Sunday, November 27, 2016

Review of "The Baron and The Bear"

Sometimes a book that promises to challenge a long-held belief or show another side of a historic moment can fall short of that promise.  This book about the 1966 NCAA Basketball Championship does not do that - it is a terrific book mainly on the two coaches of that historic game and will make the reader think a little differently about the two men.  Here is my review of "The Baron & The Bear."

“The Baron and the Bear: Rupp’s Runts, Haskins’s Miners and the Season that Changed Basketball Forever” by David Kingsley Snell

Basketball, college, race, Kentucky, Western Texas

Publish date:
December 1, 2016

312 pages

5 of 5 stars (Outstanding)

The championship game for college basketball in 1966 was a watershed moment, not only for the sport, but also for the civil rights movement of the time. Texas Western University (now the University of Texas-El Paso) faced Kentucky in that game. It was significant because Texas Western, coached by Don Haskins, started five black players while Kentucky, coached by the legendary Adolph Rupp, not only started five white players, but did not have a single black player at all. Texas Western won the game and in doing so, started a transformation in the game that still affects the sport today.

David Kingsley Snell paints a masterful picture of the two coaches in this book that not only chronicles the season for the two teams, it sets aside some of the hyperbole surrounding the game and lets readers judge for themselves how much race played a factor in the coaches’ recruitment and handling of his respective teams.

There were more similarities than differences between the coaches, a point that Snell makes clear throughout the book. While the players may have been different, the coaches both used drills repeatedly throughout practice to make their teams fundamentally sound and well-conditioned. Through interviews with surviving players from both teams, the reader will come to view both coaches as driven men who want to win all the time and will do whatever it takes during practice to make sure the players are ready come game time.  In fact, many players many that the games were the easy part of the season and that practice was the time to dread.

It isn’t often the that epilogue of a book will be the most thought-provoking section, but that is the case here.  After the game, and even to this day, the popular belief is that Rupp was a racist because he refused to recruit black players and allegedly made racist remarks to reporters and his team. Those are refuted by players, Rupp’s staff members and other members of the press as part of the epilogue in the book. Most of these charges were published in Sports Illustrated, at the time one of the most influential publications in sports and therefore were common beliefs.  Snell does a good job showing that coach Rupp may not be the vile person some thought he was. It is also noted that Rupp tried to recruit a black player (Wes Unseld) prior to the 1965-66 season but was rebuffed by many at the school as well as by the “gentleman’s agreement” in place at the time that Southeast Conference schools will not recruit black players.

In the same token, Haskins is not portrayed as a champion of civil rights but simply as a coach driven to win and to do so, he will put his best players on the floor, regardless of their race. The team gelled during the season, was brought down to earth when an inferior team defeated them and then went on an incredible run to win the championship, much like any other team has done regardless of its racial makeup.

“The Baron & The Bear” is an excellent account of not only the teams but an in-depth look at what made these two coaches tick. They will be forever linked together by this historic game and they are linked together here as well. Basketball fans will enjoy reading about the coaches and should make this one part of their libraries.

I wish to thank University of Nebraska Press for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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