Loyola forward Jerry Harkness didn’t fully grasp the significance of the game about to be played on March 15, 1963, when he stepped to center court and shook hands with his white opponent.
“I get there and you see these flashbulbs — pop, pop, pop — and I thought, ‘Hmm, this is more than a game,’” said Harkness, who is black. “It just felt more like this is history.”
The landmark contest later was named the “Game of Change” because it featured an all-white Mississippi State team that defied its state governor’s orders banning it from crossing state lines to compete against the integrated Ramblers.
Memories of Loyola’s historic role are being recalled as the current Ramblers embark on their first NCAA tournament in 33 years. The squad from 55 years ago won the NCAA tournament championship, the only team from Illinois with that distinction.
Harkness was at center court again last week celebrating with the 2018 Ramblers in Saint Louis as they earned an automatic tournament bid with their Missouri Valley Conference championship. He beamed holding the gold trophy and shaking hands with each player.
“That is the ultimate change, when you talk about integration,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “As I hugged Jerry Harkness, I told all those guys how much the past is part of our future. The ’63 team, that goes way beyond basketball.”
Loyola’s victory over Mississippi State was symbolic for a country struggling with racial divides and social shifts.
It was a rare team that ignored the unwritten agreement among schools that no more than two black players per team should play at the same time, maybe three if a team trailed significantly. The Ramblers started four black players and sometimes played five.
Coach George Ireland wasn’t moved so much by progressive values as winning, players said.
“The idea of starting four was a new experience,” said Rich Rochelle, a reserve center. “Five black players at one time, that was unheard of.”
Loyola’s integrated team — an emblem of equality — inspired abuse from opposing fans and intimidating letters from the Ku Klux Klan.
“It was addressed to my dorm on Sheridan Road,” recalled Harkness, a senior captain. “I started thinking, ‘These guys are talking like this and they know where we live. What else do they know? They could wait out there and ambush me.’ I was afraid.”
Team members focused on basketball and academics, but the swirling unrest was hard to ignore in 1963 — the bloodiest year of the Civil Rights Movement.
Four black girls were killed in a Birmingham church bombing. Martin Luther King led the March on Washington and wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated.
A massive Chicago Public Schools boycott for overcrowding at predominantly African-American schools and a refusal to integrate with white schools made local headlines.
It was the year Alabama Gov. George Wallace exclaimed during his inaugural address, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
And here was Loyola — starting four black players and competing against a white team from the South.
“We were in the middle of all of that,” Harkness said.
They were about to make another dent in a changing nation.
“That’s when it began to turn,” center Les Hunter said. “Nobody had ever heard of us and we’re showing up with black players and winning like that? It taught people that if you’re going to compete, you’re going to have to learn acceptance of black athletes.”
Loyola players were mostly unaware of the game’s historic weight.
As the No. 3 team, its most pressing concern was whether its opponent would show for the NCAA tournament regional semifinal game in East Lansing, Mich.
Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett was a vocal segregationist, clear that he forbade the Bulldogs competing against black players.
But Mississippi State fans had grown tired of staying home while teams like Kentucky competed for trophies. University President Dean Colvard decided to allow the team to play in the tournament anyway — even after Barnett ordered an injunction that barred it from leaving the state.
Colvard devised a plan sending coach Joe “Babe” McCarthy to Memphis as he went to Alabama for a speaking engagement to avoid being served the injunction. An assistant coach sneaked players onto a private plane to Nashville, where they reunited and flew to Michigan where Loyola awaited.
“They were under pressure too,” Harkness said.
Before tipoff, Harkness shook hands with forward Joe Dan Gold — and an iconic photo was snapped.
Loyola won 61-51. The contest was without racial incidents. Mississippi State’s team returned to a surprisingly welcoming campus. Nobody was fired.
In 2013, Loyola was the first team inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and had a White House meeting with President Barack Obama.
“I knew it was important to win, to show superiority on the court and to make a statement that we can play with anybody,” Hunter said. “I kind of felt when we ran up the scores on teams that were all white that it was a statement. I was conscious of it.”
The “Game of Change” is overshadowed by the 1966 NCAA tournament championship between between Texas Western’s (now University of Texas at El Paso) five black starters versus an all-white Kentucky team — told in the movie “Glory Road.” Even in Chicago, Loyola’s season is remembered in black-and-white photographs — a footnote in sports history.
But players’ experiences during that season offer a window into the Civil Rights Movement — and reveals their bravery.
