their personal playground the way they did half a century ago. A dozen young men — seven black, four white, one Hispanic — bonded and banded together.

“We were brothers,” said Nevil Shed, one of the black players.

It was a beautiful time, but it was an ugly time. Racial tension screamed across the land.

But not with that band of brothers. And not within this university, this city.

Nolan Richardson once said, “No town is colorless. But El Paso might be about as close at it comes.”

The city with heart

Upon moving here nearly four decades ago, someone greeted me with this advice: “Just show people in this city that you want to be here and they will welcome you with open arms.”

Perhaps that sums up the heart of this old city about as well as possible. El Pasoans welcomed that band of brothers in 1966. They welcomed Richardson, an El Paso native, before that. They welcomed Charles Brown, a gifted basketball player, in 1957. Brown is recognized as the first black athlete in a major sport at a major university in the old Confederate South.

To put things in perspective, Brown played for Texas Western in the final three years of the 1950s. The old Southwest Conference, featuring all the major universities in Texas and the University of Arkansas, did not have a black scholarship athlete until Jerry LeVias played football for SMU in 1966.

Officials from the University Interscholastic League, the governing body of Texas high school athletics, said they did not keep such records. But one UIL representative once said Richardson was believed to be the first black coach at an integrated high school in Texas.

That is not to say there was no racism. There was. But it does say that El Paso and Texas Western/UTEP embraced their own — regardless of skin color.

Of course, that band of brothers in 1966 has been a well-documented story — documentaries by CBS, HBO, ESPN and CBS Sports, and that successful movie “Glory Road.”

A special coach

The mastermind for this band of brothers, the man who put them all together and made them one, was the man whose name adorns the UTEP basketball arena these days: Don Haskins.

He was a cowboy as hard as nails with a hidden heart of gold from Oklahoma. Haskins, too, was embraced by this city and forever will be known as one of El Paso’s own.

Haskins was larger than life, the John Wayne of college basketball coaches, a man who could intimidate a fence post and charm the families of recruits. He put this team together piece by piece and never wavered.

“I was just playing my best players,” he said a thousand times.

That March night in College Park, Maryland, was the first time five black players had faced down five whites in the NCAA championship game. Texas Western dusted Kentucky, 72-65, and it was not as close as that final score indicated.

It has been a wonderful story, a wonderful source of pride for this university, this city, a wonderful 50-year ride. The win was special. When is a national championship not special?

The history has made it more special. The band of brothers was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007. It was the first college team ever to be inducted into that international hall.

But what truly puts an exclamation point on this story is the ending, the denouement, the falling action. All these men have led good lives, been successful at a variety of things. There is, after all, no ending like a happy ending in this big, beautiful, bustling musical we call life.

And these men, these brothers, will forever be remembered in this old border city. It is announced before every UTEP basketball game in the Don Haskins Center that this is “the only men’s national championship team in the state of Texas.”

Perhaps that will change one day.

But, as Shed says in his booming voice, “That’s OK. Let somebody else from Texas win it. Let the Mother Ship (University of Texas) win it. But even if they do, we will always and forever be the first.”

That 50 years has flown by, but the pride has always been there: the best of co-pilots for 50 years, for a lifetime.