Friday, April 1, 2016

Final Four has Historic Lattin Flavor

Final Four has Historic Lattin Flavor

Commentary by Sanford D. Horn

April 1, 2016

The juxtaposition is nothing short of delicious on so many levels, both for me, as well as the bigger picture and the protagonists of this story.

“Out in that West Texas town of El Paso,” to boldly borrow from Marty Robbins’ song El Paso, there seemed to be more tumbleweeds than traffic lights, when a brash, confident basketball player stepped off a bus from Houston onto a campus rich in beautiful Bhutanese architecture to begin life as a student at the Texas Western College of the University of Texas. That young man, now 72, was David “Big Daddy” Lattin.

Little did Lattin know in 1965 he would be a part of something special; something historical; a lasting legacy as pivotal and unintentional to the fabric of the Civil Rights movement as Rosa Parks sitting in the white section of a bus on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama.

Lattin was part of a Texas Western team that would toil in virtual anonymity during the early stage of the 1965-66 season under the tutelage of their coach Don Haskins, a former girls high school coach who took a pay cut to coach on the college level in that dusty West Texas town, also the home of Fort Bliss. Haskins would coach the Miners from 1961-99 compiling a record of 719-353, for a winning percentage of .671 – one of the winningest coaches in the NCAA. He earned a spot in the National Collegiate Hall of Fame in 1997, retired in 1999, and passed away in 2008 at age 78.

The Miners record reached 12-0 before earning any national recognition, ranked ninth in the polls. By the time the Miners were 23-0 they had risen to number two in the nation, but the team of 12, containing seven black players, most of who started on a regular basis, dealt with racial animus along the road, and not just in the south. Confederate flags could be seen at many road games and racial epithets rained down on the players in some places both on and off the court. During the team’s final regular season game on the road at Seattle not one single foul was whistled against the host team as they dealt the Miners their first loss of the season 74-72. More than just a bit suspect? Yet the Miners maintained their resolve and cohesive structure.

Not to be deterred, the Miners won their first NCAA tournament game, yet dropped to third in the national rankings, where they would remain through the national championship game.

The historic national championship game, played on March 19, 1966 – the year I was born, was hosted by the University of Maryland – my undergraduate alma mater. The all white University of Kentucky team, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, took to the court at Cole Field House, where I watched so many games as a Maryland student, as the favorite. The Texas Western Miners, to be renamed the University of Texas at El Paso in 1967, more commonly known as UTEP – where I attended graduate school, took the court with an all black starting lineup – an NCAA championship first. (Not until 1969 would a black player suit up for Kentucky.)

Coach Haskins informed his team he would only be employing his black players that night – the five who would start – including Lattin, Orsten Artis, Harry Flournoy, Bobby Joe Hill, and Willie Worsley, as well as two off the bench – Willie Cager and Nevil Shed. No doubt the white players were disappointed they would not see action in the championship game, but they each played a vital role as basketball is a team game. Jerry Armstrong, Louis Baudoin, Dick Myers, Dave Palacio, and Togo Railey each made key contributions to the team’s run to the title game throughout the season.

The Kentucky team featured well-known names such as Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, both who played professional basketball – Riley in the NBA and Dampier in both the ABA and the NBA. Lattin would also play pro ball – five seasons – two in the NBA with the San Francisco Warriors, who made him a first round, number 10 overall pick, and the Phoenix Suns, as well as three in the ABA with the Pittsburgh Condors and Memphis Tams.

Led by Bobby Joe Hill, who scored a team high 20 points against Kentucky, Lattin was not far behind with his 16 points, and Artis contributed 15 to pace the Miners. Both the Willies, Cager and Worsley, scored eight points apiece, while Shed and Flournoy added three and two respectively to provide the 72 point total for the Miners. Those 72 points held up as Kentucky fell seven points short with 65, earning not only the lone NCAA men’s basketball championship in Texas Western, now UTEP, history, but the only NCAA men’s basketball championship in the state of Texas. The story of the 1965-66 Miners is depicted, with some liberties, in both book and film entitled Glory Road.

Fifty years ago the Texas Western Miners were champions of the NCAA. Fifty years later the grandson of David “Big Daddy” Lattin, Khadeem Lattin, a Houston native, will take to the court at NRG Stadium in Houston to play in the Final Four for the University of Oklahoma, where his color will be unnoticed. The younger Lattin, a sophomore public relations major, has started all of the Sooners’ games this season, averaging 5.7 points per game, and 5.3 rebounds per game playing 22 minutes per game. During the tournament Lattin has averaged 7.5 points per game in 21 minutes of playing time per game.

Five black starters may lace up their sneakers for any number of teams and it is just another day, another game, for thousands donning uniforms on campuses across the United States. In a national climate with more racial strife than we should accept, young men and young women take to the fields of competition in many arenas working as the cohesive units teams should. David Lattin helped pave a path that has made life easier for his grandson Khadeem Lattin, and regardless of the score on the court, everyone emerges a winner.

Sanford D. Horn is a writer and educator living in Westfield, IN.

1 comment:

  1. That was indeed a refreshing and noble story concerning the highlighted career of David "Big Daddy" Lattin!! In my not wanting to give away any of the details ... I'll just say it was a very delightful depiction and I felt as if I had just seen a movie about him!! Thank you Sir for sharing such worthy a story ... blessed by it indeed Sir!