Championship team glorified in movie

By on March 9, 2014

Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating The University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.

Ten years ago, the University of Texas at El Paso’s biggest basketball moment finally received the Hollywood treatment. Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films brought the 1966 NCAA men’s championship story of legendary coach Don Haskins and his Texas Western College team to the big screen with Glory Road, commemorating the first time an all African-American lineup started in the NCAA championship game.

Most of the filming took place in Louisiana during the summer of 2004, but the city of El Paso played a key role in the film, with current UTEP buildings subbing for older ones on the campus formerly known as Texas Western College and downtown El Paso standing in for rainy Seattle. Asarco land served as the set for a street basketball court where Haskins scouted potential players. Other scenes were filmed on UTEP’s campus at Cardiac Hill and the exterior of Graham Hall.

Local sports historian Joe Gomez — a UTEP alumnus who was a student in 1966 and now maintains an extensive collection of championship memorabilia — consulted with the film’s costume designer Alix Friedberg when she traveled to El Paso.

“She took photos of my ’60s Texas Western jersey as well as a lettermen’s jacket in order to duplicate them for the movie,” Gomez said. “She was delightful to work with and appreciative that the Heritage House and I still had some Texas Western artifacts.”

Current UTEP men’s basketball coach Tim Floyd was called upon by Haskins to ensure the integrity of basketball in the film. Floyd, who had recently left his head coach position with the New Orleans Hornets, worked hand in hand with the film’s basketball coordinator, Mike Fisher, to get things just right.

“It was an honor to be able to assist in my own small capacity,” said Floyd, who recalled how he and Fisher stayed up late re-drafting lines for the producer’s approval.

“I remember having to call Coach Haskins every night and tell him what was being shot that day, what the lines were that were being used that day — anything that was basketball related,” Floyd said.

Lead actor Josh Lucas’ memories of Glory Road are just as vivid. Lucas recalls how Haskins drove the actor around El Paso in his pickup truck, allowing the landscape to sink in.

“We drove the back roads of the desert to laugh, share stores, sip tequila and eat amazing homemade tacos from his friend’s roadside restaurant — he said he needed to fatten me up to play him,” Lucas said.

He added, “El Paso to me is wild nights with my fellow players in the great Camino Real bar celebrating the final days of shooting Glory Road and the best green chili soup on the planet at Cafe Central. But most of all, it’s the team and family of Don Haskins who shared a city and an experience with me that I will never forget.”

During the Louisiana period of production, Assistant Vice President for Institutional Advancement Beto Lopez transported the actual NCAA championship trophy, insured for more than a million dollars, from El Paso to New Orleans and back so the producers could maintain as much authenticity as possible. Lopez had the opportunity to spend the day on the set and watch the actors’ reaction to the trophy.

“The young men who played the team were very respectful, asking, ‘Do you mind if I hold it or touch it?’ It meant a lot to those young men to see it,” Lopez recalled.

Lopez also was able to lend his personal perspective to the film’s cast and crew because his parents had taken him to the El Paso International Airport in 1966 to welcome the winning team home.

Veteran sports writer Ray Sanchez waited for years for the film to be made.

“I’ve always been a movie buff, so being associated with the movie, and best of all Disney, was a big thrill,” he said. Sanchez consulted with screenwriter Christopher Cleveland and helped Josh Lucas with his role. “Lucas didn’t know Haskins and wanted to know what his habits and mannerisms were. I had known Haskins since he arrived in El Paso in 1961, so I could be of help in that department.”

Sanchez also had a cameo on the film, seen exiting a Juárez bar as members of the ’66 team go in.

Jesse Braham will never forget being cast as an extra in Glory Road when he was just 12 years old. He may not have been able to grasp the significance back then, but he is aware of it now.

“It’s definitely an honor to be a part of a movie that represents not only a historical sports event, but a movie that represents the advancement of racial equality,” he said.

Braham’s father, Eric, gladly chaperoned his son on the Glory Road set during the filming of his son’s scene featuring a group of excited children watching the championship game on a television through a store window.

“For me, it was simply an awesome opportunity as an African-American to see Black history, El Paso history and UTEP history all come together,” Eric Braham said. “It gave me an added sense of pride to be a resident of this community, to know that UTEP was a leader in integrating African-Americans into mainstream collegiate sports and, to this day, that team remains the only team in Texas to have won a national championship.”

Visitors to the UTEP campus in March can partake in a Glory Road walking tour to see where the 1966 team played, where Don and Mary Haskins lived on campus, and other significant sites related to Hollywood’s depiction of the historic event. Joe Gomez will lead the tour at 11 a.m. Saturday, March 15.

The tour begins at the Centennial Welcome Center in the Centennial Museum and Chihuahuan Desert Gardens at the corner of University Avenue and Wiggins Road.

Private tours can be arranged in advance by calling 915-747-5565.

Lisa Y. Garibay is a writer in UTEP’s University Communications office.

Lisa Garibay is a writer in UTEP's Office of University Communications.