College basketball: Barack Obama, UTEP honor Texas Western's historic title 50 years later
EL PASO, Texas — Willie Worsley says he doesn't talk to his high school players in New York about being on the 1966 Texas Western team that had the first all-black starting lineup in an NCAA championship game and beat all-white Kentucky for the title.
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Yet he still got a text Saturday from one of them who saw him on TV celebrating the 50th anniversary of a 72-65 victory that is largely credited with ending segregation in athletics at universities across the South.
The historic moment was marked by numerous video tributes, including one from President Barack Obama, and culminated in the school now known as UTEP beating Conference USA opponent Western Kentucky 93-89 in overtime in a rare sellout.
"I was trying to be a model man and not cry," the 70-year-old Worsley said. "And when the president came on? Him? To us?
"To me, the love that El Paso showed us, today was my No. 1, even more than the championship game, because of the way they still love us after 50 years."
Worsley and eight of his teammates were part of three days of festivities, with co-captains Jerry Armstrong and Orsten Artis leading the current Miners onto the floor before the game.
Emmert said Texas Western's 1966 title wasn't only an important moment for college sports, but for society at large. pic.twitter.com/TFBgFp6AAd— Inside the NCAA (@InsidetheNCAA) February 7, 2016
There were seven black players on the team — Worsley, Artis and three others who made the event, David Lattin, Willie Cager and Nevil Shed. Two of the seven didn't attend. Bobby Joe Hill, the sparkplug guard who led the Miners, died in 2002. Harry Flournoy is ill but spoke via video.
The current players wore throwback Texas Western jerseys — and clearly understood the significance of the game even though their only hope to make the NCAAs this season will hinge on the conference tournament.
"It isn't even explainable how much we wanted it," said Earvin Morris, who led all scorers with 32 points as the Miners rallied from 17 points down. "We talked about that in the locker room before the game — do it for the 1966 team."
Miami Heat President Pat Riley, who played for Kentucky in the stunning upset on March 19, 1966, in College Park, Maryland, was among the video tributes. So was Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.
But all the tributes were overshadowed by Obama's.
"They didn't know it at the time, but their contribution to civil rights was as important as any other," the president said. "That's what we honor today — a group of people who laced up their shoes and moved this country forward."
Hall of Fame coach Don Haskins, who played only his seven black players against Kentucky but never said race was the reason why, died in 2008. "The Bear" was represented during the pregame ceremony by his widow, Mary Haskins, and two of his sons.
UTEP coach Tim Floyd was an assistant under Haskins when the Miners were frequent NCAA Tournament qualifiers in the 1980s. Texas Western's title is still the only NCAA crown for a Texas team.
"We were certainly an inspired team," Floyd said of the victory Saturday. "We've always prided ourselves on being the only basketball town in the state of Texas. I look back on my career and this is one of the more memorable games."
The celebration continued at halftime, including brief comments from NCAA President Mark Emmert. Nolan Richardson, who played for Haskins and coached Arkansas to the 1994 NCAA title, also attended.
After the game, the current Miners raced around the locker room looking for silver Sharpies, trying to get the 1966 players to sign shoes and basketballs.
"I saw 'Glory Road' many times before I even signed," Morris said, referring to the 2006 movie inspired by Texas Western's story. "I realized the basketball tradition and history here, and I wanted to be a part of that. It's unexplainably great how good it feels."
The older guys enjoyed it, too.