‘We knew it was there’
Houston was particularly hostile. Fans hung over arena railings, screaming racial slurs and launching ice and water as black players entered and exited the court.
In New Orleans, white and black players took separate transportation to games. Rochelle said fans hurled coins at them.
In Saint Louis, they were turned away at restaurants.
“One place we went into, sat down and waited and nobody came to us,” Rochelle said. “Someone walked in off the street and said, ‘We (won’t) eat here. They serve (n-----s).’ It was not unusual to be treated as second-class citizens. We didn’t accept it. But we knew it was there.”
Letters from the Klan arrived as word spread about the team with four black starters.
“I can still see Ireland running over to the dorms,” Harkness said. “One (letter) said, ‘ ‘(Slur) you don’t have any right to be playing against white ball players.’ It was probably worded tougher than that. Ireland took all the letters and we didn’t see them again.”
John Egan, the team’s white starter, grew up in Marquette Park, a predominantly white South Side neighborhood where in 1966 — three years after Loyola’s title — Martin Luther King marched for equal housing and was struck by rocks as a riot ensued and 30 people were injured.
“When I would come back (to the neighborhood) while I was still in school, they were curious,” Egan said. “ ‘What are you doing on that team?’ Then some guys would try to come to my defense, (and say), ‘Well, he’s the one running the show.’ Then I would correct them and say I’m not running the show. The guy playing center (Hunter), the biggest blackest guy on the team, is running the show.’ ”
Egan said he never had had a black friend, let alone a teammate, before Loyola. The seven surviving teammates remain in touch.
“I didn’t know what it would be like to develop a friendship,” Egan said. “I think we had a mutual respect.”
Loyola’s championship game against Cincinnati was nearly as momentous as the “Game of Change.” With Cincinnati’s three black starters, and Harkness, Hunter, Vic Rouse and Ron Miller starting for Loyola, it was the first time the championship featured a majority of black starters.
The defensive-minded Bearcats had won the two previous championships. No. 3-ranked Loyola, which finished 29-2, was a high-scoring squad that set a still-standing NCAA record for margin of victory with a 111-42 first-round defeat of Tennessee Tech. In the final at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Loyola rallied from a 15-point deficit for a 60-58 victory in overtime decided on Rouse’s last-second put-back of a Hunter miss.
“We could score a whole bunch of points in a short amount of time. I was waiting on that,” Hunter said. “I felt it was going to happen. I was always positive about that.”
A throng of fans greeted them home at Midway Airport. The team bus arrived on campus as students and Rogers Park neighbors celebrated nearby on Sheridan Road.
“It was the most cheered thing in my life,” Harkness said. “It wasn’t probably like it is today, but for its time, it was pretty good.”
‘The direction of good’
Harkness, who is writing a memoir called “Connections,” was inspired to take up basketball as a high school senior thanks to a chance meeting with Jackie Robinson, who complimented him at the Harlem YMCA. Later, Harkness met King and became a civil rights activist.
A consensus first-team All-American as a senior, he also played briefly for the Knicks in the NBA for one season after college and three years later played two seasons with the ABA Pacers.
Harkness appreciates modern athletes’ outspokenness on social issues, seeing a tie to Loyola’s 1963 team.
“A person has to look at their strengths and ask where can they make a change?” Harkness said. “If we can’t voice that things are not right for the average African-American, who will? You do it where it can make a difference. If you’re on the stand and you can raise your fist and let people know blacks are not treated right, that makes a difference. And we have that right to do that.”
The current political climate hearkens back to the 1960s. Harkness calls events like August’s white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va., “painful.”
“We’ve allowed politicians to grab a spotlight that stokes the fires of racism again,” Hunter said. “I hate to see some of these things starting up. I don’t think America is going to continue to let that stuff happen. It takes awhile for our country to move but it will move in the direction of good.”
The ’63 team sees its legacy in sports — from college to professional — where players of various races competing together and against each other is the norm.
The players are eager to see how far the current Loyola team can go. The Ramblers (28-5) find out where and against whom they will play when the NCAA tournament brackets are revealed on Selection Sunday.
“I’m absolutely loving it,” Rochelle said. “This group of guys is just fantastic. The idea that we were a national championship team from this little commuter school on the North Side of Chicago, it was hard to believe. I hope the same thing happens for this team.”
As Loyola reaches the March Madness spotlight, the 1963 team will be remembered as more than former champions.
“You don’t realize at the time what you have done — even a little bit — for black-white relations,” Harkness said. “That comes later on.”