Winning the Big Game

March 1, 2006 by  
Filed under Edit

Houston native scores big for his team,

David Lattin doesn’t need a Hollywood script and a Bruckheimer big budget for a trip down “Glory Road.” He lived the night a college basketball game changed the sport forever – and, perhaps, changed a nation, as well.

“My take is, better late than never,” says Lattin, of the recent Disney film in nationwide release since January. “It’s a great story that needed to be told.” It’s a story often lost on Generation Next some 40 years after a fateful night in Cole Field House in College Park, Md.

“Glory Road” is the big screen version of Lattin and his renegade band of ballers from the badlands of West Texas who dethroned the emperors of college basketball, March 19, 1966. Texas Western College (now University of Texas – El Paso), playing five black starters – as well as two black reserves – stunned traditional, blue-blooded, four-time national champion Kentucky, which suited up only whites. An all-black lineup had never played an all-white team in the NCAA title game, much less beaten one. The hoops version of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka would take years, if not decades, for Lattin to fully appreciate and comprehend.

“We were not on a crusade,” Lattin remembers. “The team never even thought about it. We had seven black players. One Hispanic. One white. We just played together and practiced hard every day together. Color was barely mentioned by the team.

“This was not about beating a white team. We were just trying to win a championship. It was just business.” The film is that quintessential ’60s tale, set in the era of Vietnam War protests, civil rights battles, revolution and rock ‘n’ roll. The nation’s sociopolitical atmosphere was volatile, the 1965-66 season sat roughly halfway between the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr.

“Glory Road” is based on fact but takes typical Tinseltown liberties. Embellishment and distortion aside, the message remains the same. “It’s Hollywood,” says Lattin, who has taken part in nearly a dozen screenings in various cities. “But the producers and directors maintain the integrity of what happened. That’s what is important. Anyone who sees the film leaves with a good feeling.”

The nation’s feelings and emotions had been worked raw when dust-blown, absolutely unheard of Texas Western arrived at the NCAA championship game. At the time, pure-bred Kentucky was hardly the exception. In several major conferences, including the Southwest Conference, not a single varsity basketball player was black. Yet Don “The Bear” Haskins, the 36-year-old white coach who masterminded the Miners to the title, was hardly an emancipator. Rather, he was simply a coach who did what coaches do – play the best players who give you the best chance of winning.

“The perception at the time was that you needed to have at least one white player on the floor at all times,” remembers Lattin. “For some reason, the contemporary thinking was that black players couldn’t think. Coach Haskins crashed the door on that. He took a chance. And we made it work.”

And the winning formula centered on “Big Daddy D” Lattin, a 6-foot-7-inch, 240-pound star at Worthing High and the first high school All-American from Texas. “When I walked out of the locker room to see Kentucky for the first time, I had no idea what they looked like,” says Lattin. “There was no ESPN, no CNN. We rushed out to see both Kentucky and Duke (in one of the nation semifinals), and both teams were all white. That was a shock to me, especially Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the nation all that year.”

Big Daddy D delivered an early shock to Kentucky in the title showdown, nearly bringing down the house with a pair of heavy-duty dunks that sent a message loud and clear to the Wildcats. Lattin scored 16 points in the Texas Western’s 72-65 championship win.

Forty years after College Park, Lattin remains a fixture in his native Houston. He’s molded a successful career in the adult beverage business and as a real estate investor. This spring, he is promoting his autobiographical account of the season and its aftermath, “Lattin’s Slam Dunk to Glory.” He’s beyond proud of his role in changing the landscape of more than mere college basketball.

“It made me feel good that we were doing something to help race relations in our country and help youngsters get major college scholarships,” says Lattin. “The lasting impact on me of that experience is that winning changes everything. When you win, you make things better. It also gave me confidence, taught me the value of discipline for business and to have a structure in my life.”

Lattin’s only regret is that former teammate Bobby Joe Hill, Texas Western’s spirited point guard, their soul, their steering wheel, is not alive to see the team embraced and commemorated. Hill died of a heart attack in 2002.

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