By Trey Williams
Glory Road is intersecting with Memory Lane for some East Tennessee State basketball greats.
Oklahoma’s Khadeem Lattin will play in the Final Four in his native Houston 50 years after his grandfather, David “Big Daddy” Lattin, played on Texas Western’s national championship team. And Lattin’s improbable 50th anniversary gift links a golden era of ETSU basketball via legendary players Tommy Woods and Harley “Skeeter” Swift and ex-Buccaneers assistant Glen Korobov.
Woods, the Jackie Robinson of ETSU basketball, could’ve been a junior on that Texas Western team – the first national champion to start five African-Americans. It was a fact made all the more glaring by the all-white Kentucky that Texas Western defeated in the title game.
And Swift, who was a teammate of Lattin’s for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Condors for portions of two seasons (1970-72), first saw him when he attended the historic Texas Western triumph that inspired the movie “Glory Road.” Swift was there at Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse with Korobov, a fellow Northern Virginia native and Swift’s initial exposure to ETSU.
Swift watched the Miners take the title after concluding his freshman season at ETSU (1965-66), which was Woods’ junior season with the Buccaneers. When Woods was a freshman at ETSU he was still being recruited by Texas Western coach Don Haskins.
The high-leaping 6-foot-6 Woods had an enjoyable visit to El Paso during his senior season of high school in Alcoa. And Haskins let him know the invitation still stood nearly a year later.
“He told me to come on back down there,” said Woods, a retired policeman living in Louisville. “El Paso was just too far for my parents and everything. But in the back of my mind I did want to go back.”
Breaking ETSU basketball’s color barrier wasn’t something Woods recalled signing up for, and it was a maddening march he survived to advance a grand cause.
“If (ETSU assistant) Jack Maxey mentioned it to me that I’d be the first black to play ball there, apparently it didn’t sink in my head or something,” Woods said.
Woods felt like “a fly in the buttermilk” when he arrived at ETSU. He’d been a face in the crowd, relatively speaking, in El Paso, where he played pickup basketball and even had an enjoyable trek across the border into Juarez, Mexico.
“I really enjoyed myself there,” Woods said with a chuckle while recalling players such as 6-foot-8, 240-pound Jim “Bad News” Barnes.
“I was blocking some shots down there; I do remember that,” Woods said. “But I tell you what, those guys were a little bigger than me and they were pushing me around, too. … I do know that I got out of breath down there, I guess because of the altitude.”
Swift saw immediately that Kentucky had a tough mountain to climb against Texas Western. The 6-foot-6, 225-pound Lattin’s slam dunks and guard Bobby Joe Hill’s steals set the tone.
“Big Daddy dunked it from the left baseline and Bobby Joe stole it three times along the left sideline,” said Swift, who had a game-high 22 points and 10 rebounds when ETSU defeated Dave Cowens-led Florida State to reach the Sweet 16 in 1968. “Yea, it’s just like it was yesterday. I’ll always remember that. … I’s at mid-court watching Bobby Joe Hill steal the ball from Louie Dampier.”
Swift, who concluded his pro career with the San Antonio Spurs, went on to defeat Dampier and Hall of Famer George “Iceman” Gervin in a 3-point shootout during the Spurs’ 1991 ‘Reunion Classic.’
Swift was known around Alexandria for spending an unusual amount of time in African-American neighborhoods when he was a child. He once mooned a playground full of African-American players, but bigotry wasn’t at the bottom of it.
Swift coached Rogersville High School in 1974-75, and nearly 40 years later multiple players from that team – white and black – recalled him getting angry when the whites sat together and the blacks sat together at the first team dinner. He also is proud to have been a guest for an overnight visit in the home of Earl Lloyd, the NBA’s first African-American player, while filming a documentary. So a 19-year-old Swift was ecstatic to see Texas Western defeat Kentucky and disappoint its legion of fans.
“They walked in there like they were gonna take over the place,” said Swift, whose Bucs lost in the Sweet 16 to Ohio State on Kentucky’s home court in Lexington two years later. “Texas Western wasn’t supposed to win. … I knew what the game was about. I knew that black was black and white was white, and I know that (Kentucky coach) Adolph Rupp didn’t like blacks.
“And when they busted their behind – that was the greatest feeling in the world. And what was even greater was at the end of the movie the players walk out off the airplane and introduce their name and what they were doing. And all of them were successful.”
Oddly enough, when Swift was traded from the Memphis Pros to the Pittsburgh Condors 28 games in to the 1970-71 season he didn’t know his new teammate, Lattin, was the man he’d seen dunking against Rupp’s Runts in Cole Fieldhouse nearly five years earlier.
“Yeah, I didn’t realize that, and I was totally surprised,” said Swift, who lives in Kingsport. “Glen took me to the ballgame. I didn’t know it was for the national championship. How smart was that? I had a mid-court seat. There were 12,500 in Cole Fieldhouse. It’s like it was yesterday.
“I played against Dampier in the pros. He could play. I beat him and Ice in the 3-point shootout in San Antonio.”
Lattin was interviewed twice in the fall of 2010 for “Skeeter: Harley Swift’s Trash-Talking, Buzzer-Beating March Through Madness,” and nothing he heard about Swift surprised him, certainly not that Swift pointed out beating Dampier and Gervin in a 3-point shootout or that he was cheering for Lattin’s Miners against Kentucky.
