The long and winding road

The long and winding road
By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
January 12, 2006

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports
HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – Harry Flournoy stood in the middle of a long, long red carpet, stretching half a star-studded block here, surrounded by cameras and microphones and goodwill, surrounded in a moment he never thought would come, the end of the longest Glory Road of all.

Flournoy was one of five black starters (plus two black reserves) who led the Texas Western Miners to the 1966 NCAA men's basketball title. They beat all-white Kentucky in the final, a moment that forever desegregated college athletics in the South.

David Lattin, left, and Nevil Shed, right, holding a photo of late teammate Bobby Joe Hill.
David Lattin, left, and Nevil Shed, right, holding a
photo of late teammate Bobby Joe Hill. (AP)
"Glory Road," the Disney movie that opens nationally Friday, tells the story of Flournoy, his tough teammates and his heroic coach, Don Haskins. It even features his own strong-willed mother, Amy, an eighth-grade dropout in Gary, Ind., who nonetheless so valued education she once flew to El Paso to help Haskins chew out her son for skipping a couple of classes.

The movie also deals with all the racism the Miners had to endure as they upset the apple cart of college athletics and American society. The racial taunts and spits in the face were real. So were the death threats to Haskins, the white coach who never bent, risking both his career and his life because he refused to start a token white player like everyone else.

But the worst racism of all didn't come from some nut job in the upper deck or from an anonymous letter. It didn't even occur during the 1965-66 season.

The worst came in the scenes that "Glory Road" doesn't show, in the aftermath, in the slander, in the establishment media hatchet jobs, in the reputation-killing comments from Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, in the decades of shunning silence that the 1965-66 Miners endured.

"People hate to be proven wrong, so they have a mind to get you," Flournoy said.

And did they ever get Harry Flournoy and his teammates, just one reason it took 40 long, long years for this story to get big, for this movie to get to the big screen, which is what made that long, long red carpet so magical.

"I never thought we would get the recognition," said Flournoy, now 62 but with the look of a little kid. "It never even entered my mind that it was even possible."

Along with Haskins, I wrote the book "Glory Road," and in the process I became, perhaps, the team's all-time greatest fan. Not just for how they handled that season; you could predict that ignorant stuff. What I never could fathom was what happened after.

It is easy for white America to deal with the convenient parts of this story. We comfortably can condemn as rednecks and racists from a bygone era those people who shouted slurs, who threw things at the players, who trashed hotel rooms.

But that's the small stuff, almost as meaningless as the little slights the team dealt with, such as how when Texas Western won the title game, no one even brought out a ladder so the Miners could cut the nets (Shed had to hoist up Willie Worsley to do the honors). Or how the team never was asked to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show," as was customary for NCAA champions. ("Gee, wonder why," smiles Shed these days.)

Texas Western beat Kentucky 72-65.
Texas Western beat Kentucky 72-65. (AP)
No, the worst came from the institutions with the real power – the media, the NCAA, the iconic Rupp, who was overcome with petty jealousy and ugly anger.

Sports Illustrated, ever the limousine liberal of sports magazines, proudly boasts that it never even mentioned race in its championship story, like it was some evolved, color-blind medium. It conveniently forgets that the week before it built an entire preview of the Final Four around race.

And SI must want to forget that in 1968 it published one of the most scurrilous stories imaginable, an "exposé" of the Texas Western program which concluded that the players weren't real students, that El Paso was a viciously racist city and that rather than being a hero to blacks for giving them a rare chance at an education, Haskins and the school "thoroughly and actively exploited black athletes." It went on and on.

"They made us look like idiots," Flournoy said. "It hurt. It really hurt to see my parents read it. My mother said people have a lot of hate to come up with all of that garbage, all of that fictional stuff. And that is what it was, fictional stuff. But people read it and believed it."

Haskins says his school president at the time wouldn't let him sue SI, calling it one of the biggest regrets of his life.

