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COLLEGE BASKETBALL / CHRIS DUFRESNE : Pitino Converts Louisville, Works on Rest of Kentucky

February 15, 1996|CHRIS DUFRESNE

LEXINGTON, Ky. — The Kentucky Wildcats, then and now.

Thirty years ago, in the 1966 NCAA title game, legendary Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp set out to prove his team of five white starters was superior to five black starters from Texas Western, now known as Texas El Paso.

Rupp, who died in 1977, was a terrific coach but a late convert to the 20th Century, to put it politely.

In a watershed moment for college basketball, Coach Don Haskins' Miners defeated the Wildcats, 72-65, leaving Rupp alone with his thoughts.

The game long stuck in Rupp's craw, but there it was, etched in history.

Today, as the No.2-ranked Wildcats make a run toward their sixth NCAA title, the irony is evident.

Last Sunday against Arkansas at Rupp Arena, for the 15th time this season, Kentucky fielded a team of all African American starters: Derek Anderson, Antoine Walker, Wayne Turner, Tony Delk and Walter McCarty.

Rupp is still a king in Kentucky. His hook-nosed bust strikes a mighty pose in the Wildcat basketball offices; the legend of his 876 victories is chronicled in poetic rapture on an ode to Rupp plaque outside Memorial Coliseum.

While basketball memories remain, the last embers of Rupp's ideas regarding race are apparently being stamped out.

This isn't the first Kentucky team to start an entire lineup of color--former coach Joe B. Hall did it once in 1979--but it is the first stretch in which African Americans have so predominantly carried the Kentucky torch.

Coach Rick Pitino, an outsider from New York, said he worked hard for change.

"We've totally changed the image of Kentucky basketball," Pitino said in his office on Monday.

Change comes slowly. The sold-out crowds at Rupp Arena are still almost entirely white, the explanation given that tickets have been held by the same families for generations.

Change comes hard. A few years ago, Pitino lost a prize recruit, Jason Osborne, to Louisville because Osborne's family refused to allow him to play at the school where Rupp once coached.

Pitino is convinced he has chased away most of the past.

"I think we've converted Louisville," he says of the Kentucky city in which the highest percentage of minorities reside. "It took a lot."

In seven years, Pitino claims to have received only one letter complaining of his "overuse" of black players.

Pitino wrote back: "I said don't root for Kentucky, because we'll never step back into those days."

Delk, a senior guard from Brownsville, Tenn., considers his time at Kentucky well spent.

"I've enjoyed it," he said. "I can't complain. I didn't know about Kentucky history. Coach Pitino is the reason I came. I didn't know about Rupp."

As the Wildcats move closer to a national championship, comparisons to the 1966 title game will be drawn.

The differences are substantial.

"It's just the way times have changed," Delk said. "We can get rid of that stereotype."

Pitino is happy to have been part of this progress.

Winning hasn't hurt his cause, either.

"Whether there are still people out there that simple-minded or not, I take pride in the fact I don't listen to a damn thing anybody says," Pitino said. "I don't listen to any influences about who to play, who not to play."


The slogan that accompanied Arkansas to two NCAA title-game appearances the last two years, "40 minutes of hell," has been jettisoned in favor of "23 minutes of purgatory."

Another slogan you can rule out is "Three-peat."

Barring the return of Scotty Thurman--doesn't Arkansas wish--the Razorbacks, 15-8 after Wednesday's 79-73 victory over Mississippi, will not be back in the title game come April 1.

Which is not to say Coach Nolan Richardson still can't turn a phrase.

"We'll fight you 'til the general's dead," he said Sunday after his team gave Kentucky all it could handle.

What happened to Arkansas amounts to basic math. After its 1993-94 national title and its championship-game loss to UCLA last spring in Seattle, Arkansas had a going-away party for nearly its entire squad.

There were nine new players at first roll call this season, including five freshmen. Richardson starts two toddlers and three juniors.

You don't lose the likes of Corey Beck, Corliss Williamson, Dwight Stewart and Thurman and expect to be seeded first at the next year's regional.

Richardson appears to have a future sensation in freshman guard Kareem Reid, but this year has mostly been about growing pains.

That said, the Razorbacks were so encouraged by Sunday's spirited showing against the Wildcats that Richardson has ruled his team back in the hunt.

Of the upcoming NCAA tournament, he said, "As an opposing coach, I wouldn't want to to play Arkansas, because I could see what these kids can do on a given night. You could be in serious trouble on a neutral floor."

That might be true if Arkansas could shoot. The team that lived by the three-point shot in its glory days is making 31% of them this season.

Thurman's ill-fated decision to give up his senior season only makes it hurt worse.

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