“Skeeter was a character,” Lattin said. “The first thing that comes to mind is how tough Skeeter was. We were playing an exhibition in Ruston, Louisiana and it was freezing cold outside. And there was no hot water in the locker rooms. None of us could stand it, but Skeeter jumped right in a took a shower for ten or fifteen minutes. …
“He had that big ole barrel chest, but he wasn’t pudgy at all. He had those big sideburns. … He used to talk a lot. He’d talk some stuff to the opposing team, but he was just a great competitor. I mean nobody was gonna push him around out there. He was a pretty tough kid.”
Korobov, who was a graduate assistant under Rupp during the 1963-64 season, said Swift was too tough on Rupp, though numerous players and coaches from that era agree with Swift that Rupp had the clout to integrate Kentucky much sooner.
“I don’t think Coach Rupp was prejudiced,” said Korobov, who lives in Indianapolis where he last coached as an assistant at Butler. “I think he just didn’t recruit blacks for a while but eventually he did because the game was getting away from him and he saw the talent in the African-American athlete. And other people were beating him with them. But with him and Coach (Harry) Lancaster … I never saw anything prejudiced in any way.
“The man was a great coach. He did a lot for me. He had a lot to do with me getting in to coaching. But … it looked like (he was racist) when you saw all black and all white.
And a lot of people threw stones at Coach Rupp, but that was not fair at all.”
Swift noted that the coach at Korobov’s Wakefield High School, Maynard Haithcock, started four black players against Swift-led George Washington during his senior season in 1964-65.
Swift said some coaches, such as Haithcock and Swift’s first ABA coach, Babe McCarthy, were more willing to integrate. So was ETSU’s Ohio Valley Conference, which broke the color barrier years before the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference.
Woods and Swift are convinced that Western Kentucky would’ve beaten Kentucky and played Texas Western in the 1966 title game if not for a bad call that went in Cazzie Russell’s favor in a last-second loss to Michigan.
“Western had Clem (Haskins) and the Smith brothers – Greg and Dwight – and Wayne (Chapman),” Woods said. “And the center was (Steve) Cunningham. … They had too many horses for us.”
Haskins was drafted No. 3 overall and played eight years in the NBA. Greg Smith also played eight years in the NBA. Dwight Smith was drafted No. 23 overall by the Los Angeles Lakers but died in an automobile accident prior to what would’ve been his rookie season.
And Chapman, who transferred from Kentucky after a joyless experience with Rupp, played four years in the ABA. His son Rex was a star at Kentucky and averaged 14.6 points during a 12-year NBA career.
“Integration made the OVC a great league,” Swift said. “Look at the pro players. … We beat (Dave) Cowens. We beat Duke at Cameron Indoor. We woulda beat Ohio State if I hadn’t played a bad game.”
Certainly, Texas Western had a tougher time beating Jo Jo White-led Kansas in double overtime and Cincinnati, which it defeated in overtime, than it did defeating all-white Kentucky.
But Rupp’s Runts were within striking distance nearly the entire game thanks to 19 points apiece from Dampier and Pat Riley.
ESPN replayed the 1966 national championship game Wednesday. Lattin was interviewed at halftime by John Saunders. He said time has magnified that momentous occasion.
Korobov, a basketball devotee assisting this week with a ministry for the women’s Final Four, still appreciates the gem the Miners and Kentucky produced.
“It was a special game with tremendous history to it,” Korobov said. “You could feel the tension, and it was definitely a historic moment. It was a tremendous basketball game. Forget if it was the number of African-Americans on one team and the lack of them on the other; it was just a great game. It was well played and Texas Western was certainly ready for the challenge.
“And I’m sure they were a little bit more motivated to play than Kentucky was. They had a lot more at stake. It’s disappointing that it was looked at that way, but they had much more to play for. They were defending something. And I’m sure that game also woke Coach Rupp up: ‘Hey, these guys are pretty talented.’ … And they were well coached, too.”
Korobov wasn’t against Rupp, but he was for Texas Western.
“I think, having been raised in a predominantly black area, I was definitely rooting for them,” Korovbov said.
You wonder if Haskins would’ve even signed Lattin if Woods had already been there. Woods could dunk and swat shots with similar ferocity.
Texas Western’s triumph left Woods wrestling with what could’ve been.
“I said, ‘Man, I could be making history right there,’” he said.
It was a missed opportunity that returned to mind while hearing him bemoan his mistake of scratching Lattin’s Oklahoma from the Final Four in his March Madness bracket.
Woods wanted to scratch ETSU from his future during his freshman season. Spectators would throw ice and popcorn on the floor when he scored. Fellow students trashed his room and avoided him like the plague in the cafeteria. A section of ETSU fans would even curse him with racial epithets.
But Brooks and Woods’ father urged him to ride out the storm by just being himself. So he did.
“And during my last game,” Woods said, recalling a dunk-fest against Morehead State that Swift describes as Woods’ masterpiece, “those same people that had hated me gave me a standing ovation.”
Indeed, it seemed, Woods and Swift were bound for glory.