"I used to respect that magazine," Haskins said in our book, "but like a lot of people who have dealt with it through the years, I realized its purpose isn't about telling the truth."

In this case, it may have been about keeping the status quo. Sports Illustrated was so powerful then, serving as just about the only national sports media outlet, very much the establishment organ.

Its allegations damn near killed Haskins' program as rival coaches flashed the article to all the black recruits Haskins was after, trying to claim that what they saw on TV that March night in 1966 wasn't reality, that Haskins was in fact the racist.

It got so bad that Haskins began discovering letters from black people in the bushels of daily hate mail he received.

Just two years after the supposedly glorious championship, Haskins somehow was despised by both whites and blacks.

Haskins' anger with SI is exceeded only by his feelings toward noted historian and elitist author James Michener. Relying on the magazine's "research," Michener wrote in the best-selling 1976 book "Sports in America" that the Miners were "a bunch of loose-jointed ragamuffins" who were "conscripted" to play for Haskins, and he claimed that none ever graduated or were serious students.

Don Haskins and a Glory Road crew member.
Don Haskins and a "Glory Road" crew member. (AP)
The championship, Michener concluded, was "one of the most wretched episodes in the history of American sport."

One of the most wretched in history?

Rival recruiters passed around that book too, of course.

"I said for a long time that the worst thing to ever happen to me was winning the national championship," Haskins said. "I wished we had lost. My life would have been a hell of a lot easier if we had lost."

That is how it worked. Power protecting power. You'll never see SI publish an apology to those players. Haskins hasn't forgiven or forgotten, though. The Bear still wishes he had been able to get his hands around those writers' necks. His old players remember well, too. Flournoy still pauses when he thinks of the pain that Michener and Sports Illustrated caused. Michener never interviewed a single player ("He didn't know us," Flournoy said).

"It hurt to see my mother cry," he said. "She was a strong woman, and she wouldn't want me to see her cry but sometimes I did. It hurt. I knew my mother took a lot of pride in my education. I was the first in my family to graduate from college. My mother had so much pride in that."

It was Harry Flournoy's academic success that even prompted his mother to earn a GED in night school and eventually an advanced degree from Purdue, just a stunning accomplishment for a black woman born in the 1920s.

And the charges, of course, are more laughable now than ever. Forty years later those players, each a success story, still would walk through the desert for Haskins, their so-called exploiter.

"The best thing to ever happen to me," Shed said. "He is a great, great man."

"I owe it all to Coach Haskins," Worsley said.

This is how it worked though, and no one wants to remember. Back then the NCAA was an ugly, racist organization itself, led by a power structure of old, white men at old, white schools.

Upstart programs in the 1960s and '70s that played too many blacks quickly were put in their place. Check the history. Western Kentucky, Centenary, Long Beach State and so many others that dared to field predominantly black teams almost immediately were crushed by an onslaught of NCAA investigators and the subsequent pumped-up probation – all while big schools with just the right quota of white players cheated tenfold right down the street.

That was the aftermath of "Glory Road." A racist heckler? A threatening letter? A trashed motel room? Yeah, nasty stuff. But nothing compared to the NCAA and those writers from New York.

Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp.
Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp. (AP)
"Glory Road" the movie is fairly kind to UK coach Adolph Rupp, painting him more arrogant than racist. And perhaps that is fine. People have looked long and hard and never found a convenient white cloak in Rupp's closet. Besides, Disney movies aren't the place for settling scores – which doesn't mean there isn't one to settle.

Rupp apologists, and there are too many to believe, love to point out that he was just a product of his time, an old Southerner who wasn't really racist, just indifferent.

Maybe he wasn't as courageous as Haskins, they contend, but he probably was more progressive than most of his peers, even if his final team, in 1972, still had five white starters.

It is a nice sentiment and makes a lot of people feel good about what they did and didn't dare write about. "People want to sugarcoat it," Flournoy said.

But no matter how much sugar gets sprinkled, it doesn't change the fact that Adolph Rupp eventually called the Miners "a bunch of crooks."

