Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Movie Night (or How African-American Basketball Players Got Their Size Thirteens In The Door)

I know zip about sports. And, what's harder for some people to understand: I really couldn't care less. I mean, overall, I don't know who's playing. And, for the most part, I don't know which teams play which sports. I don't even know exactly when Super Bowl Sunday is, in spite of the fact that I know it's right around the corner...sometime.

But there are crystal moments in sports history you just gotta love. Like when the two African-American track stars bowed their heads and raised their fists after they won the Olympics that time--while the national anthem played, for goodness' sake. And the time last year when the woman soccer player lost her head after an amazing triumph of some kind and whipped off her shirt in athletic jubilation, to the delighted shock of the fans and a whole bunch of other viewers who got to see it later (over and over and over).

A movie released last week-end tells the story of another one of those moments--the night back in 1966 when a European-American basketball coach from Texas Western (a school nobody had ever heard of) started five Black players in the NCAA national championship play-offs against University of Kentucky, a team touted as four-time champions under the legendary Adolph Rupp. This was just not done. And when Texas Western left the floor victorious, basketball in the United States had been changed for all time.

Now, you know I had to see this movie. Fast pace, great music, underdogs winning against all odds, and let's not ignore that I hurried out immediately to watch "Hustle and Flow" and saw "Crash" twice the week it came out. So, of course, I knew from the preview that I'd be there the opening week-end. And, yeah--I loved it. Walked out smiling. Glad I'd spent the money. Glad to know the story. (I sure didn't know it before I saw the movie.)

But it intrigued me enough to make me check it out a little more after the fact. One thing I learned was that Texas Western (which became University of Texas at El Paso the year after the historic win) was the first college in a southern state to racially integrate its athletic teams and that was before the arrival of Coach Don Haskins. So there were already three African-American players on the team when he got there, though he rapidly added more. And today, the student population at UTEP is 70% Chicano, which is probably a function of their location, but it still makes a point, I think.

Another thing I found interesting was that Haskins cut his basketball teeth playing one-on-one with an African-American friend, Herman Carr. Apparently, Haskins was disappointed when some scenes depicting their relationship wound up on the cutting room floor because Carr was at the movie's premiere.

The bottom line for me, I guess, is that this story portrays a truth I like to consider: European-Americans who learn to respect people of color can be instrumental in pushing the envelope when it comes to social change related to the socially-constructed political notion of "race." Additionally, social institutions (like schools) that are even a little less committed to White privilege than the average quickly become fertile ground for that social change to occur. And people of color are always, repeat, always, repeat, always ready at a moment's notice to rise to that occasion when given half a chance--no matter what kind of nightmare they have to walk through to do it.

Despite the fact that Haskins only had four losing seasons in his 38 years coaching at UTEP and wound up ultimately in the basketball hall of fame, he was never able to repeat what happened back there in 1966. But that's because the first time can only happen once.

No comments: