25 years later, Kentucky's 'runts' still special

THE BALTIMORE SUN

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- No one is certain where the name originated. It may have come from a sportswriter. Or a broadcaster. Or a fan. Or even the old Baron himself. It was a perfect fit, nonetheless, as much as they were a perfect fit. He was Adolph Rupp. They were his runts.

And they were special.

They remain so a silver anniversary later. Great basketball teams have come and gone at the University of Kentucky. Five have earned National Collegiate Athletic Association titles. The "runts" did not, coming within a victory of the coveted trophy, which haunts them still. Yet no team captured the hearts of Kentuckians as they did, that 1965-66 team -- "Rupp's Runts."

It was a small team, of course, a David-size outfit slaying the taller Goliaths. Thad Jaracz, 6 feet 5, played the pivot. Pat Riley, 6-4, jumped center. Tommy Kron, a 6-5 guard, was actually the tallest starter. Little Louie Dampier was a dead-eye shooter. Larry Conley, 6-3, said a teammate, "was a reincarnated bag of bones."

"From a physical point of view, they were all screwed up," remembered Frank Deford, the editor of The National, then the college basketball writer for Sports Illustrated. "They had guards playing forwards and forwards playing center. Nobody was in the right place."

But size was only part of the charm. "People took them to heart because they were such a good group," said Herkey Rupp, the Baron's son. "They were like your next-door neighbors, just a good, wholesome group of kids."

"I think the biggest thing was their unselfishness," said Joe B. Hall, then an assistant, "and the way they passed the ball. They had tremendous teamwork."

"[They were] unselfish, good ballhandlers, good shooters, good on the run," writes Dave Kindred in the book "The Final Four," "the very model of great Kentucky teams."

Kentucky fans had not expected that in 1965. The 15-10 mark the season before had been Rupp's worst. Only Jaracz represented new blood. Yet they started winning. And winning, until they were No. 1.

"And there was this euphoria," Kron remembered, "that everybody kind of got caught up in."

Twenty-three victories preceded the first loss -- Tennessee in the Southeastern Conference finale. But even that was a speed bump on a yellow-brick road. They proceeded on to the Final Four, topped second-ranked Duke, 83-79, in the semifinals at College Park, Md. Most figured Rupp's fifth NCAA title in the bag.

Unheralded Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) proved them wrong, winning 72-65. Some believe the game -- with Texas Western's five black starters defeating five whites -- changed the course of basketball history while breaking Kentucky's hearts.

The next day, a Sunday, mourning covered the commonwealth. Estimates vary on how many sympathizers packed Memorial Coliseum to greet the team upon its return.

"What I remember," Kron said, "is that they wouldn't leave."

LARRY CONLEY

Finding Larry Conley these days is as simple as tuning the tube to a basketball game. He is the lone "runt" still connected to college basketball. He is in business, based in Atlanta. But basketball is his business in the winter months. He does color commentary for ESPN and assorted other networks, nearly four nights a week.

Thus ask him what he remembers most from that 1965-66 season and his answer is the quality of a sound-bite. "The LOSS," he says. "You hate to say it, but that's it."

It was, after all, Conley's senior season.

Passing was Conley's contribution. "If Larry was in the middle on the break," Kron said, "you knew if you filled the lane he was going to get you the ball."

"You don't see passers like Conley anymore," said Kentucky radio broadcaster Cawood Ledford.

"That's open for debate," Conley said. "I think the big thing is that we had such good chemistry."

A chemistry no one had envisioned. "I think when we beat Texas Tech early [89-73], we thought we were pretty good," Conley said. "The other game I remember is we went to Vanderbilt and they were ranked third or fourth and had Clyde Lee. But we won big [105-90]."

What sticks is the loss.

"When you think about the year we had and what we had done," he said, "to have it end in that fashion was a great disappointment. You get over it, but you don't forget it, either."

TOMMY KRON

"The thing I remember is that the year before was so bad," Tommy Kron said. "It was just a very unhappy year, a miserable year. I had played a lot my junior year, but we hadn't won. And it's no fun to play at Kentucky when you're not winning. But the next year it was 180 degrees different. It seemed like everything we did was right."

Not that this was all luck. To be small is one thing. To be resourceful is another.

"And we knew what we had to do to win; we were smart," Kron said. "Everybody did their job. Even Riley and Dampier were role players. Their roles were to score. Mine wasn't. I didn't try to become a 20-point scorer because other people could do that. We all kind of fit in a pattern."

So did the bench, though the subs rarely played. "People forget that, because Adolph only played five or six of us," Kron said. "But they made a great contribution. I think two or three of them have gone on to be dentists, three are attorneys. Gene Stewart became a judge."

Kron played four years of pro ball before entering business. He used to work in Atlanta, ate lunch with Conley regularly. Now he works for a bank in Pittsburgh but maintains a residence in Louisville.

"I don't think I've ever seen the kind of excitement the fans had that year, except for maybe this year," Kron said. "I think they deserve a [Rick] Pitino. And if any fans deserved a Rupp's Runts, they did."

THAD JARACZ Thad Jaracz rhymed with Harris. In fact, such was the "Runts" fame that a Louisville sportswriter, covering a high school game, once referred to a player named Harris by writing, "rhymes withJaracz."

A sophomore, he played pivot nearly always against taller foes. "But Thad was so quick," Conley said. "He was quicker than anybody he played against in the post."

He ended up the team's third-leading scorer, averaging 13.2 points, his best season.

