Willie Worsley has lived life large. "I am living history, live in living color," he says with a smile and quiet laugh. "Hearing my story will open doors for you."
Most of us watch the world unfold before our eyes. Others are lucky enough to grab a piece of history to shape it for the benefit of future generations. Worsley is one of the lucky ones.
He has been a player on the big stage. He started in the 1966 NCAA men's basketball championship game that made history, broke a major color barrier in American sports and was the subject of the 2006 movie Glory Road.
For the past 40 years Worsley has been a player on smaller but vital stages. He has been involved in the lives of thousands of young people, first helping troubled youth reshape their lives; now he is a hall monitor, respected community leader and basketball coach at Spring Valley High School in Rockland County. In many ways, his life has come full circle.
His journey - from a single-mother home in the projects of the South Bronx, through a college career at the University of Texas, El Paso, back to the Big Apple and Spring Valley - is filled with determination to use his past as an athlete and present as an educator to shape students' lives for the future.
"As long as I have breath in me, I'll be a teacher," he said. "Money comes and money goes; love stays in your heart."
Worsley's mother, Julia, moved with her only child to the Bronx from Virginia in the early 1950s. "When I was growing up, I had one pair of shoes that had to last all year," Worsley said. "My life was my newspaper route, school and basketball practice."
Worsley was a star at DeWitt Clinton, an all-boys, racially integrated school known for its academics and athletics. Despite his wiry frame and 5-6 height, he was a flashy guard in the PSAL, the country's most competitive high school league. After he scored 30 points in the first half against a bitter rival, his coach sent him home on the subway at the half, worried about Worsley's safety.
His high school career was marked by a 38-game winning streak and being named MVP of the 1963 NYC championship game at a packed Madison Square Garden. His talent produced several scholarship offers, including one from Texas Western College in El Paso, 2,000 miles from his mom and the city streets.
The journey to El Paso in July 1964 was his first plane trip. On the flight, a middle-aged white woman struck up a conversation with the nervous teenager and talked to him through the flight. When she heard he would be attending college in her city, she made a point of inviting Worsley for Sunday dinner. It became a ritual for him and two teammates to have a home-cooked meal there throughout their college careers. In a typical show of friendship and gratitude, Worsley is still in touch with the woman, now in her 90s.
Basketball helped provide stability as he settled into college life in El Paso. Worsley had a great 1964-65 season playing freshman ball, eager for his chance to shine on the varsity squad.
'No one gave us a chance'
College basketball in that era reflected the rest of American society. While some teams had a few black players, public and private universities in the South were still clinging to the last vestiges of segregation.
Schools like Texas Western, which actively recruited black student-athletes, were regarded by some as "outlaws." Until the progressive financial aid policies that resulted from the civil rights movement took shape, college campuses were white enclaves. As in so many parts of our national experience during those turbulent times, the stage was set for a collision of forces that would change the face of American sports.
Worsley was a consistent contributor on the Texas Western varsity in the '65-66 season. Coach Don "Bear" Haskins created a roster mixing white, Latino and black players from across the country. Despite a tough schedule, hostile road crowds and the difficulties of finding integrated hotels and restaurants, his team lost only one regular season game. Texas Western made it to the Final Four, where the national champion would be crowned.
The games were at the University of Maryland. Duke and the University of Kentucky - legendary programs and favorites of writers and coaches - were all-white teams. They would play in one semi-final. Texas Western would face the University of Utah, which had three black players on its roster. The experts all focused on the Duke-Kentucky game.
"We weren't treated with respect. No one gave us much of a chance," Worsley said. "Everyone assumed Duke-Kentucky was the championship game."
Both semi-finals were bruising, as Kentucky edged Duke, 83-79, and Texas Western beat Utah, 85-75.
History was about to add a new chapter on March 19, 1966. "In less than 24 hours, on a college campus below the Mason-Dixon line, five blacks would be lining up opposite five whites for a war," wrote author Frank Fitzpatrick in his 1999 book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. "Just how civil it would be, no one could predict."
Adding to the tension was the legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp, who predicted, "No five blacks are going to beat Kentucky."
Worsley said his team's background had prepared them for the game. "We were from New York, Detroit, Indiana and Chicago. Kentucky was a fine team but we felt we could beat them."
