“I Pray for Them to Lose”

Published on TexasMonthly.com

A few miles from the border separating Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico, an orange banner hangs from the rafters at Don Haskins Center. That’s where the Miners of the University of Texas at El Paso, UTEP, play their home games. “Texas Western College NCAA Champions 1966,” the banner reads in plain, white font. A short walk from there, UTEP displays the championship trophy from that same season inside the school’s basketball practice facility. Resting inside a wall niche at the building’s entrance, the trophy is part of a shrine to the historic team.

With five Black starters, the ’66 Miners team beat top-ranked—and all-white—University of Kentucky for the 1966 NCAA championship. The shrine’s wall is covered with a photographic mural featuring Willie Worsley, David Lattin, Orsten Artis, Harry Flournoy, and their Hall of Fame coach, Don Haskins. Atop of it all, a headline—a variation of which ran in newspapers across the country—“Texas Western Stuns Kentucky 72-65.”

As soon as that game ended, El Pasoans celebrated. Trash cans were set on fire. Dynamite was set off. The El Paso Times said the city hadn’t felt that level of excitement since the end of World War II. When the team returned home, riot squads, bonfires, and orange-colored bunting greeted the players throughout the city.  

The year after winning the championship, Texas Western changed its name to UTEP. Today, walk around campus and you’re reminded, at almost every turn, of the ’66 team. The Don Haskins Center is on Glory Road, the name of a 2006 Disney film about the team. There’s Glory Field, where the football team practices. There’s Glory Road Transit Center, part of the city’s public transportation system. And close to them all is Memorial Gym, where the ’66 Miners played their home games.

As big as Texas is, that team, banner, trophy, and glory only exist in El Paso. UTEP is the only Texas school to have ever won an NCAA title in men’s basketball. It’s why, during this time of year, when golden poppies bloom in this desert corner of the state, as soon as March Madness begins, some El Pasoans cheer against every team from Texas.

It’s about protecting the legacy of the ’66 Miners. It doesn’t matter if the other teams have no chance to win the championship, like Abilene Christian or Texas Southern this year, or if they’re about to face off in the Final Four, like Baylor and Houston. If the team’s from Texas, it must fail.

“I pray for them to lose,” Joe John Valadez says. He doesn’t chuckle when he says it. It’s easy to imagine him, each night before he sleeps, praying for health, for serenity, and for every Texas team in the men’s bracket to lose. “I don’t want them to have a national championship ever. Because, knowing the way marketing is with other Texas big schools, they’ll probably gloat and then overlap what we have accomplished.”

Valadez, 42, has followed Miners basketball since he was a boy. He says “we” when talking about the team. For the last eighteen years, during a period when the program has been largely mediocre and attendance has declined, Valadez has kept his season tickets.

The Miners are now decades removed from their golden age in the 1980s and early ’90s, when even if they fell short of another national championship, they were among the country’s top programs. Beginning with 1984, when the program reached the top five in the national rankings, the Miners made the NCAA Tournament eight times in the next nine years, reaching the Sweet 16 in 1992 after shocking top-seeded Kansas in the second round.

After that upset, it felt like the entire city celebrated. On a Monday morning, thousands of El Pasoans squeezed into the airport lobby to greet the team. Chants echoed off the walls. “U-TEP! U-TEP!” That year—like 1966—El Paso was home to the only Texas team to make it that far. Seeing UTEP listed alongside blue-blood programs like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, and UCLA felt surreal.

UTEP men’s basketball hasn’t won an NCAA tournament game since. Back in 1992, with ESPN’s SportsCenter visiting campus to record a segment about the celebration in “the west Texas streets of El Paso,” no one would have guessed that one of the city’s great moments also marked the end of an era.

El Pasoans watched Haskins—who, according to Sports Illustrated, received death threats and 40,000 pieces of hate mail for starting Black players—scream from the bench as he became one of college basketball’s winningest coaches. As he sat on that bench, El Pasoans also watched him get older. In his last few seasons, Haskins’s health suffered. He had a heart attack during halftime of a game in 1996. He had problems with his foot. He struggled with issues involving his left eye. Things got so bad for Haskins and the basketball program that former player Nolan Richardson—an El Pasoan and national championship–winning coach with the University of Arkansas—publicly voiced concern for Haskins. “The way he’s going out,” Richardson said, “it’s the shittiest way I know.” Haskins retired in 1999.

