Marquette win over Kentucky led to racial integration for Rupp's Wildcats
Archive photo: Milwaukee Sentinel
MILWAUKEE - On this day commemorating Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, we remember a college basketball win by a Marquette team that proved to be the final step in getting a legendary coach from the deep south to bring a black athlete onto his previously all-white squad.
On March 13, 1969, Al McGuire's Marquette Warriors struck a winning blow for the integration of one of college basketball's powerhouse programs: Kentucky.
That program, under four-time Final Four champion Adolph Rupp, was all-white until shortly after George Thompson and company blew them out in the NCAA tournament.
"This thing was played against the backdrop of race relations, the struggle blacks were going through in the south, in the north, everywhere,' said Thompson in an interview with Newsradio 620 WTMJ's Jay Sorgi.
"Kentucky and many of the teams now in what you now call the SEC did not recruit black players. That was the norm."
It remained the norm, even after Kentucky fell to Texas Western and an all-black starting 5 in the 1966 NCAA Final Four.
Two years later, Marquette and Kentucky played in the 1968 NCAA tournament on the Wildcats' home floor.
"The whole, gigantic cheering section, people dropping the N-bomb on opposing players," Thompson described.
Kentucky won, 81-74, but they would meet again.
This budding rivalry included McGuire, a passionate proponent for integration, against Rupp, a coach who many believe tried and failed to bring black players on his roster during the 1960's.
Those players he went after included, according to reports at the time, future Basketball Hall of Famer Wes Unseld.
"Al made sure, the first couple of years the player was in the program, they did not room with someone of their own race," said Thompson. "You had a guy like me from Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn, with a guy from Merrill, Wisconsin."
When it came to Rupp, Thompson said the climate wasn't palatable for an African-American player to suit up for the Wildcats.
"No one wanted to be the first to go to a place that was openly hostile towards blacks at the time. I think he was perfectly happy with the All-Americans that he got from around the country to come to Kentucky."
Around the time of the 1968 NCAA tournament appearance, McGuire and Rupp's rivalry became very heated.
"The year before, Al had walked off of Rupp's show because of some offensive things the man said about some of Al's players."
The rematch between the teams came in Madison in 1969.
"It was literally the north against the south all over again. Their team was playing 'Dixie.' Our team was playing 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic," said Thompson.
"We could smell fear. You could see it in their eyes. They were up north. They were out of their element...they did not look comfortable from the beginning. We were determined we were going to win that basketball game."
They did, 91-74, behind 59 combined points from African-American superstars Dean Meminger, Ric Cobb and Thompson.
Two months later, Tom Payne agreed to be Adolph Rupp's first African-American recruit to go to Kentucky, a move Thompson says was out of competitive necessity.
"Do we want to continue with ways that we had for all of these years and get left behind, or do you want to recruit some good basketball players, no matter what their skin color is, and still stay competitive?" Thompson noted.
In the end, one Marquette victory became the final impetus for a dramatic change which led to integration on the roster of one of college basketball's legendary teams.