It doesn't change the fact that Rupp, in a Louisville newspaper interview, claimed that David Lattin was a criminal, recruited out of Tennessee State Prison, when, in fact, Lattin had no record and merely transferred from Tennessee State University.

It doesn't change the fact Rupp went on to claim the Texas Western players all wound up academically ineligible, which was a lie. Or that he said none graduated from college, also a lie and a slap in the face of all those hard-driving, big-dreaming mothers such as Amy Flournoy. Or that he alleged Haskins cheated in recruiting, which naturally prompted an immediate NCAA investigation (which found nary a violation).

"Rupp was just sour grapes," Flournoy said. "He just ran into a better team and then let his ego get the best of him."

But the allegations stuck. In researching and writing "Glory Road" on more than a half dozen occasions I had people harmlessly ask me if it was true that the Miner players never actually attended Texas Western or were illiterate or were ex-convicts. All sorts of stuff. "I heard they could do everything with a basketball but sign it," one person said. "Bunch of thugs, right?" said another.

Having gotten to know those players so well, it was enough to make me sick.

So maybe Rupp just was a product of his time. But if being a product of one's time means that powerful white men are allowed to slander powerless black kids, then the times were pure evil.

Or you were.

"What they did to my players still makes me sick," Haskins said. "Say what you want about me, go ahead. But those were just college kids trying to help their families out."

Times change, of course, and 40 years is a long, long time.

Consider the University of Kentucky, where a black man, Tubby Smith, not only is the coach and is paid some $2.25 million per year to work inside Rupp Arena but also is the most popular person in the Commonwealth, according to polls. Consider, as ESPN's Pat Forde (formerly a sports columnist in Louisville) points out, that the two most popular recent Wildcat players were blacks from California, Tayshaun Prince and Chuck Hayes.

And so too does it change for Texas Western (now UTEP), which is how Harry Flournoy, his proud wife at his side, wound up last week on that long, long red carpet, staring into all those Hollywood cameras. He now is a sales representative in Southern California and the father of eight. He is just one of a team full of success stories of the so-called exploited black players.

Lattin played in the NBA before becoming a public relations man and the owner of several businesses. Worsley became a coach in Spring Valley, N.Y., and works with the Boys Choir of Harlem. Orsten Artis is a retired detective in his hometown of Gary. Willie Cager became a coach and runs charitable foundations.

Bobby Joe Hill worked as an oil executive in Texas before passing away in 2002, never making it to see his overdue day in the sun, although his college sweetheart and wife, Tina, heart-wrenchingly brought a framed picture of him to the movie premiere and hugged it throughout.

"I am just so proud of what kind of men they all became," Haskins said. "Great men. Great fathers."

Mehcad Brooks, Emily Deschanel and Josh Lucas attend the after party following the Glory Road premiere.
Mehcad Brooks, Emily Deschanel and Josh Lucas
attend the after party following the "Glory Road"
premiere. (Reuters)
And now, finally, the rest of America is proud, too. The wretched now are the celebrated. They have a movie, a Wheaties box, red carpets, interview requests, ESPN specials, NCAA awards and on and on. At last they are embraced by the establishment that spent decades trying to ignore them at best, destroy them at worst.

It is all so incredible.

"If you had told me that one day Walt Disney Studios would make a major motion picture honoring that team I would have thought you were plum crazy," Haskins said. "If you told me I would one day be writing a book released by Hyperion Books, a major publishing house in New York City, I would have laughed at you. There was just no way. None.

"We were pariahs. We were villains. We were the 'wretched.'"

The movie "Glory Road" ends with a championship-game victory. The real glory road for the 1965-66 Miners ends on that red carpet in Hollywood, the smiles on the wrinkled face of Harry Flournoy and all his old teammates serving as proof that yes, this may be 40 years too late, but late always is better than never.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Friday, Jan 13, 2006 4:45 pm, EST

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