Glory overrode

KU became part of history when call went against it

JOE POSNANSKI   Sun, Jan 22, 2006

The frustration builds. They will never know. This is how it goes for those contentious moments in sports’ dark ages, before instant replay and camera phones and two dozen different television angles. We know Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu intercepted that Peyton Manning pass in last weekend’s playoff game, no matter what the official said. We saw it a hundred different ways. We know.

We don’t know if Babe Ruth really pointed to the stands before hitting his home run.  And we will never know for sure if Jo Jo White stepped out of bounds.

White himself says he knows. He was on WFAN just this week ranting to New York sports fans that he has watched the crackling black-and-white film a dozen times, he has analyzed the surviving photographs as if they were forensic evidence, and he has come to his own irrefutable conclusion: He was in bounds when he made the shot that should have beaten Texas Western 40 years ago. Kansas should have gone to the Final Four. The movie, he says, never should have happened.  The movie has opened up those wounds all over again.

“The movie has Jo Jo stepping out by several inches,” says Ted Owens, Kansas’ coach in that crazy year. “That’s just wrong. We doubt that he stepped out of bounds at all.”

The movie is “Glory Road,” a national sensation, the No. 1 movie in America last weekend. It is about Texas Western’s startling run to the 1966 national championship with five black players in the starting lineup. Texas Western beat Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team in the championship game, a sports movie moment if there ever was one. It’s a great story. The movie overplays the story, of course, making it sound like Texas Western broke all the color barriers when a full 10 years earlier, the University of San Francisco won a national championship with three starting black players. Eight years earlier, all five consensus All-Americans were black. By 1966, most of the acknowledged best players on earth — Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Oscar Robertson among them — were black.

Ah, that’s Hollywood for you. What isn’t Hollywood are the pangs of middle-aged men who wonder what could have been. Before Texas Western beat Kentucky in a fairly tedious championship game (Disney, naturally, made the game closer), the Miners and Jayhawks locked up in a double-overtime thriller for the ages. In the first overtime, with the score tied and 7 seconds left, Kansas’ Jo Jo White dribbled down the left sideline. He felt the clock about to expire. He jumped. He fired a long shot. The ball seemed suspended in the air forever, as if dangling by a string. Then the ball swished through the net and dropped softly into the hands of teammate Al Lopes, who got ready to throw it in the air in triumph. Owens and his players rushed the floor.

“We were going to the Final Four,” Al Lopes remembers. “That’s all that went through my mind. It wasn’t even called the Final Four then. But we were going.”

No. They were not. An official named Rudy Marich waved off the shot. He blew his whistle while the ball was in the air and ran up the sideline and pointed to a spot on the floor where he said Jo Jo White’s foot crossed the out-of-bounds line. Kansas played deflated basketball in the second overtime. Texas Western won the game 81-80.

Texas Western coach Don Haskins, in his terrific autobiography co-written with Dan Wetzel (also called “Glory Road”), dismisses Marich’s whistle and White’s shot with five short words: “It was the right call.” The movie places White’s foot clearly out of bounds; Disney does not do gray. But for the Kansas men who played, they wonder.

“If that shot counts, we probably win the national championship,” says Riney Lochmann, a senior captain on that team. “We were a great team too. Sometimes, the best teams don’t win. … I don’t know. … It’s too bad that was before instant replay. … I don’t know. … It’s too bad that we can’t know one way or another.”

Change swirled in the air in 1966. A California man was thrown out of the teacher’s union for sitting during the pledge of allegiance, his defiant stand against the growing war in Vietnam. John Lennon announced that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Ronald Reagan walked out of a debate between two candidates about race relations in California. “I’m no politician,” he said. “And I don’t have to listen to that.” You could get a ’66 Fury Hardtop for $2,289. No Southeastern Conference school had a black basketball player.

In Kansas — and most schools outside of the South — black players and white players had been together on college basketball teams for more than a decade.

“That Texas Western team didn’t represent diddly-squat to us,” says Al Lopes, a player on that ’66 Kansas team and now an attorney in Lawrence. “Four of our top eight players were black. It had been that way for years. We didn’t even think about it. If they want to say that Texas Western team kicked the door of segregation in the South, that’s fine. That’s accurate. But it didn’t mean anything to us.”

Kansas had been a good team that year — led by dominating center Walt Wesley — but then, at the beginning of February, Jo Jo White joined the team and things took off. Because of his age, White had become eligible for the second semester. Owens remembers meeting with his players and asking if White should join the team immediately or wait until the next season. The players voted unanimously to have White join the team.

“I remember this so clearly,” Owens says. “Riney Lochmann, our captain, came over after the meeting and said ‘We really want Jo Jo to be part of this team.’ And I told him, ‘You know, Riney, if we bring him in, he may start instead of you.’ And I’ll never forget what Riney said. He said, ‘With Jo Jo, we can win the national championship. It doesn’t matter whether I start or not.’ ”

If things had turned out differently, if the shot had counted, well, that may have been the Disney moment. Riney Lochmann is white. Jo Jo White is black.

After White joined the team, the Jayhawks broke loose. They beat Missouri by 44 and Oklahoma State by 33 and Nebraska by 37 and Oklahoma by 17and Kansas State by 13 — no team could even stay close. Walt Wesley was an All-American force inside, Al Lopes could score inside and out, Jo Jo White immediately stepped in as one of the two best defensive guards in America (Texas Western’s Bobby Jo Hill was the other).

