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The long and winding glory road

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

Texas Western won the NCAA basketball championship in 1966, the first team to start five black players in the title game. If you want to know how well that went over, understand no one even bothered to bring out a ladder for the players to climb and cut the nets.

Nevil Shed had to hoist Willie Worsley up on his shoulders to do the honors.

And the traditional trip to appear on the "Ed Sullivan Show?" Yeah, that never happened either. Instead they got hate mail and death threats by the bucketful.

The Miners received a heroes welcome back in El Paso, Texas. They were the stuff of legend in some black communities. And in terms of changing the face of college athletics, they broke down racial barriers, particularly in the South, where teams and leagues were still all-white.

But for the most part, Texas Western's championship went off with little fan fare nationally and soon enough faded in memory. By the late 1970s, players would meet people and have to explain the entire thing.

"Some people knew but nothing like they would today," Shed said.

Which is what made their gathering Thursday for the ultimate of basketball honors, all that more incredible.

The men of Texas Western, the team that was once despised, then nearly forgotten (and certainly long underappreciated), will be enshrined Friday in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Forty-one years after they made history, history now has a place to always remember them.

WAITING GAME

The Hall of Fame is always about waiting. There is five year minimum after a playing career ends, and even then only the most select talents make it on the first ballot. Even great players have to sit and wonder if a new crop of voters will deem them worthy. Coaches meanwhile, continue to pad their resumes in an effort to gain entry, a lifetime's worth of work.

But maybe no one has waited like this team. In a basketball sense, they haven't done a single thing since March 19, 1966, when they upset Kentucky 72-66 to win the title.

And as profound as their historic and social impact was – "(they) literally got thousands and thousands of black kids scholarships to college," said Nolan Richardson, the former Arkansas coach – that was mostly accomplished by the mid-1970s.

Since then, nothing changed; except, of course, America.

What was once met with disdain, if not outright hostility, is now almost universally celebrated. What was once seen as an aberration is now understood.

Back then the coach, Don Haskins, was blackballed by the establishment for starting five blacks – imagine someone winning a NCAA title at age 36 and not receiving a single major conference job offer? Today he is hailed as a courageous icon.

Back then the players were hit with rumors and untrue news accounts about how they weren't real students or had criminal backgrounds. Today they are fathers and grandfathers, college graduates, each one having enjoyed an honest and successful life.

Back then the media attacked, most famously Sports Illustrated which claimed Haskins exploited the black players (it even ran an illustration of him stuffing a black kid into his shirt). Now the team is the toast of the country, treated to glowing accounts in newspapers, magazines and televisions specials.

Back then the NCAA immediately dispatched an investigator down to El Paso (he found no broken rules). In 2006, the same organization honored the team at halftime of its national championship game, exactly four decades after no one bothered with the ladder.

"Life moves on," said Shed. "Things change."

GETTING THEIR DUE

Even at the turn of this century, the story was painfully undertold. In 1998, I was working as a writer and editor for Basketball Times magazine when I first heard the story in detail. It was such a fascinating tale that I couldn't believe I hadn't heard it countless times before.

Intrigued, I went to El Paso and wrote about it and the Miners coach, Don Haskins. A few years later the two of us wrote the book "Glory Road," part of a wave of attention and recognition that grew so big it has stunned everyone on the team.

There was the Disney movie of the same name, two Wheaties boxes and an actual naming of a "Glory Road" in El Paso. The players have been hit up for media interviews ranging from local papers to national television.

President Bush hosted the team and their families at the White House for a screening of the film. The NCAA did its part. The team went to Europe to visit U.S. troops. Players, especially Shed, began making speeches around the country.

"It's strange, especially after all those years of not getting any notice or press for doing what we did," said Jerry Armstrong, a player who went on to become a championship high school coach in Missouri. "The momentum just grew and grew."

Even so, no one ever dared dream of the Hall of Fame. Haskins, who won 719 career games at Texas Western/UTEP had been enshrined in 1997. That seemed like it.

Then one night last year, Steve Tredennick, who played for Texas Western from 1962-65 and had become a representative for the 1966 team, was scanning the Hall's website. He noticed some entire teams had been enshrined, most recently the Harlem Globetrotters.

"I thought, 'well, what the heck?'" Tredennick said.

Tredennick is a bulldog of a Texas attorney, a man adept at making things happen. He immediately wrote an email to Hall president John Doleva, asking about the nomination process. Doleva wrote back the next day. Less than a year later the team was in, technically a first ballot choice after all.

"The players have deserved this for decades, I'm just thrilled," said Haskins, who won't attend the event in part beacuse of health and in part because he wants the focus to be on his players. "I've always gotten too much credit. I'm more excited about this than when I got in."

The question almost everyone asks is how did this team fly mostly under the national radar for nearly 40 years?

First, the immediate negative media attention was crushing. This was not treated as a great moment for America. The team dealt with articles that ranged from thinly veiled rips to out and out attacks, lies that stuck. "We were pariahs," Haskins said, who even at 77 wishes he could get his hands around the neck of a Sports Illustrated editor and "drag him through the weeds a little bit."

Then there was the sheer remoteness of El Paso, the West Texas town seven hours from any major media market. Even as the story stayed alive there, it only received sporadic national attention.

Finally there was America's appreciation for what had happened. That a team of blacks, whites and a Hispanic, led by a ferociously stubborn coach and playing for a diverse, progressive school, turned the sports world upside down with one single game.

"History is made when you don't know it's being made," Armstrong said.

FOND REMEMBRANCE

For their part, the players, now all in their 60s, are anything but bitter at the delay. They are embracing it, proud they are all going in together and making the most of the time that has passed.

"What's truly amazing is my kids and grandkids are around to appreciate everything the team did," said Armstrong, who like everyone else brought his entire extended family.

So they've gathered one more time, this time in Springfield. Old men full of youthful wonder, still a bit stunned they are joining the legends of the game. And, of course, they've brought along some bottles of old Scotch because after all these years no one is going to blame them for acting like college kids.

"It's like old times," Shed said. "The personalities haven't changed. But instead of talking about girls we say, 'Those knees look terrible.' Or, 'I take this medication. What pills do you take?'"

The only disappointment is the one missing player, Bobby Joe Hill, the team's star guard who passed away in 2002. It all came too late for him. His wife Tina (their romance was featured in the movie) and other family members, however, will be there, as proud as ever.

And so too will be a big, framed picture of him. His teammates have taken the picture of Bobby Joe everywhere during these past few years. It attended the Hollywood premiere. It traveled to Europe. It met President Bush. It got propped up at a mob-scene book signing in El Paso. It was held on center court of the RCA Dome, cheered by 60,000 fans.

"Our team is not a team without Bobby Joe's spirit," Shed said. "The closest I can get to having him with us is by carrying his picture."

And so Friday, he'll carry it, carry it right into the Hall of Fame, the most glorious and eternal of all the stops on this winding glory road.

Shed even promised to hoist it up high, just like he did with another teammate 41 years ago, back when not everyone was celebrating what these kids from Texas Western had just done.