If there is “One Shining Moment” that stands above all others in the history of the NCAA Tournament, it is Texas Western’s victory in the 1966 championship game with an all-black starting five over Adolph Rupp and his all-white Kentucky team, representing the still-segregated Southeastern Conference.
The powerful symbolism of that game resonated at a nexus in American social history at the height of the civil rights movement. By happy coincidence, it resonates still on the 50th anniversary thanks to the presence on the Oklahoma roster of forward Khadeem Lattin, grandson of 1966 Texas Western center David Lattin, at this year’s Final Four in their hometown of Houston.
Describing the joy of a proud family that has come full circle, Khadeem Lattin said, “I mean, it’s insane. Everyone is excited for me. My family all is texting me, and they’re enjoying it with me.”
The significance of the moment when Lattin took the court for Oklahoma in its semifinal game against Villanova on Saturday night at NRG Stadium was profound. “It means a lot,” Lattin said. “It’s a proud moment for my family, just the fact a Lattin permanently affected the way the game is played and the way the game is seen.”
On a personal level, there also was a tinge of sadness for Lattin, whose grandmother, Brenda Fair, died on Wednesday night after a long battle with cancer. Yet Lattin maintained his sense of optimism.
On Saturday night, the focus was back on basketball, and Lattin’s 72-year-old grandfather was in the stands to watch his grandson. “The relationship I have with my grandfather is like big brother and little brother,’’ Khadeem Lattin said. “He’s always giving me advice and knowledge . . . My grandfather always said he wants me to extend the legacy and just better it.”
When the elder Lattin had his moment on that stage at the pinnacle of college basketball, he famously opened the game by throwing down a powerful dunk over Kentucky’s Pat Riley to let the blue bloods know the Miners had arrived and were not intimidated.
It’s difficult for today’s generation to imagine the social changes that have taken place in 50 years since then. In the 1960s, several conferences were segregated, including the SEC, ACC and Southwestern. That enabled an independent school in Texas Western, which now is known as the University of Texas-El Paso, to attract top black athletes from around the country by offering opportunity.
The Miners’ roster included three African-American players from New York in Willie Cager, Nevil Shed and Willie Worsley. As a kid growing up in Albuquerque and attending University of New Mexico games, I had the good fortune to see Utah’s Billy McGill, Utah State’s Cornell Green, Arizona State’s “Jumpin’ ” Joe Caldwell and Wyoming’s Flynn Robinson come to town.
And yes, I saw Mel Daniels lead the Lobos to a double-digit halftime lead over Texas Western in 1966, only to lose, 67-64, in overtime. When the Miners reached the championship game against Kentucky, it truly was a clash of cultures that only grew larger over time.
Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson, who played in college for Cincinnati from 1957-60, was part of a wave of great African-American players who already had made significant progress in the sport, but after a Final Four appearance this past week, he acknowledged the impact of that Texas Western team.
“It became more monumental” over time, Robertson said. “Because it was Adolph Rupp with his thoughts and views, everything just got bigger and bigger. They won the game, and because of the SEC’s rules and Adolph Rupp’s attitude about playing blacks, it just took off.”
Khadeem Lattin said he has watched a “choppy, old” video of Texas Western’s historic win. He also saw the movie “Glory Road,” which told the story of that team and, Lattin said, “made it more real for me.”
Now Lattin has taken his place in Final Four history as part of the social fabric his grandfather helped alter forever.
“I’m blessed to be here,” Lattin said, “and I know that.”