In a surprise move, Texas Western coach Haskins started Worsley in place of a bigger player, telling him to cover Larry Conley, a 6-3 UK star. Despite the size difference, Worsley used the playground trick of tapping Conley's elbow each time he went up for a jump shot, disrupting his rhythm. Worsley's team took a 34-31 halftime lead.
Rupp was angry. In a controversy that persists to this day, sportswriter Frank Deford says that in the Kentucky locker room, Rupp referred to the Texas Western team as "coons" and told his players they'd never be able to show their faces on campus again if they lost to an all-black team.
Several UK players say they don't remember it that way.
Rupp's tirade didn't work. Worsley's team continued their methodical approach. The game ended, 72-65, earning Texas Western the national title. Worsley finished with 8 points, no fouls and 4 rebounds - a good day's work for a 5-6 sophomore.
"I'm not comparing us to Jackie Robinson, because he stands alone," Worsley told Fitzpatrick. "But I feel we are definitely a part of history. We may have never gotten our just due but, see, history will give us our just due. People say your reward is in heaven. Our reward will be in history."
Worsley enjoyed the game for another reason: His mom was home in front of a TV, watching. "It was the only time my mother, Julia, got to see me play. She'd never seen me play at all," he said.
Changing sports forever
The victory came in an era before the birth of ESPN and the mega-hype surrounding the Final Four. What would have been treated as extraordinary today was buried in with other sports news. The 10 p.m. tipoff meant it missed most Sunday morning papers.
The victory's racial aspect apparently made it too "hot" for parts of American culture to deal with - this national champion never made it on the Ed Sullivan Show, the staple of Sunday night TV for decades.
It took several years after the historic game for institutions like the University of Kentucky to recruit their first black student-athletes.
And since then, "Tubby" Smith, son of a sharecropper, was a highly successful coach there.
"There's always a group who has the courage to make it better for other people. That game was the Emancipation Proclamation of 1966," said Pat Riley, a former Schenectady High School great who played on the losing UK team, in a 2006 interview with USA Today. Riley, a former NBA coach, is now president of the NBA's Miami Heat.
Worsley played two more years of college ball and was drafted by the New Jersey Nets. In the 1968-69 season, he was a fan favorite, scoring 145 points in 23 games.
In 1969, Worsley returned to the Bronx, working with court-placed youth in a facility across from Yankee Stadium. That program then merged with another residential program in Pomona, Rockland County. Several of his former students still call him "Dad", including a 47-year-old medical program manager who has sent him a Father's Day card the past 15 years.
The next stop in Worsley's life was as dean of operations at the private school that housed the Boys Choir of Harlem. When the school closed, he became a full-time hall monitor at Spring Valley High School in the East Ramapo school district, where he's a member of the NYSUT-affiliated Maintenance, Transportation, Special Services and Security Employees Union.
Worsley has coached boys and girls at Spring Valley since 1985. When the district had a fiscal crisis, he volunteered as a coach. His work as a hall monitor, coach and mentor to hundreds of students has made him an icon in the community.
"He is a really good influence as a coach, an adult and someone who gives back to the community," said Pierre Fils, a parent and former player. Jason Guadagnino, a member of the East Ramapo Teachers Association and former player, said, "He is the best coach this school has ever had. He would do anything to help students."
Disney's 2006 movie Glory Road plays a little loose with the history of the Texas Western championship, but it gives viewers a sense of mid-60s America.
The movie pushed Worsley and his peers into a spotlight that should have been on them decades earlier. In 2007, the team was admitted to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Worsley attended premieres across the country. At the El Paso opening, he sat next to the woman who had befriended him on his first flight years before, and they cried together as they watched the story unfold.
But Worsley's life has not played out like a Disney movie. Well into his 60s, he needs to build up his school pension, a benefit his previous jobs didn't provide, to secure his future. Yet he carries on with the same grace and compassion that have served him well for years.
"All I've dealt with has made me a student of life. I haven't been there and done it all yet," he said. "When I was a 13-year-old in the projects, I wanted to help people. Maybe somebody is going to help me now."
On President Obama’s Inauguration Day, author Fitzpatrick wrote a note about Worsley and his team. "Today, when the surviving members of the team witness the inauguration of an African-American president, I wonder how many of them will feel they, in some not-so-small way, were part of this remarkable story, a link in the chain. I'm certain Willie will."