"But I think for a team to really be successful you have to play defense and we were incredibly adept at that," Jaracz said. "Tommy Kron was an incredibly good defensive player."

"They played the 1-3-1 better than anybody," said Ledford. "They'd trap you in those corners. And Riley ran the baseline. He was just such a great athlete."

"Offensively, we just tried to outrun a lot of people," Jaracz said. "We'd fast break at every opportunity. We had a great running program that Joe Hall had put in. And by the end of the game the other team would be tired."

After school, Jaracz made a career of the military. He landed with the ROTC program at the University of Louisville, retiring last August. He now works for Humana.

But it was downhill his last two years at Kentucky. The record fell to 13-13 in 1967, 22-5 his senior year.

"Louie and Pat were back the next year, but the chemistry was gone," he said. "We had a good year my senior year, but it just wasn't the same."

PAT RILEY Pat Riley became the most famous "runt," not as a player but as coach. He migrated to Los Angeles, acquired Hollywood hair, directed Magic and Kareem and Worthy. Showtime was born. Before moving to NBC, his Lakers won four National Basketball Association titles.

At Kentucky, Riley's image may not have been so glamorous, but he was immensely popular. There is a story that before the loss to Tennessee, the students scheduled a celebration. After the defeat, Riley was the only player to show up. And he apologized for the defeat.

"He was the dominant personality on the team," remembered Deford.

"They called us the dynamic duo," Dampier said, "but he was Batman. I was more like Robin."

Riley was the best athlete. He jumped center and could out-jump footers. "He'd hold the other guy's shorts or something that [assistant coach Harry Lancaster] had taught him to do," said Russell Rice, who covered Kentucky that year for the local paper. "He was such a quick jumper he'd get it every time."

A New Yorker, Riley was recruited by most to play football. But Lancaster got him to come to Lexington, and he was the leading scorer in 1966, averaging 22 points.

"He was a great high school athlete," Deford said. "He was a good college player and a journeyman pro -- the classic case of water finding its own level. He was a small guy, but he was strong, and he could shoot. He got the best out of what he had."

Riley wore a fuzzy little shamrock in his lapel at the Final Four that year. But his luck was all bad. He was injured, an infected toe he kept secret in fear he would be told not to play. He missed 14 of his 22 shots in the final, though he was team captain that night. The next day, that mournful Sunday, was his birthday. It is safe to say, he has had much happier ones since.

LOUIE DAMPIER To Louie Dampier, the year was a snowball.

"Not only did we start the year unranked, but nobody expected us to have a good team," he said. "But it just kind of snowballed until we were No. 1 in the country."

He was Little Louie with the wonderful outside shot. If the other "runts" made their living on passing and quickness and strength, Dampier was the finisher.

"You got a lot more credit for making the pass," Conley said, "when you had someone like Louie to finish it off."

Dampier averaged 21 points, most on shots from an incredible range. He scored 42 in the key game at Vanderbilt. "With that three-point shot today, Louie would be incredible," said Rice.

"People talk a lot about Larry and I making sacrifices, but let's face facts," Kron said. "Pat and Louie were the scorers because they were the better shooters. There was no better shooter in the country then than Louie. In fact, I've yet to see as pure a shooter as Louie was back then."

Dampier himself credits chemistry, the closeness of the team. "The best thing I think was the personality of the players," he said. "There weren't any bad apples in the bunch."

Just one bad game, whose timing was worse. Dampier made seven of 18 shots that night in College Park. Kentucky made 27 of 70 shots, 38.6 percent. He remembers that, of course. But he speaks of the steals, of Bobby Joe Hill's back-to-back thievery at midcourt -- first from Kron, then from himself. "Those pretty much turned the game," said Dampier.

"For the first time all year," Kron said, "I think we were intimidated."

Dampier's career was far from finished. He played 12 years of professional basketball, starring for the Kentucky Colonels in the American Basketball Association. Dampier has been in different business ventures since. He runs a video distributorship now, lives in Louisville and coaches a Lexington AAU team.

Did he ever have another year in basketball like that one?

"I had a similar year in high school where we were No. 1," he says, "and we lost in the final."

THE BIG GAME Conley, of course, played ill that night of the final, that March 19. Flu had hit the team. Conley had been hospitalized. ("I think they would have won it if Conley hadn't been sick," said Deford.) Riley, too, was hurting, but not telling.

"But we had people sick and hurt during the year and won," Jaracz said. "We just didn't play well that night and they did. We can't change that."

What has changed with time is the game's significance, historians elevating the night into a watershed event for hoop integration. "The Brown vs. Board of Education game of college basketball," one called it.

"We had David Lattin on our team only because the University of Houston wouldn't allow blacks," said Don Haskins, then and now the El Paso coach. "Two years later they had Elvin Hayes. That should tell you something."

"I don't know, I was always surprised at the significance placed on that game," Deford said. "The Loyola-Chicago team that won it a few years before was virtually all-black. That had been the BIG fuss. Not much was made of Texas Western being all-black at the time. It was sort of a discovery by the outside world that came a little bit late, as is often the case."

Still, there was Rupp's reputation for shunning blacks. (At the post-season banquet that year, the emcee said, "At least we're the No. 1 white team in America.") And in 1962, Mississippi State, an SEC school, had boycotted the NCAA tournament for fear of meeting an integrated team.

"But if you're asking me, it's been totally overblown," Conley said. "We didn't think of them as black players. We just thought of them as players. People forget that we beat a Michigan team the week before that had four black starters."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
41°