His successor, Jason Rabedeaux, seemed like the perfect replacement. In 2000–2001, his second season, the Miners notched 23 wins—more than they’d won in almost a decade. He was the Western Athletic Conference coach of the year. Then, things went bad. Rabedeaux struggled with alcohol abuse and his marriage fell apart. He resigned after his third season and spent several years coaching in second-tier pro leagues in Asia and the Middle East. In 2014, Rabedeaux died in Vietnam, where he was serving as head coach of the Saigon Heat in the ASEAN Basketball League.  

After Rabedeaux, Billy Gillespie coached UTEP to the NCAA tournament, then left.

After Gillespie, Doc Saddler coached UTEP to the NCAA tournament, then left.

After Saddler, Tony Barbee coached UTEP to the NCAA tournament, then left.

That was in 2010, the last year the Miners reached the tournament. Two years before, Haskins died of heart failure at 78 years old. A white hearse carrying his body weaved through the streets of El Paso as thousands mourned his death but also celebrated his life. They celebrated that Haskins, after winning the championship, hadn’t left.

Over the last eleven years, the once-great college basketball program in the westernmost corner of Texas has become irrelevant.

“We’re frustrated and we want to see them win,” Jaime Arrieta says. Everyone calls him Pinky. He switches between English and Spanish when he talks, attends about a dozen UTEP games a year, and his car has designer license plates from New Mexico that read “UTEP.”

Pinky’s been watching the Miners play since 1964, when he was ten years old. To Pinky, who was still a kid when he watched the ’66 team play at Memorial Gym, the team’s integrated roster and all-Black starting five in the championship game didn’t seem like a historic moment for racial progress in college basketball. The Miners were just his team. Later, as he grew into adulthood, he understood what that win over coach Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky Wildcats meant.

Now, like Valadez, Pinky also roots against Texas’s other college teams in the tournament. “You get so many negative comments about El Paso from people around the state,” he explains. “‘It’s too far away. It’s not part of Texas. It should be part of New Mexico. Who wants to go over there and drive nine, ten hours?’ That’s why I root for UTEP, because we can have that one thing over the rest of Texas.”

Growing up in El Paso, the distance between the city and the rest of Texas is impossible to ignore. It’s part of why the ’66 team matters. “So many El Pasoans look at that championship and take so much pride that it’s the only Texas school,” says Steve Kaplowitz. For almost 25 years, Kaplowitz has hosted the radio call-in show “SportsTalk” on El Paso’s KROD 600-AM. Throughout the year, callers dial in to celebrate Miners wins and vent over the team’s losses. When March rolls around, they call to say they hope the other Texas schools lose. 

“Just a matter of time before we see that Texas school break through,” Kaplowitz says. He says Haskins—with whom he co-hosted a radio show—had wanted to see another Texas school win a championship. “Even if another team wins—say this year, Houston or Baylor, because they’re the only two Texas teams left—Texas Western, or UTEP, will still be the first school from the state of Texas. You’ll always have that.

“Nobody’s ever going to forget the place in history that Texas Western and Don Haskins had in ’66,” Kaplowitz adds, like he’s trying to brace Miners fans for the day when Texas crowns another champion in the men’s NCAA Tournament. “That’s going to live forever.”

With Houston and Baylor playing each other in the Final Four, one Texas school is guaranteed a spot in Monday’s national championship game. Regardless of which team makes it there, if they lose, El Pasoans will celebrate. Because for at least one more year, El Paso will have something that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Texas.

When the final Texas team falls, Valadez will be able to stop worrying. He watched Texas Tech play Virginia for the title in 2019 with “sweaty palms and everything” until, thankfully, the Cavaliers won. He drank scotch—Macallan 18—to celebrate no longer having to worry about everything his team could’ve lost, even if they weren’t playing.

Pinky will also have a drink. Each year, when the last Texas team loses, he opens a bottle of champagne. If he’s with friends, he’ll share. If he’s alone, he’ll still partake. “I’ll just pop the cork—it’s not expensive champagne, believe me,” Pinky says. “I’ll take a drink and say, ‘One more year.’”

One more year of hoping that if it’s only a matter of time until another Texas team cuts down the nets, then let it be some other time. One more year of hoping for UTEP basketball to return to the tournament. Maybe then, when it rains in the desert, we can all celebrate again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: