The Rest of the (True) Story: The 1966 East Texas State Lions Basketball Team & It’s role in a famous College Basketball Season

I knew I said we were on a break, but seeing all the great Basketball that has been played in the NCAA tournament has Me thinking about hoops a lot lately. In the decade that I have been writing for this site, doing a smattering of things from history, to great stories, to games we played 4 weeks ago or even 4 decades ago, one of the things I find myself endeared to is the great history and how our University was at the forefront of so much sports history that so little know about. Figures such as as Shelby Metcalf, Bob Rogers, John Carlos, Dwight White, and Harvey Martin all called East Texas State home for a while. All of those people made marks in whatever sport they were in, but there was a team that was portrayed by Hollywood back in the year 2006 that featured the University, it’s fanbase, and Basketball program.

In 2006, Walt Disney released Glory Road, a movie based on the 1966 Texas Western Miners (now UT-El Paso) Basketball team that was the first team to start 5 Black players in a National Championship game. It chronicled their season from a team that nobody had known about to the team that upset perennial power Kentucky, an all-White team coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp. The movie is one of my favorites, but it got a lot wrong. Some of it was innocuous, some of it simply took liberties, and some of it was outright slanderous. I have stood up for my school many times, and for those who love the movie and are inspired by the true life story of how a team that was denied service at restaurants and hotels, harassed, physically and verbally threatened won the greatest crown in college basketball, this one is for you.

In real life-

Prior to the 1965-66 season, the Texas Western Miners were not some scrub team and Don Haskins was not some fresh faced in over his head coach. Leading up that season, Haskins had been head coach in El Paso for 4 seasons and had amassed a 78-25 record. The players he had recruited did not just magically show up to campus, he had been putting together this squad for years before that. He had also been to the NCAA tournament twice before and the NIT the prior season. He had starting recruiting Black players from the moment he started in El Paso, but America back then was as hesitant and in many ways, hostile to change, especially regarding race relations and integration. Haskins didn’t care. He put his best 5 on the floor, no matter if they were White, Black, or whatever. The irony is that Haskins is on the record saying he never meant to make a social statement, he was just into winning, and he felt that Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Orsten Artis, Willie Worsley, and Harry Flournoy were the 5 to win him a title. He was right.

Meanwhile, across the state in Commerce, Texas, Norman Pilgrim was ready for his 8th season in Commerce. He has won two Lone Star conference championships in 1958 and 1964 and had gotten them to the NAIA National Playoffs in 1964 and all the way to the NAIA Elite in 1958. Pilgrim was a winner and had learned well under his predecessor, the great Bob Rogers. Pilgrim was coming off his toughest season, a very rare losing record of 10-13. Pilgrim saw no reason that his Lions could not compete for the LSC title again and get back to the NAIA postseason.

The Game-

In the film, East Texas State and Texas Western did indeed meet during the 1965-66 season it was the second game for Texas Western, who had buried Eastern New Mexico in their first game, 89-38, and it was the fourth for the Lions, who came into the game 3-0. However, that is about where it ends regarding the truth. It was not close to being what it was portrayed in the movie. First, the shots of the game show the arena striking a very close resemblance to our beloved University Fieldhouse and the the game showed being played during December and the hotel nearby being defaced with racist graffiti. All of that is 100% fake. Also, and perhaps the most troubling part is when Josh Lucas’s character (who plays Don Haskins) says “ignore this trash, just take the court!” I asked my Dad, who was a student back then, among others if anything remotely close to that happened. The only thing I the movie got remotely right was that the crowds at The Fieldhouse were always packed to the brim for home games and Norman Pilgrim teams defended their home court very well, but the Commerce fans never acted like that. Problem, is it was being played 700 and some odd miles in El Paso, not in Commerce. The game was a solid 73-51 win for the Miners over the Lions, and there were no technical fouls or ejections in the record book, and clean game. Norman Pilgrim and Don Haskins shook hands and the Lions headed back to Commerce.

