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Green: Bobby Joe Hill's legend smiles on NCAA Tournament

Jerry Green
Special to The Detroit News
Bobby Joe Hill

It was a mere wisp of a smile, meek and dignified and mild — and imperishable.

Outside in the arena, the young lad had just been the major performer in an historic event — a basketball game that profoundly and irrevocably altered American sports.

His name was Bobby Joe Hill and he had scored 20 points to carry his team to the NCAA basketball championship. He played for Texas Western.

And Texas Western had just defeated Kentucky in the championship game of the NCAA Tournament. It was a monumental upset, a small school beating a perennial giant.

But it was more than that. Upsets happen. Tom Izzo knows.

This was five black kids playing for Texas Western and defeating an all-white Kentucky team coached by the famed, basketball aristocrat — Adolph Rupp, Col. Rupp as he was called — had refused to recruit black players for his powerful Kentucky program.

There was theater on the court when Texas Western won, 72-65. A celebration and a presentation and the athletes trooped off.

We were trudging through the tunnel heading for the locker room.

Somehow I was walking right next to Bobby Joe Hill. I looked over and told him that I was from Detroit, that I was there reporting on the game for The News.

And in response I was rewarded with this marvelous smile — a proud smile, a kid’s shy smile — two guys from the same hometown.

The smile, and the magnitude of the event, remain a prominent vignette in my personal sports archives.

Milestone moment

It happened on Saturday night March 19, 1966 — 50 years ago. It happened in the Cole Field House on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park, a suburb of Washington.

It happened 19 years after Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball. And it happened when Muhammad Ali was fighting heavyweights and bigotry and the U.S government at the same time.

And on this memorable night a half-century ago, Bobby Joe Hill made an imprint on American sports and American society.

Hill was just 5-feet-10, but he dominated the game.

He had come out of Highland Park High School, a perennial Class A Michigan prep power. He wound up at Texas Western; I’m presuming because he was not recruited by Michigan, which had Cazzie Russell and Bill Buntin back then. And because he was not recruited, still presuming, by Michigan State or the University of Detroit.

There were no words, that I recall, just the smile.

The words would come from Don Haskins, the coach who assembled this dominant team 50 years ago —  long before the NCAA lowered its basketball tournament into a festival of mediocrity.

Haskins discovered Bobby Joe at a sports camp.

And together they became part of a legend.

The legend was transformed into a motion picture film, “Glory Road,” by Disney which stepped forward from Mickey Mouse. It was chronicled in a book, “And When the Walls Came Tumbling Down,” by Frank Fitzgerald.

“I wasn’t out to be a pioneer when we played Kentucky,” Haskins said before his death in 2008, in a quote recovered by the Associated Press.

“I was playing the best players on the team, and they happened to be black.”

Sports Illustrated, in a powerful piece by Frank Deford, wrote that Rupp pretty much ignored Texas Western. Rupp, SI said, was more concerned with Duke, its semifinals foe.

“I really wonder if he knows who I am yet,” SI quoted Haskins as saying the night before the ’66 championship game.

“Oh, well, maybe he will by tomorrow night.”

By 1966 — before the current glut of 68 teams and underwhelming mediocrity in the NCAA’s most prestigious event — the Final Four and the tournament final were becoming an American sports staple.

So it was pictured across America via television.

Kentucky, from the then lily-white Southeastern Conference, was an eight-point favorite among the betting public.

And according the annals, the telecast started with the announcer informing his audience:

“A team that has no offense but wants to work one-on-one all the time. The Washington press has pretty well conceded that Texas Western cannot stand up to Kentucky.”

Takeaway moments

Bobby Joe Hill turned the game in the first half with two successive steals — two dashes dribbling through the forecourt — and two left-handed layups. On Hill’s steals, he swiped the ball from one of Kentucky’s star players, Louie Dampie

The video still available on You Tube shows that Hill just took the basketball away.

from Dampier in mid-dribble and went in solo for the layup. And then on Kentucky’s next foray, Hill repeated the play with another steal from the sleek Dampier.

Right then, the young man from Highland Park became part of sporting Americana.

All sorts of sports fragments emerged from that game in addition to the movie and the book.

Texas Western changed names – to Texas-El Paso.

Don Haskins, a few years after winning the NCAA championship at Texas Western, was hired to coach basketball at the University of Detroit. He was introduced at a royal press conference by UD at the Detroit Golf Club. There, Haskins was grilled sharply by a whole bunch of us from Detroit sports journalism about problems within the UD’s program.

After 24 hours or so, Haskins decided that we-the-media in Detroit were too hot for him. He resigned from the UD job and went back to Texas-El Paso. He would be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Eventually Haskins’ decision to quit before he ever coached a game for Detroit led to the hiring as Titans’ coach of an unknown from the New Jersey high school and college assistant ranks.

The unknown guy – who took the job, I believe for 7,000 bucks – was Dick Vitale.

Bobby Joe Hill’s glory road did not take him to the NBA. He stayed in El Paso and worked for the gas company. In late 2002, Bobby Joe suffered a heart attack and died. He was just 59.

He remains a cherished sports figure is American civil rights history.

And for me, that glowing, glorious smile from 50 years ago remains vivid – untouched, unenhanced. Pure, the smile of an underdog kid from back in our hometown who had just won a national championship.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sports writer.