March Sadness memories
Historically, NCAA basketball telescoped the madness of segregated America
The NCAA men’s Elite Eight matchup a few weekends back between the University of Kentucky and the University of North Carolina took me back more than 50 years as I reflected on my now-irrelevant — though nonetheless passionate — hope that Kentucky would lose. My reason was not typical. I neither attended nor worked at North Carolina. And until writing this column, I had forgotten my one pleasant experience of speaking there years ago. I did not follow the teams at either school; it is obvious they both had basketball programs powerful enough to reach this level.
Nor did I suffer a personal negative experience at Kentucky, though I did witness the University of Pittsburgh overtime loss to Kent State in the Rupp Arena there in the 2002 Sweet 16 round of the NCAA tournament. It is the name Adolph Rupp and his Kentucky of the 20th century that prompts my desire for the school’s loss any time it plays a varsity basketball game. Before late in that century, the complexion of NCAA Division I programs differed dramatically from its 21st-century look. Blatant racism, segregation and discrimination account for the main difference.
For most of the last century, March Madness was not mad because of rabid enthusiasm for the weekend rounds leading up to the Final Four and the national championship, or even the championship game itself. Rather, in my view, March telescoped the broader madness afflicting an America in which official Jim Crow segregation in the South and de facto segregation in the North diminished opportunities for AfricanAmerican youngsters to participate in college varsity basketball.
In the major Southern schools’ programs, blacks were virtually nonexistent. At the Northern schools, a weirdo practice was unwritten but widespread and commonly understood. To control the possibility of ghetto street-ball prevailing on the court, the reassuring presence of white starting players was required. The looney limit for black American players was: two at home, three on the road, but four if the team was losing! Historically black colleges and universities of the old Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association provided opportunities at black schools and thrilling annual men’s basketball tournaments, a bright light shining upon a dark and racist higher education sports landscape, enabling my youngest brother to play in three of those national tournaments for St. Augustine’s College of Raleigh, N.C.
Then a sudden epic earthquake. In the 1965-1966 season, the southern Texas Western College (today the University of Texas at El Paso) started five black players. And the Miners won 27 games that season leading up to its 1966 NCAA men’s championship game against Coach Rupp’s all-white University of Kentucky Wildcats. Texas Western was different from Southern schools in that it had black student-athletes at all; but even in the North, that stubborn de facto discrimination forbade merit from controlling the race of the players on the court. Until that fateful contest, no major college program had ever started five black players in a game, anytime, anywhere, at home, on the road, losing, or otherwise!
With that shameful backdrop, the Miners faced the No. 1 Wildcats for the national championship on March 19, 1966, at the University of Maryland, a Southern school. According to a retrospective ESPN Classics report in 2003, Rupp was quoted as dismissing the possibility of losing to black players. But, he did. The Miners beat the Wildcats decisively, 72-65. It was the first time a team with all-black starters won the NCAA national championship. One might imagine Coach Rupp immediately scrambled to recruit black players with scholarship offers. He didn’t, referring to African-Americans by the N-word.
While the Miners were an integrated team of black, white and Latino studentathletes during their championship 1965-66 season, in 1972 Rupp coached his final segregated game for Kentucky. His Wildcats, an allwhite team long after programs as far south as Mississippi had integrated, lost to the all-black starters and their team of Florida State University victors. He is reported to have carried the pain of losing to blacks “to his grave” in 1977, according to the ESPN Classics report, which cited Rupp biographer Russell Rice.
Youngsters today, even those who are energetic college basketball fans, cannot fathom this disgraceful chapter in American intercollegiate athletics history. Watching televised college basketball games in the 21st century is to observe blacks predominate, as well as dominate. According to a 2013 University of Pennsylvania study, black studentathletes comprised more than 64 percent of the varsity basketball players on the men’s teams of the 76 schools of the six major conferences between 2007 and 2010. As essentially a farm system-pipeline to the NBA, that group of schools produces the black players that account for the more than 74 percent that a 2016 University of Central Florida study reports play in the NBA.
In a nation that for decades suffocated this kind of basketball meritocracy — applying instead white-privilege in virtually every aspect of American social, economic and educational life — the blame is historic and widespread. All the same, my favorite target of harsh critique in the college basketball court of public opinion is Kentucky. So, congratulations to North Carolina, alma mater of the greatest — Michael Jordan — for beating the Wildcats and ultimately claiming the 2017 national champion title for the Tar Heels.