Thursday, January 12, 2006

A Color Film. Story? Black and White. By HARVEY ARATON

January 12, 2006
Sports of The Times
"Glory Road" depicts Texas Western's landmark victory over Kentucky in the 1966 N.C.A.A. championship game.

BUTCH BEARD was in the car when he answered his cellphone, heading home to a Baltimore suburb after eight days on the road, where no glory was gained.

For the standard small-school payday, Beard's Morgan State University team sacrificed itself at the altar of second-ranked Florida, losing, 92-49, in the hapless manner it had fallen earlier this season to Washington (118-51), Miami (83-51), Virginia Tech (77-49), George Washington (102-75) and Seton Hall (93-46).

At 0-13, with three starters from a lineup of unheralded underclassmen sidelined for academic reasons, competing for a historically black university with a sparse sports budget, Beard's Bears are not likely to reach inspirational heights anywhere soon, with the possible exception of a local theater.

"I'd like to take the kids to see the movie," he said earlier this week. "Just so they can see that if they work hard, really set their minds to it, they might have a chance some day when they play the white schools."

The movie, "Glory Road," opens across the country tomorrow, telling the story of the landmark 1966 national championship game, when an all-black starting five from Texas Western, now the University of Texas at El Paso, beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Kentucky Wildcats. Interestingly, once-segregated Division I powerhouses like Kentucky remain to Beard "the white schools" - a perception largely based on his current position, but also on the understanding of who derives the greatest benefits from all that black talent fast-breaking across America's television screens from November through the first week of April.

A healthy cynicism has helped and occasionally hurt Alfred Beard throughout a basketball journey that has included his starting at point guard for the 1975 N.B.A. champion Golden State Warriors, playing for the Knicks and coaching the Nets. But this proud and decent lifer, whose closest confidants included Red Holzman, began way back in Rupp country - in Hardinsburg, Ky., then a town of 1,400, where he picked cotton on his uncle's farm and waited for Cawood Ledford, the legendary voice of Kentucky basketball, to report from distant outposts of the Southeastern Conference.

"From the age of 10, I sat by the radio by my uncle to listen to Kentucky games," Beard said. "Back then, you knew what it was if you were black, but that didn't preclude appreciating the way they played, or rooting for them." At least until the night of March 19, 1966, when Beard and his roommate at the University of Louisville, Wes Unseld, watched racial barriers and stereotypes crumble on their portable television screen.

Beard said that his Morgan State players, like many young people, tended to take societal advancements for granted but that he, better than most, could explain the shades of gray in the Disney-produced story of black and white.

There has long been contentious debate regarding Rupp: Was he a zealous defender of segregation or what Beard diplomatically called him, "a product of his time"? Maybe the moral of the story that Beard can impart to his team is that Rupp, presented an opportunity to blaze a trail across the South, played it conservative and safe and cast himself in the eyes of many as racist, though "Glory Road" is said to make no judgments.

That night in 1966, Beard said, he and Unseld wondered what might have been had Rupp recruited them with the same enthusiasm with which he chased Pat Riley and Louie Dampier. Unseld, a Louisville product, chose his hometown college over Kentucky in 1964 because, as he recently told The Louisville Courier-Journal: "I think with as much power as (Rupp) had, if he wanted someone with as much intelligence and skill as some of those white players, he could have had them long before me. They never seriously recruited me."

Beard was left with a similar impression when Rupp appeared in his home one year later. "It seemed like he might have been getting pressure from the administration or the alumni to recruit us but that he didn't want to deal with it," Beard said. "He said some things that were insulting."

Beard chose Louisville to partner with Unseld. He could not have played for Kentucky in 1966, based on freshman-eligibility rules, but Unseld, a sophomore, would have certainly changed the racial dynamic of the night and, possibly, the outcome.

Instead, they sat in their Louisville dorm room, Beard's brain flooded with warring emotions. "I had been a big U.K. fan and Pat Riley had shown me around their campus, so it wasn't like I hated Kentucky that night, all right?" he said. "But as the game went on, and here were these black kids winning, I felt something deep inside me. I wanted them to win, and when they did, it opened up opportunities for kids who before that could only go to places like the one I'm at now."

Given the graduation rates, the academic scandals, the blithe commitment to education, a subtext to "Glory Road" should be that progress came with a price, part of which Beard has paid as a coach of a primarily black school. For all the famous players he has run with or coached, when he visits the home of a recruit, he knows the one crucial question he cannot answer satisfactorily: how many Morgan State games are on TV?

The truth is, Beard said, the issues he has been outspoken on, the institutional battles he has fought, haven't been as important since his wife, Ruth Ann - a longtime educator who reared their four children while giving him the space to chase his dreams - died last Mother's Day.

He is in the last year of his contract and, almost 59, doesn't know what he will do next. If this is the end of a long basketball life, Beard isn't asking for much before he goes. He would like to see his players get what "Glory Road" is about and, by March, a victory that will be significantly historic only to him.


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