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Kentucky must reckon with the full meaning of Adolph Rupp

A move to change the name of Rupp Arena forces a new assessment of one of college basketball’s legends

Even for one of college basketball’s iconic arenas, in a state where Adolph Rupp gave generations of Kentuckians pride and glory, the question of whether to rename Rupp Arena is simpler than it seems.

From 1930 to 1972, the University of Kentucky legend ruled the Southeastern Conference as it stubbornly excluded Black players. Now a group of UK faculty has recommended that his name be removed from the arena, reigniting a long-standing battle over what side Rupp was on in our never-ending conflict over race.

The question should not be whether Rupp wanted to recruit Black players — the historical record shows that he did. It’s not whether Rupp’s racism has been exaggerated over the years — it probably has been. It’s not whether Rupp lived by the standards of that time, because countless other white men knew those racist standards were wrong. And it’s not about “canceling” his legacy, because Rupp’s accomplishments cannot and should not be erased from the program he built.

Here is the question: Does the University of Kentucky want its mostly Black basketball teams to play under the name of a man who called Black people “n—–s” and “coons”?

The answer, according to the faculty group seeking to remedy racial inequities across the university, should be no. That can’t be a popular opinion in a state that is 84% white, deeply conservative and has placed Rupp on a 20,500-seat, $275 million pedestal in downtown Lexington, Kentucky. But in this moment of racial change, when the University of Texas is renaming its football field for Black players and the Washington NFL team surrendered its racist name, maybe Kentucky will finally rise to the occasion and reckon with the full history of Adolph Rupp.

“We want to have an honest accounting and hold the university accountable for the kinds of images and the kinds of messages that are being put forth,” said Derrick White, a UK history and Black studies professor.

A group of University of Kentucky faculty has recommended that Adolph Rupp’s name be removed from the arena, reigniting a long-standing battle over what side Rupp was on in our never-ending conflict over race.

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Rupp Arena “is the biggest message of them all,” he said. “That is the way the rest of America interfaces with the University of Kentucky.”

The reckoning should start with the NCAA championship game on March 19, 1966. Kentucky, the premier program in college basketball, faced Texas Western, a nobody from El Paso, Texas. The Wildcats were all white. All seven of the Miners who played were Black. Rupp was a king with four national championships. Don Haskins was a former high school coach who took a pay cut when he moved to Texas Western.

At halftime, trailing 34-31, Rupp lit into his team. Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford was in Kentucky’s locker room. In the book The Franchise: A History of Sports Illustrated Magazine, author Michael MacCambridge says Deford told him that Rupp snarled at his players, “You’ve got to beat those coons,” and told his center, “You go after that big coon.”

Texas Western won, 72-65. The game was a turning point in sports history, forcing many colleges to finally suit up Black players in order to remain competitive. Rupp retired in 1972 having coached only one Black player, in his final season. He died in 1977.

In the 2005 documentary Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact, by Lexington sports broadcaster Dick Gabriel, several of his players said they did not recall him using racist language in the locker room that day, although they declined to say Deford, a legend in his own right, was lying. But one of Rupp’s assistant coaches, Harry Lancaster, described more racist language in his book, Adolph Rupp: As I Knew Him.

The fate of Rupp Arena may ultimately rest in the hands of Black players who played in Lexington, Kentucky.

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Rupp told people as early as 1960 that he wanted to sign Black players, and hired a white assistant coach, Neil Reed, for that purpose in 1962. He unsuccessfully recruited future stars Wes Unseld in 1964 and Butch Beard in 1965. After the Texas Western game, Rupp was under heavy pressure from his university president to sign a Black player, even for the end of the bench. Lancaster wrote that Rupp told him, “Harry, that son of a b—- is ordering me to get some n—–s in here. What am I going to do?”

In the biography Adolph Rupp and the Rise of Kentucky Basketball, James Duane Bolin wrote that in 1948, Rupp lost a tournament and his team received belt buckles as a consolation prize. Bolin wrote that Rupp, who also owned cattle, said he wouldn’t give the buckles “to my n—– on the farm.”

Rupp has many defenders who insist he was not a racist. They cite Rupp’s attempts to recruit Unseld and Beard, and how he helped Black high school star Jim Tucker get a scholarship to Duquesne in 1951. They point out that he coached a Black player in high school in Illinois in 1929, helped place Don Barksdale on the U.S. Olympic team in 1948 and sought advice on integration from then-Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey, who broke baseball’s color line with Jackie Robinson.

