As I am filling out my March Madness bracket I am having a couple of flashbacks, which all center around the Kentucky Wildcats. They are one of the four number one seeds in this year’s tournament, along with Syracuse, Michigan State and the University of North Carolina. My first flashback takes me back to the Spring of 1991 in my African-American poetry class with one of my favorite professors – Father Joseph Brown. Our assignments were to create our own prose based off current events then support our opinions with the words from Black poets. I wrote a paper called “Rupp Roast,” which was inspired by the Adolph Rupp Trophy that is given to the top male Division I NCAA player during the championship game at the Final Four. Here was my opening statement:
I’m Kentucky born, Kentucky bred, Gonna brag about Kentucky, Till I’m dead. “Kentucky Blues” –Sterling A. Brown
Recently I read an article in the April 1, 1991 edition of Sports Illustrated, titled “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Curry Kirkpatrick’s story unleashed the tales behind the 1966 NCAA title game between an all-black line-up from Texas Western, who beat an all-white Kentucky team. The article clearly states that the individuals on these two teams did not make race a factor; they just wanted to play the game of basketball. The issue at hand though, does relate to race because the coach of Kentucky, Adolph Rupp was a racist, whose “politics leaned more toward the KKK.” The Washington Post stated on Saturday, March 30, 1991 that “Louisiana State center Shaquille O’Neal was awarded the Adolph Rupp Trophy by the Associated Press, honored as the best men’s college player in a nationwide vote of sports writers and broadcasters.” I realize there are probably pros and cons in accepting this award, but it is beyond me why a Black male would want to be a recipient of an award that was named after a man who supported the KKK. In this instance I see no reason to “brag” about Kentucky or the coach of the team.
I spent the rest of the paper breaking down the historical ramifications of this game; race relations in America at that time and how Adolph Rupp wasn’t the only southern coach who believed “niggers” shouldn’t play college basketball. I knew that if an award based on excellence was named after him, Adolph Rupp must have been a prestigious coach – which he was. Ironically if you look at his Wikipedia page you will see no mention of the historic game, or anything about accusations of him being a racist.
When I wrote this paper, I was a 20-year-old college student at Mr. Jefferson’s University – The University of Virginia. There was a lot of racial tension and several political movements happening, like the fight against apartheid. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the notion of a Black man accepting this award. So many have, and will continue to do so. To this day I still have a hard time seeing the confederate flag. There are images and actions from that era that will never fully sit well with me, even though I have been educated to place things in their proper context.
Fast forward to the Fall of 1994 for flashback number two. I was a promotion producer for the CBS affiliate in Washington, DC. One day I was coming off the elevator and within seconds of stepping out I was in the presence of the one and only Coach Pat Riley. We had cordial pleasantries and I learned he just arrived to do an interview to promote his newest book called The Winner Within: A Life Plan for Team Players. The next thing I know I am asking him what it was like to play for Adolph Rupp, the 1966 National Championship game and what his stance on Coach Rupp’s racial beliefs were. I will never forget the look on his face after asking him this. It wasn’t the look of how dare you disparage my beloved coach. It was more of a shocked look of how does this young lady know the history of the game and within two minutes in my presence she had the balls to ask me those questions. He was very gracious with me and answered the way I thought he would. He said it was just the nature of that time and how Coach Rupp was raised. He also complimented me on asking the tough questions and wondered if I was a part of the team interviewing him. I wasn’t. I thanked him for chatting with me, went along my merry way and smiled to myself for making one of the greatest NBA coaches in history speechless.
Now I need to go along my merry way and get this bracket done.