Site Meter

Monday, September 8, 2008

RIP Don Hoskins, TX Western (El Paso) B-ball Coach

OK, so I'm skeptical of those great inspiring stories of overcoming racial prejudice that make the white guy out to be the hero--rewriting history along the lines of Mississippi Burning or some white going in and reforming inner city schools because the colored folks all love him/her. Or Glory, where the white commander is the key to the black soldiers' success. You know the type: those who extol William Lloyd Garrison and ignore Frederick Douglass; worship Harriet Beecher Stowe and pooh-pooh the stories of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman as so much hokum. Having said all that, here is a story that seems genuine (maybe I'm blinded by my whiteness, I don't know.) Don Haskins, coach of the first all-black starting 5 to win the NCAAs, never moved beyond his second-tier school in the middle of nowhere, because no one's white alumni bigwigs wanted him to come to their school and do that to THEIR team (at least not in the 60's and 70's). As the article says, the unwritten rule then (has it changed all that much in some places?) was “you played two [blacks] at home, three on the road and four if you were behind.”

According to (white) sportwriter Dan Wetzel (
"He was a man of great courage and conviction who essentially gave up on making it to the big time of college basketball when he dared to start all those black players. Almost no big school would touch him after that. He was typecast as an outcast in a dark and unforgiving time."

Here's another pertinent, revealing excerpt:
"The story of the 1966 Texas Western Miners was perfect for a Disney movie: On the night before the title game against Kentucky, Haskins decides to start five black players, they win and all is good.

Haskins liked “Glory Road.” He hated that part. He never said it publicly. He was above that. Fact is he had started five black players from Day 1, and the movie made Haskins look like he was afraid to do so. That pained him.

To pretend everything was great after the championship was a stretch, too. Racial slurs were never his greatest enemy. It was far more personal.

He was 36, with a wife and four kids. He had a low-paying job at a school no one had ever heard of. It had taken the family three years of living in the football dorm to save up for a house.

And he had a decision to make. A decision none of his coaching peers could understand why he was contemplating.

There was an old coaching axiom back then, when many college teams were still segregated. If you coached at a school that allowed black players, the joke went: “you played two at home, three on the road and four if you were behind.”

You never played five, especially in the South. Jackie Robinson had come along well before in baseball, but he was one black on a team full of whites. An all black team presented a different image to America.

Every coach knew it, including all of Haskins’ friends.

“They’d say, ‘Don, are you crazy?’ ” Haskins said.

By starting five black players, as he planned to do, the upward arc of his career would be over. He had started as a high school coach in a town of 253. He was a talented guy, big money and big opportunity awaited. Not this way though.

If he won, bigger, richer schools would see him as the coach of “the black team.” They’d never hire him. If he lost or, heaven forbid, there were any discipline problems with his players (there weren’t), he’d be fired and likely never work in the NCAA again.

“I understood what they were saying, I just said, ‘Piss on them,’ ” Haskins said. “Piss on them all. I brought these kids here; I’m playing my best players.’ “

The victory helped integrate not just schools but entire conferences – the ACC, SEC and Southwest Conferences were segregated at that point. Almost immediately the floodgates opened.

“He literally got thousands and thousands of black kids scholarships to college,” said Nolan Richardson, a former Haskins player. Later in life some of those players he had never met would approach him at airports and restaurants and thank him.

Haskins, as his friends predicted, got zero job offers. The only major school to ever try to hire him was his alma mater, Oklahoma State. Today if someone won an NCAA title at a mid-major, they’d choose their multimillion dollar job. Not in 1966. Not with that starting five.

He did get hate mail by the bucket. And the NCAA dispatched an investigator to look into the players’ academics (they were legit). He was shredded in much of the national media. Sports Illustrated even concluded he was exploiting blacks, not helping them, a charge his old players still bristle at.

“For a long time I said winning that championship in 1966 was the worst thing that ever happened to me,” he said.

In recent years he was no longer bitter about those days. He had come out on top in the end. The world had come around on the Glory Road he paved.

People began to appreciate that in a sports world filled with hyperbole, a young man gave up so much personally because it was the right thing to do. The thing no one else would."

My comments: Know what was missing? Interviews with some of those black players (save the one quote from Nolan Richardson). Contact with those players through Haskins over the years. You get the feeling that there is still a lot of "feel-good" aura surrounding the story that papers over enduring racial divides. Still, Haskins seems deserving of some credit. Interesting too, though, that the article never mentions the names of the five guys who won the championship on the court. Oh, yeah, and the title, "basketball's John Wayne"? When did John Wayne show an ounce of racial courage? Doesn't Wetzel know that the Wayne image is a joke to many in the black community, from the way he walked to the way he talked and the way whites idolized him? Oh, well, RIP Don Haskins. You did more than most of us whites in the way of pushing racial progress in our country. For that, I salute you.

No comments: