It isn’t uncommon for an industry to get lost in its own fiction sometimes, to try to dabble in the historical. It also isn’t uncommon for people to see truths stretched, events fabricated and characters conveniently portrayed to get the audience to feel a certain way about someone in a film, even though its all “based on a true story.”
What does all this matter to not only the person making the Hollywood movie, but also the person watching the Hollywood movie?
The storyline behind the 1966 Texas Western team was they were the first all-black starting lineup to win an NCAA championship. They overcame the prejudicial hardships that came with those times -- especially in Texas -- to become the biggest story in the sports world.
There are obvious reasons why a movie -- made 40 years after the actual event, essentially making it a period piece in 2006 -- would embellish certain details for cinematic value.
There is a scene in the movie where Texas Western runs into the Kentucky team in the airport and Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp is a bit less than polite to Texas Western coach Don Haskins. Cinematic gold. (And something exciting for all fans of foreshadowing.)
But back in reality, that never happened.
There’s another scene where Bobby Joe Hill and Jerry Armstrong get into an argument about the great, big, white elephant in the locker room -- which also didn’t actually happen.
But seriously, anyone can see the value in raising the racial tension internally now, can’t they?
Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Now look, this isn’t an indictment of the “based on a true story” industry.
The amazing parts of this story (or any story of a similar nature) are those that aren’t embellished or fabricated.
In the movie, in the finals against Kentucky, the Miners' first basket came on a booming dunk from the imposing 6-foot-6 center David Lattin, one of Haskins’ oft-used tactics to set the tone in a game.
That did happen -- and is exactly the type of gift that the real world hands to storytellers.
MARCH 12, 1966
The Miners played the Midwest Regional semifinal and final of the NCAA tournament in Lubbock, Texas, less than 350 miles from their campus in El Paso.
Coming off an overtime win against Cincinnati -- in which Miners center Nevil Shed was ejected for landing a right jab on a nuisance from the opposition -- the new kids on the block were to come up against a member of basketball's old guard, the Kansas Jayhawks.
More importantly, Bobby Joe Hill, (who was one of the best players in the country but was put on notice when the Miners reached this level of popularity), was to meet his match at the point guard position in Jo Jo White.
“Physically, he was an outstanding player,” White said of Hill. “You couldn’t jump at him, so to speak, off the floor. If you came at him, he’d come at you all night.”White, a 6-foot-3 freshman from St. Louis, was drawn to Lawrence, Kansas, when he saw Gale Sayers play football for the Jawhawks.
White ran the offense for a team that was anchored by center Walt Wesley.
Wesley vs. Shed; Hill vs. White. These were the matchups that everybody in attendance was looking forward to, but the players knew the game was bigger than any isolated incidents.
“We were -- including myself -- were kind of in awe of that team,” White said. “Not just one or two players; they had a solid, solid based team.
“They were nasty on the floor. They didn’t give up anything. They came to play. You had to make sure from that end you had the game all tight covered. Physically, you gave them a good shove and they came right back.”
The game was tightly contested and the Miners were brought back to the brink in overtime for the second consecutive game.
“The Kansas game ... was wilder than a lone deuce in a college poker game,” recalled Eddie Mullens to UTEP Athletics, former Texas Western sports information director who watched the game live from the scorer’s table. “To this day, stands out in my memory bank as the game.”
In the waning seconds of the first overtime, Kansas had a chance to score on the final play before the buzzer. The play wasn’t drawn up to go to White but he was ready to set up for a shot in the corner.
He caught the ball with his left hand at the wing and, with Hill draped all over him, tossed up a 35-footer that fell through the hoop as the buzzer sounded.
It seemed to be the end of the line for Texas Western, until referee Rudy Marich blew his whistle, went down to a knee and pointed to a spot along the sideline.
White had stepped out of bounds before he took the shot.
Before the start of the second OT, Mullens remembers White jogging back to the Kansas bench where he was met by coach Ted Owens.
“It appeared from where I sat that Owens asked White if he was, indeed, out of bounds,” Mullens said. “White nodded his head and Owens immediately turned back to his huddle. All business. All class.”
Almost 50 years later, White still remembers the greatest shot that never was.
“To be perfectly honest, my foot was out of bounds on the play,” White said. “I had already set up for a shot before it came around to that particular shot. And they called it.”
The Miners went on to win the game and eventually the national championship against Kentucky. The entire team was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
For the freshman White, it was nothing more than a chapter in the early part of a storied career.
“Things like that, a tough call or whatever, it meant nothing other than that you had a shot or another big shot or a play that you had to play,” White said. “You wait all year to play with that caliber of talent or to play that caliber of team.”
White went on to become an All-American, an Olympian and played in the NABC All-Star game prior to an NBA career where he was a seven time All-Star and a finals MVP. As it stands today, White is the only Kansas alum to have his jersey retired by an NBA franchise (Boston Celtics).
No matter how great a career he had at Kansas, nothing will stick out in people’s minds more than his left foot on the sideline in 1966.
Because it actually happened.