Not-Quite Cinderella Makes the Times

Clem Haskins

It’s not particularly news — at least to Kentuckians — that the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers, feted in this year’s tournament as the possible Cinderella upsetters of UCLA tonight, were once dominant on the hardwood during the 1950s and 1960s. However, what might be news to some in this day and age is how the ‘Toppers became so dominant: by integrating far before most of their in-state rivals and peers. While those in the know — such as the excellent eponymous blog Billy Reed Says — have discussed Western’s rich basketball history, today’s issue of the New York Times takes the ‘Toppers unique story national:

…Memories of Western Kentucky’s run of dominance in the 1960s seem to have faded with the set shot and canvas sneakers. In part, the run came about because of Western Kentucky’s willingness to integrate its team at a time when such a policy was still taboo in the South. Those involved with Western Kentucky still take great pride in the university’s breaking of racial barriers.

“There’s so much that people don’t know,” said the former Western star Clem Haskins, who went on to coach at the university. “Western was out there, just like everyone in the country is captivated now with North Carolina and Duke.”

But memories of the 1971 Final Four, deep runs in the National Invitation Tournament and high national rankings come with raw memories of overcoming the thick racial tension in the South.

Haskins, who along with Dwight Smith in 1963 were the first African-Americans to play basketball for the university, recalled not being able to eat in segregated restaurants and watching movies from the balconies of theaters because seats in the lower sections were reserved for whites. Jim McDaniels, another black player, went to Western Kentucky in 1967 and recalled the former Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp’s halfhearted recruitment of him, which included spending just 15 awkward minutes with Rupp in the six days he spent in Lexington. The Southeastern Conference did not integrate until 1966, and Kentucky did not integrate until 1969.

The Western Kentucky coach at that time, John Oldham, had a police officer check his car at times in 1970 because of threats directed at him after he began starting five black players.

“So much of what we deal with right now is stuff that’s absolutely trivial,” said the current Western Kentucky coach, Darrin Horn, who played at Western in the early 1990s. “Coach Oldham and the players from that era, they were dealing with serious issues. That’s one of the reasons that I have so much respect for them.”

And that’s just the beginning. Anecdotes from Haskins, Oldham and McDaniels throughout the piece illustrate the tough times they and others associated with WKU’s basketball program had to go through — and with no Glory Road to immortalize them 40 years later.

Though our main rooting interest is in tonight’s Louisville vs. Tenessee game (tipping off just before 10 pm), we’re glad to root on the Hilltoppers in their game (running almost simultaneously).

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