JANUARY 30, 2006
Two local heroes stand out from my childhood in El Paso, Texas. The first is the weatherman for the local ABC affiliate, John Fausett. In 1983, the year my family moved to Texas, Fausett predicted snow—in April. The local meteorological community sneered. But Fausett stuck to his guns, and he was right. The next few days brought 17 inches. For years after the fact, the station would run promos recounting this feat—a lesson to my generation about integrity and the power of independent thinking.
THE SECOND IS Don Haskins, the longtime basketball coach at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). Haskins has recently achieved fame outside West Texas thanks to the feature film Glory Road, which revisits his team's long-shot national championship in 1966. But there was never any question about Haskins's legendary status in El Paso. Undersized prepubescents like myself would make the hajj to his annual basketball camp from all corners of the Southwest. The point wasn't so much to meet the Bear—no one would be so presumptuous. It was to get your hands on a bright orange Don Haskins Basketball Camp t-shirt, which marked you as forever worthy of respect. I kept mine until college.
GLORY ROAD HAS PROVOKED a mini-controversy surrounding the historical significance of the 1966 season. Haskins was the first coach to start an all-black roster in an NCAA title game. That the Miners beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky squad, at a time when elite Southern schools excluded black players, has prompted the elders of basketball to proclaim it a watershed moment. This has, in turn, led sticklers to point out that few of the players or coaches involved saw it that way and that many non-Southern colleges were already recruiting black players. Fair enough. Still, you rarely recognize an iconic moment until after the fact. And it didn't take long for the evidence to surface. According to UTEP's Charles Martin, author of a forthcoming history of discrimination in college sports, Vanderbilt recruited the Southeastern Conference's first black basketball player about six weeks later.
THE REAL PROBLEM with the movie is its explanation for how our sleepy West Texas town produced the team that demolished the color barrier in college basketball. Glory Road casts its lot with serendipity: UTEP—then known as Texas Western—happened to hire Haskins; Haskins desperately wanted to win; the only talented players he could lure to a third-rate school in the middle of nowhere were black. The movie is heavily invested in this explanation, since it underscores the story's unlikely quality. At one point, the Haskins character is recruiting a black player from Gary, Indiana. The recruit's mother is clearly concerned about sending her son to Texas. The viewer, who so far has only seen a few dusty buildings and some good ol' boys, can see the punch line coming. Haskins swallows hard and explains that the city does have a certain "cosmopolitan" quality. The next scene cuts to the confused recruit riding through the desert on a nearly empty bus.
BUT "COSMOPOLITAN" IS actually closer to the truth than the movie gives El Paso credit for. The city basically had to accommodate itself to multiculturalism, since its Latino population was always so significant (well over 50 percent) and the border that separates El Paso from Juarez, Mexico, was so porous. In his just-published cultural history of El Paso, Ringside Seat to a Revolution, David Dorado Romo suggests that most of the city's retailers have historically been too dependent on Latino consumers to discriminate against them overtly. This dates back to the revolutionary days, when Pancho Villa would order shoes and khakis by the tens of thousands from a local dry-goods store. This dynamic worked in the other direction, too. With more than one million people, Juarez was twice the size of El Paso when I lived there; in some ways, it seemed more sophisticated. In 20 minutes, you could drive across the border to some elegant but inexpensive seafood restaurant, where you'd be surrounded by other Americans and affluent Mexicans.
THESE DETAILS ARE at odds with the Huntington-esque clash of civilizations that must come to mind when most Americans think of the border region. But it's not border towns where fears of an alien invasion are escalating. It's the cities hundreds of miles away, where immigrant populations have become visible more recently. It's telling, for example, that most of the Minutemen vigilantes who have patrolled the border near El Paso came from places like Dallas and Denver. I am swarthy enough to have been mistaken for a Latino fairly regularly in El Paso. But the only time I encountered racism of any kind was when my soccer team played a team from Clovis, New Mexico, 250 miles to the northeast. I happened to brush up against a Clovis player, who, in what apparently passes for sportsmanship in small-town New Mexico, protested, "C'mon, spic."
NOR WAS IT just Anglo-Latino relations. Romo writes in his book that, in the early twentieth century, blacks, whites, Chinese, and Mexicans all mixed easily in South El Paso, the district abutting the border. Black soldiers who fought Villa under General "Black Jack" Pershing were hailed by El Pasoans as heroes. And, though El Paso fell under Texas's Jim Crow regime, enforcement was generally more lax than elsewhere in the state. It's not surprising that El Paso became the first Texas city to bar discrimination in public places—two years before the Civil Rights Act. El Paso certainly wasn't blameless when it came to race. Elite institutions like law firms didn't get around to making many Latinos partners until the 1980s. And, as Glory Road correctly illustrates, Haskins's unorthodox recruitment strategy raised its share of eyebrows when it first became apparent. (Though the Miners' roster had featured at least one black player almost every year since 1956.) But one has to wonder where else in the Sun Belt a Division I coach could have handed most of his scholarships to blacks in the mid-'60s. I don't mean to deny Don Haskins his glory. I just think El Paso deserves a share of it.