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Former Missouri player Thornton Jenkins recalls memories of basketball history

Wednesday, April 10, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:52 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Thornton Jenkins sits in his living room chair at Lenoir Woods Senior Living on Tuesday. Jenkins helped to hire Norm Stewart as the freshman coach at Missouri and officiated the famous 1966 Texas Western-Kentucky national championship game.

On March 19, 1966, Thornton Jenkins missed his 23rd wedding anniversary.

Jenkins was on a business trip of sorts to College Park, Md., almost a thousand miles away from his Columbia home and his wife, Mickie. Then an MU purchasing agent, he moonlighted as a basketball referee, and he’d been asked to officiate at the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four, including the national championship game between Kentucky and Texas Western.

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That night at Cole Field House, Texas Western coach Don Haskins decided to start five African-American players against Adolph Rupp’s entirely white Wildcats team, a first in NCAA championship history. Texas Western won 72-65, and that final score came to signify another victory in the ongoing civil rights movement as well as a turning point for the sport. Fifty years later, Disney made a movie about the game called “Glory Road.”

So, on that March 19, Jenkins got to be part of something timeless.

He has told the story many times in the years since. During a recent conversation in his apartment at Lenoir Woods senior living community, the 89-year-old man called the game a highlight of his officiating career.

But if he ever romanticized the historic event or his part in it, he doesn’t anymore.

“It developed only by chance,” Jenkins said. “It wasn't planned that way.”

Mickie Jenkins had understood what the game would personally mean to her husband before Don Haskins ever decided on his starting lineup. Getting selected to officiate a national championship was a big deal, and it was his first. She was happy for him, and she did not resent his absence on their anniversary. There would be others.

And there were — they celebrated another 46 in the years to come, and this March 19 would have been their 70th.

Mickie Jenkins died in November at age 88. Her framed picture atop a TV stand catches the eye in Jenkins’ immaculate but anonymous apartment. He moved in just a month ago, alone.

A former Missouri basketball player and assistant coach who married his wife while they were students, Jenkins said his only daughter arranged his move to Lenoir Woods before she returned to her home in Baltimore. He is very grateful.

“All I had to do was walk in and start living,” he said.

He is trying. The picture of his wife is located next to the flat screen TV on which Jenkins has watched this year’s NCAA tournament. Asked about the why’s and how’s of the past, he spoke more readily on why Kansas got knocked out early and how Wichita State, Syracuse and Michigan surprisingly made the Final Four. He said he couldn’t remember such a clear-cut favorite like top-seeded Louisville, who beat Michigan 82-76 in the national championship Monday night.

“I don’t think it’ll be much of competition, but who knows?” he said last week. “That’s why they play. Teams that are not supposed to win do win.”

Texas Western was not supposed to beat Kentucky — at least, not in “Glory Road,” which Thornton owns and enjoys. Disney, he said, “made a movie out of it” by distorting the odds against the Miners. One obstacle played up in the movie, for example, is center David Lattin’s foul trouble. While in reality Lattin did pick up four fouls, he still played 32 minutes, scored 16 points and grabbed nine rebounds. And though Kentucky was the top-seeded team, Texas Western had lost just one game all season and overpowered Kentucky with its size. You could have cued the credits when the Miners took a 12-11 lead early on — they never trailed again.

“It was a very uneventful game,” Jenkins said. “Kentucky just got beat. They didn’t have any big kids, and that was the difference in the game. (The Miners) were bigger, and they were stronger. They played better.”

Officiating was one way for Jenkins to continue his relationship with basketball even after his playing days were over. He earned all-Big 6 Conference honors as a sophomore in 1942-43 before marrying Mickie and joining the Army. When World War II ended, he returned to Missouri and played his final two seasons, earning all-conference honors again and captaining the 1947-48 team.

“I was an old-timer by then,” Jenkins said.

After playing professionally for a few years, he went to work for his father-in-law’s car dealership near Cape Girardeau and began officiating in 1952. In 1955 he moved back to Columbia with his wife and daughter, Spring. His full-time work evolved from assistant basketball coach (1957-1962) to purchasing agent and, then, director of the university’s physical plant before he ultimately got into real estate.

But until 1971, officiating was the one constant that connected him to the basketball community, even if it meant traveling frequently and spending time away from his wife. The very next morning after officiating the Texas Western-Kentucky game, Jenkins flew to Denver and officiated the weeklong AAU national tournament. He also officiated at the 1968 Final Four in Los Angeles.

“Every chance I got, wherever they wanted to send me, that’s where I went,” he said. “It was not easy to stay away that much, but that was part of my life, and I did it because I loved to do it. My wife tolerated it because she was aware of that fact.”

He misses her. It’s evident in the way a recent conversation kept returning to her before fading to silence. Nice memories from long ago lead to more recent, painful ones.

A decade before the Texas Western-Kentucky game, while assisting Missouri basketball coach Sparky Stalcup, he suggested bringing a recent graduate back as the freshman coach.

“Sparky asked who we should hire, and I said, ‘What about Norm Stewart?’ ” Jenkins said.

“I figure Norm to be a close friend. We stay in touch.”

Maybe three seconds pass before he continues. He doesn’t change the subject so much as simply follow a memory to its conclusion.

Jenkins might be a bastion for fascinating history lessons like the 1966 national championship. But you can’t help but notice it seems like trivia to him now.

“I was married for 69 years," he repeats. "My wife passed away in November.”


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