The rest of the story-

One of the things the movie got right was that Kentucky, the team that Texas Western beat in the NCAA title game, was an all-White program and that was true. UK Coach Adolph Rupp, was portrayed as an ignorant and cold Man, indifferent to the injustices of what was going on. Wrong Again. Rupp had hired Neil Reed, who had coached at inner city schools and had earned the trust of Black High School coaches in the Northern part of the country. Rupp knew there was talent there. In an interview with Blue Big History, Reed said;

He told us how Rupp not only had been unfairly stereotyped, he’d been sold short.

“Not only was he NOT a segregationist, according to Reed, Rupp was progressive, backing a move by UK to formally desegregate the SEC in the early 60’s. He even had Reed draw up a mock schedule of northern teams to gauge the difficulty of leaving the conference. Reed said it wouldn’t have been hard to do, but Dr. Frank Dickey, who was UK’s president at the time, told them it would not have been economically feasible, and the move was turned down by the Board of Trustees.”

That’s right, Rupp was willing to leave the powerful SEC conference so that he could have Black players on his team.

The Lions can also claim that they were not a segregated program. The 1966 Lion Roster had 4 Black players on it, all recruited by Norman Pilgrim, with the full blessing and encouragement of President James Gee, who had given the green light to recruit Black players for all sports to all coaches in the Spring of 1963. One of those players that was recruited by Pilgrim was the great James Thrower, who played Basketball before he was poached by Ernest Hawkins to play tight end for the Lion football team. Pilgrim was the first coach to integrate the Lion Basketball program. The change that was blowing in the wind, as the great Bob Dylan said, was embraced by all three coaches mentioned in this article.

Hollywood loves to embellish things, but as great and inspiring as the Movie was, there was no need to plaster the label RACIST to Adolph Rupp or to East Texas State University. The Bible says the truth will set you free, and it indeed does. The Texas Western Miners faced plenty of real racism in those years, even when they beat Kentucky 57 years ago. There was no need to add fake stories, but it shows how despicable some people can be. Kentucky and East Texas were easy targets to be portrayed as racists and bigots. I can just see the smug producers and script writers. “Adolph Rupp? He was an old Man born in Kansas, he was white, and his team was white, he had to be a racist. Let’s make him one.” “East Texas State? You know East Texas is nothing but racists. Let’s trash that school and pin crimes on it that it never committed, don’t you know East Texas is racist?!”

The Kentucky alums and fan base were just as riled up our alums were. People who were here in the 1960’s knew Commerce was so far from perfect, but it had done everything it could to not be trashed when history was written. Their coach was smeared and our University and Community, was smeared as well. In fact, I remember I had a Marketing professor who had graduated from Kentucky and was now teaching in Commerce, she lamented how “A movie labeled her Alma Mater and employer have been smeared unfairly and impugned as horrible racists.” She got that right.

Despite pleas from our alumni office and our then University President Keith McFarland to issue an apology by Walt Disney, one never came. They used “poetic license” as an excuse. The Kentucky alums threatened to sue Walt Disney for defamation, but they had more money to throw at that endeavor. However, our University used the Texas A&M System to legislate a law that never came to pass that prompted the Texas state senate to consider a bill which would allow financial assistance from the state to be withheld for films that portray the state negatively.

All that to say, the East Texas State Lions finished their season 12-12, and had they won 2 more games, would have qualified for the NAIA tournament, but dropped a critical game to Southwest Texas State that eliminated them for the team. Pilgrim would coach until 1967, and retire with 152 wins, 2 conference championships, and an appearance in the NAIA Elite 8. He would be succeed by the great Jim Gudger.

The Texas Western Miners would go 28-1, losing only to Seattle by 2 points. They entered the NCAA tournament taking out Oklahoma City 89-74 at Wichita State University. That was followed up by an overtime win over Cincinnati at the Lubbock Regional, and a legendary double overtime game against Kansas to win the Lubbock Region. In the final four, they downed Utah 85-78, and then took down the legendary UK program 72-65. Legendary NBA Coach Pat Riley, who coached the showtime Lakers, the New York Knicks of the 1990’s and the Miami Heat of 2006, was a player for the Kentucky team. Don Haskins would coach until 1999, amassing a massive 719 wins along with 7 Conference titles and 14 NCAA tournaments.

Finally, Pilgrim and Haskins were college teammates at Oklahoma A&M College (Now Oklahoma State University) from 1949-1951. History really is neat.

Now you know the rest of the story.

The true story, that is.

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