His college jersey hangs, framed and under glass, in Les Hunter’s rec room, a nod to Loyola Chicago’s national basketball championship 55 years ago. Hunter, then a springy junior center, had a stellar postseason, made the all-NCAA tourney team and, two years later, earned a berth with the Baltimore Bullets as an NBA rookie in 1964.
Now, more than a half-century later, the Ramblers return to Saturday’s national semifinals against favored Michigan. And Hunter — surprise! — is as sure of their chances as he was of his own team’s bid in 1963.
“I like them against Michigan,” said Hunter. “On the other side [of the semis], either Kansas or Villanova would be tough. But, hey, they’ve all been tough for Loyola.”
Swept up in the hoopla of longshot Loyola’s postseason success, Hunter attended its Sweet 16 victory over Nevada last week. He sat courtside, embracing both old teammates and Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the team’s poster nun who, at 98, claims she attended the Ramblers’ 1963 finale, a white-knuckled 60-58 overtime win over Cincinnati.
This week, Hunter — a 75-year-old math instructor at a community college near his home in Overland Park, Kan. — wore a Loyola cap to class. Students took note.
“A lot of them didn’t know I played basketball,” he said.
Play ball, he did. A pillar inside for the 29-2 Ramblers, the 6-foot-7 Hunter carried them in the NCAA semis, with 29 points and 18 rebounds in a 94-75 rout of Duke. Against Cincinnati’s two-time defending champs, he had 16 points and 11 rebounds. With seconds left in a tie game, Hunter took a pass from Jerry Harkness and launched a 12-foot jumper, which rattled off the rim and into the hands of Loyola’s Vic Rouse, who scored the winner.
Even now, Hunter feels obliged to explain his miss.
“See, I was going in to try and rebound Jerry’s shot, but he tricked me and threw me the ball,” he said. “I had to stop and adjust my shot. It’s hard to make a jumper if you’re floating; the laws of physics dictate that. But Vic went up and tipped it in.”
“Vic and I had played on the same team in high school,” he said. “I told him, ‘We stayed together just for this moment.’ ”
That Loyola started four black players sometimes caused a ruckus on the road.
“We got a lot of hate mail, but the coach shielded us from that stuff,” Hunter said. “There was name-calling at Marshall; their center [mouthed] racial epithets on the floor. At Houston, the fans — who were in close proximity to the court — threw ice and pennies. That was the only time I was nervous about what might happen.”
“We were five get-in-shape guys,” he said. “Besides, we’d lost our top three subs at midseason, two of whom flunked out. That’s hard to do these days; you’ve got to really work at flunking out now.”
The Ramblers averaged nearly 92 points a game, tops in the nation.
“We sometimes scored at a larger clip than the [NBA] Chicago Zephyrs, whom we probably could have beaten,” Hunter said. (That fall, the Zephyrs moved to Baltimore and became the Bullets).
Drafted by Detroit in 1964 — he was the 11th player chosen — Hunter was dealt to the Bullets in preseason in a trade that also brought Bailey Howell, Don Ohl, Wali Jones and Bob Ferry to Baltimore. The Pistons got Terry Dischinger, Rod Thorn and Don Kojis.
“He’s the hungry type,” Coach Bob Leonard said then of Hunter, who’d averaged 21 points and 15 rebounds as a senior. “One of our scouts trailed him for four games last year and, in several of them, his head was above the backboards on rebounds.”
The Bullets saw him as a power forward, like Gus Johnson, with whom they’d struck gold the year before. Didn’t happen. Having always played the pivot, Hunter needed time to adapt, and the Bullets proved impatient. At midseason he was cut, having played in 24 contests, averaging 1.8 points per game.
Of his time here, Hunter said, two incidents stand out.
“I was guarding [Los Angeles’ Lakers star] Elgin Baylor and remembering how he’d been my idol, as a kid. As I’m thinking that, Baylor goes right around me,” Hunter said. “There I was, admiring the guy instead of trying to figure out how to stop him. I think that happens to a lot of rookies who are facing their heroes for the first time.”
Before the season, the Bullets hired Buddy Jeannette as coach. During a game against the Boston Celtics, Jeannette called Hunter off the bench.
“He said, ‘OK, Les, you go in for Bailey, we might as well make it official,’ ” Hunter recalled. “I wondered what he meant. Afterward, I asked [center] Walt Bellamy, who said, ‘He wanted to make it official that all 10 guys on the floor were black.’ ”
“I don’t know if it was historic or not, but I was concerned that my coach was aware of what color players are on the court,” he said.
Hunter went on to play six years in the American Basketball Association. A two-time all star, he retired to run a restaurant in Kansas, then to work helping high school dropouts earn their degrees and find jobs.
Does he still shoot around?
“I try, but everything falls short,” he said.
In 2013, President Barack Obama invited Loyola’s title team to the White House to celebrate its golden anniversary.
“Back then , I never dreamed that would happen,” Hunter said. “When I entered the Oval Office, Obama shook my hand and said, ‘You look like you can still play.’ ”
“Not for long,” Hunter replied.
Hospitalized briefly this year, he received a get-well card signed by the entire Loyola team.
“They have an identity and an intensity all their own,” he said.
So, in a showdown, which of the school’s Final Four teams would win?