“We had it all,” Lopes says. “We had speed, power, depth, height, versatility. We could play any game you want. You want to run? We could do that? You want to play physical ball? We could do that, too. Texas Western wanted to play physically. They had some great athletes. We were ready for that.”

Before the Texas Western game, Lopes remembers standing next to Kansas assistant coach Sam Miranda. Players from both teams warmed up. “Look out there,” Miranda said.  “Yeah,” Lopes said.  “This isn’t a college basketball game,” he said. “It’s a game of men.”

Funny, Kansas players distinctly remember that Texas Western did not start five black players in that regional final. Haskins, they say, started four black players along with Jerry Armstrong, a defensive stopper from Eagleville, Mo. The movie, naturally, doesn’t play up that little fact.

Then, no one was talking race or history on that Saturday in Lubbock. There were 8,200 in the stands, most of them rooting for Texas Western. Often in the game, there were nine black players on the floor — five for Texas Western, four for Kansas — but what stood out about the game was the violence. Even 40 years later, everybody remembers the banging. Four players fouled out (three from Kansas), and the pounding was relentless. Walt Wesley had two and three Texas Western players muscling him all night. Al Lopes remembers watching the game film for the first time after he returned from Vietnam, and he could feel the intensity bursting out of the 8-millimeter film. “Everybody was on the floor,” he says. “Everybody. I couldn’t believe how rough it got. Every loose ball had people diving into each other. It was a heavyweight fight.”

The game bounced back and forth. In the second half, Texas Western’s stifling defense seemed to finally subdue Kansas — the Jayhawks did not score for seven minutes — and the Miners built a lead to five. “Before the three-point shot,” Owens says, “that was a big lead. You didn’t come back from those kinds of deficits often in those days.”

Kansas did come back and tied the game late when White stole a pass, drove hard to the basket and scored on a three-point play with 38 seconds left. That forced the first overtime, and that went back and forth. And then there was Jo Jo White’s shot.

“Of course, that’s what I remember most,” Lochmann says. “Jo just looked so cool, he dribbled down the left, he took the shot, he made it. He was obviously close to the sideline, but Jo just had such great control of his body. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Rich Clarkson, the legendary sports photographer, tells a story about having dinner with some friends. Someone had brought along Rudy Marich, by then a Denver stockbroker. At some point, the conversation somehow shifted to Jo Jo White’s shot, and one of the Kansas fans said the Jayhawks had been jobbed by a terrible call.  “Well,” Marich said, “it wasn’t a terrible call.”  “How do you know?” the fan asked.  “Because I was the official who made it. And there was a photographer there who took pictures that proved I was right.” Clarkson smiled. “I know,” he told Marich. “I was the photographer.”

Clarkson’s famous photographs — one which accompanies this column — are the closest thing we have to conclusive evidence. The photo does indeed seem to show that Jo Jo White’s foot is on the line. This is Don Haskins’ dismissal: “It was the right call.”

But look again. What Jo Jo White contends, what he always has contended, is that the heel of his foot is not on the floor. He says that yes, his heel is above the out-of-bounds line, but he was pivoting, he was on his toes, and he never put his heel down. So he never stepped out of bounds.

Can you see that in the photo? Can you see anything that proves otherwise? “Jo Jo says he never put his foot down,” Owens says. What do you think? “I believe Jo Jo,” he says. What do you think of the photograph? “I believe Jo Jo,” he says.

All the teammates do. Maybe after all these years, they’re clutching at anything — optical illusions, raised heels, whatever. Then again, maybe Jo Jo White really did not step out of bounds. Maybe the shot should have counted and Kansas should have won that game. Maybe they would have gone on to the national championship, maybe their collection of gifted black players would have kicked in the door of segregation in the Deep South. It’s the biggest word in sports. Maybe.

“That was truly one of the great teams in Kansas history,” Owens says. “And in many ways, I think that team has been forgotten.” “We were as great as any Kansas team ever, I know that,” Lochmann says. “We beat Texas Western eight out of 10 times,” Lopes says. “We might have beat them that night.”

They get together pretty often, those players from the 1966 Kansas team. Just Saturday, Walt Wesley was in Lawrence to take in the Kansas-Nebraska game. Al Lopes went to watch the game at a local watering hole. Delvy Lewis in Topeka and Riney Lochmann in Dublin, Ohio, and Bob Wilson in Kansas City, and Jo Jo White, who works for the Boston Celtics, and all the rest were probably watching too. They see each other pretty often.

Owens says all of them have seen the movie. They had different feelings about it. Lochmann liked it a lot. Owens liked it somewhat, though he was troubled by some of the historical inaccuracies. Lopes was bothered by the racial overtones, particularly when, in the movie, Don Haskins tells his team he will play only his black players because they want to “make history.”

It seems unlikely that this happened — Haskins has said again and again that he was hardly even aware of the racial implications while it was happening — but Lopes says, “If that did happen, it’s wrong. You play the best players, regardless of race or economic background or whatever. That should be the message.”

All of them, though, felt a little bit of 1966 come back while watching the movie. Jo Jo White’s shot went up, and the official called it off, and all those old familiar feelings took place (the movie has it as the last shot of the game … Hollywood).

They’ll never know for sure. Maybe that’s good. That shot is part of basketball history now. In the newspaper the next day, reporters said Jo Jo White made a 30-foot shot at the buzzer. In the following day’s paper, the shot was 35 feet.