“There wasn’t any racism in him. There wasn’t,” Miami Heat president Pat Riley, who played on the Rupp team that lost to Texas Western, said in Myth, Legend and Fact. “All there was was a guy who wanted to win, who would take the best players, and I think he was judged on this subject harshly because he was a winner, he was a bigger-than-life character.

“Adolph is totally misrepresented in this whole concept when it comes to being a racist,” Riley said. “He was not. I played for him, I know him.”

Riley declined my interview request through a spokesman, and a subsequent request to explain how Rupp could use such slurs in reference to Black people and not be racist.

As the decades passed, some began to regard Rupp as a Klansman with a whistle, which was exaggerated given that he didn’t actively oppose or speak out against integration. But the symbolism of the Texas Western game, the fact that Rupp made many enemies with his arrogance and dominance, and failing to suit up a Black player until 1971 dragged down his reputation.

Many defend Rupp as a product of his time. He was born in 1901 in Kansas, graduated from the University of Kansas and received a master’s degree from Teachers College of Columbia University in New York City. He coached high school basketball in Kansas, Iowa and Illinois before becoming head coach at Kentucky in 1930. But many other people of Rupp’s time understood it was wrong to use the slurs he did. Even in the South.

Rupp’s reputation as a segregationist is particularly galling to the Kentucky faithful. He did try to recruit Black players, but only great ones like Unseld and Beard, who both chose Louisville, and Perry Wallace, who became the first Black player in the SEC when he took the court for Vanderbilt in 1967.

Meanwhile, Rupp recruited white players who weren’t superstars. They didn’t have to be future Hall of Famers to get an opportunity. How many white players received scholarships that should have gone to more deserving Black players? White, the history professor, grew up in Lexington hearing “your basketball coach, your parents, your uncles telling you about all the great Black players that came through the state but didn’t make it to UK for some reason or another … that double standard symbolizes the essence of structural racism.”

Rupp usually left recruiting to his assistants, because his name and reputation were often enough to sign the best white players. He did not personally meet with Unseld or Wallace during their recruitment. When Unseld’s parents asked Rupp if he could guarantee their son’s safety when the team played in Alabama and Mississippi, where civil rights activists were being beaten and even killed, Rupp said no.

“We want to have an honest accounting and hold the university accountable for the kinds of images and the kinds of messages that are being put forth,” said Derrick White, a UK history and Black studies professor.

Kentucky/Collegiate Images via Getty Images

“How could I be ready to go place my life on the line,” Wallace, who died in 2017, said in Myth, Legend and Fact, “when there was someone not willing to make personal contact with me?”

After losing to Texas Western, Rupp never returned to the Final Four. It seems lost on Rupp, and on his defenders today, that he was to blame for taking so long to sign a Black player. “Now tell me I didn’t make an effort to get these boys? We did,” Rupp said in the documentary. “We made every effort that we could.”

But Rupp never would have said “nice try” to a player who dropped the ball under pressure, or failed to box out for a rebound. He would have held him accountable.

“Why can’t we recruit these guys?” Rupp said, according to assistant coach Dick Parsons in the documentary. “I think he was frustrated because in his own mind, he was wondering, ‘Well, why would they not come play for me?’ ”

Maybe they sensed he was capable of calling them coons and n—–s.

In the coming months, the University of Kentucky will decide whether the dignity of Black people is more important than Rupp’s four rings and 876 wins. It’s possible that the fate of Rupp Arena may ultimately rest in the hands of Black players.

Tubby Smith, the first Black coach in Kentucky’s basketball history, on the future of Rupp Arena: “We all have a legacy to protect. But you also want to be able to speak the truth.”

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky basketball fans are more likely to cheer for Louisville than support removing Rupp’s name from the arena. But UK basketball players, especially the 29 currently in the NBA, could force a change. If there were protests from players such as Anthony Davis, John Wall, Rajon Rondo, Devin Booker, Tyler Herro, Jamal Murray, De’Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander … Kentucky would listen.

My requests to interview several NBA players from Kentucky were unsuccessful. Kentucky coach John Calipari declined to comment. A university statement said senior officials have been meeting and corresponding with the faculty group to address its concerns, which “speak forcefully to the systemic and institutional racism that we must thoughtfully and urgently address as a campus.” When I got Kentucky’s first Black basketball coach on the phone, the 1998 national champion Tubby Smith, he declined to take a side. “We all have a legacy to protect,” Smith said. “But you also want to be able to speak the truth.”

The full truth could be spoken in a history class taught by the Black studies department. It could be shown in a video before every home opener. It could be included in a historical exhibit inside a newly named Wildcat Arena.

These are the truths that could set Kentucky free from its racist past.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.