Nevil Shed: The Shadow Burns Bright
Through the thick fog of history, 45 years and counting, one image burns amid the fading lights of Cole Field House. A mother on her feet, arms in the air, jumping; a father awash in joy, fists clenched in triumph, dancing. It was the first time James Shed had seen his son play ball, the first time he’d settled into a gym with his wife, Lillie Mae, to watch a college game.
That’s what Nevil Shed remembers about the evening of March 19, 1966: his parents celebrating. Wading through a crush of bodies on the basketball court, he lifted his eyes to the cheering crowd. In an instant, as if guided by radar, he spotted mom and dad in a sea of jubilation.
Nevil raised a hand, pointed a finger. Eyes locked. Spirits connected. “Hey mom! Hey dad!” Nevil shouted over the din at the University of Maryland gym. “Look at what we accomplished!”
A child of the Bronx grew up to make history at Texas Western. The son of a railroad worker became a centerpiece on a team that changed college basketball: Five black starters upset Kentucky to win the NCAA championship. Books have been written about that game. A major motion picture has been filmed. The story has been told thousands of times, many by Shed himself, a motivational speaker and a Spurs summer camp coach. But the big picture significance of 3-19-66 was lost on Shed himself. When the final buzzer sounded, all Nevil knew was that James Shed had picked a fine first time to see him play. “Amazing,” Nevil recalls.
The moment was captured -- with a touch of Hollywood -- in the 2006 film, “Glory Road.” Says Nevil, once an imposing 6-foot-8 forward: “In the movie, there’s a part where I go, ’Look mom, I’m a national champion.’”
Texas Western, known today as the University of Texas at El Paso, wasn’t supposed to beat Kentucky. The Wildcats had a legendary coach (Adolph Rupp), an All-American forward (Pat Riley), a powerhouse reputation (four national championships). The Miners had an obscure coach (Don Haskins), little-known talent and no history to speak of, except the kind they were making.
The game was played two years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. three years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was played in the wake of a vow from Rupp: “No five blacks are going to beat Kentucky.” The Wildcats were all white. The officials were white. The sports writers were white. Most of the fans were white. A burst of color appeared the following season. Schools throughout the South were integrating basketball teams. Integration eventually came to Kentucky. In 1970, Rupp suited up his first black player.
“We opened the door for qualified minorities to attend any school of their choice,” Nevil says. “But at the time I never thought about making history. It wasn’t until years later.”
Nevil speaks with the passion of a preacher, with the insight of a teacher. If it hadn’t been for his mother, there would be no Glory Road for Nevil Shed. No Texas Western. No career as an assistant coach at UTSA. Motivational speaker? Forget it. Camp instructor? The Spurs most likely would have never heard of him. ...
In the early 60s, Nevil was an All City ballplayer in the Bronx. His mother went to his games; his father worked as a pullman porter, helping train passengers with their luggage, and listened to one sport on radio. Baseball. Nevil played ball at North Carolina A&T, a historical black college, and wanted out after one season. A movie theater worker once directed him to a back entrance where he had to sit in a balcony for blacks. He was refused service at restaurants. He was told to drink from “colored” water fountains. “If I had gone to the white water fountain,” he says, “my life would have been in danger.”
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Lillie Mae cut a deal with Don Haskins: You can have my son if you promise he’ll get his degree. Haskins promised. Nevil began packing. As a junior, he averaged 10.6 points and 7.9 rebounds. Nevil guarded opponents so tightly, fans called him The Shadow. In the championship game, The Shadow sank the free throw that gave Texas Western a lead it never relinquished. The Boston Celtics selected Nevil in the fourth round of the 1967 draft but a knee injury ended his career.
Lillie Mae asked Nevil, “What do you have?” He had a degree in health and physical education. “Well use it,” she said. The Shadow became an assistant coach under Haskins. Later, he became an assistant at UTSA and a Spurs summer camp coach with a trove of stories and life lessons. “I’m thankful God had another journey for me to tell others about the things it takes to become a winner, not just in athletics, but in life,” he says. “That’s what I do today.”
The Shadow uses his experiences at Texas Western to connect with campers. He draws from the model conduct of today’s Spurs to illustrate lessons in citizenship. “Our Spurs organization is a franchise of character,” Nevil says. “You don’t see players exercising negative actions in the media. We have strong values, on and off the court, and those are the values we try and instill in every camper.”
James and Lillie Mae Shed passed away years ago, but Nevil sees them often. Every time someone asks about 1966 and the game that changed college basketball, mom and dad re-appear. They are smiling and dancing, bathed in the unfading light of glory.