Brace yourself for a lot of looking-back stories. Fifty years have passed since 1963, a time of transition that makes today’s social and political firestorms look like a cool breeze.
It was the year that the Beatles released their first album. The Rolling Stones toured the United Kingdom as a warm-up act for Bo Diddley and the Everly Brothers. Yes, everybody has to start somewhere.
But it also was the year that President John F. Kennedy sent the first 15,000 troops as “advisers” to Vietnam, where more than 58,000 would die in combat. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in August delivered his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.
Earlier that year, Alabama Gov. George Wallace declared in his inauguration address, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
That backdrop gives a little perspective to President Barack Obama’s Oval Office meeting recently with surviving members of the men’s basketball team from Loyola University of Chicago that won the 1963 NCAA championship.
Besides their athletic excellence, the Jesuit school’s team is remembered for a decision by their coach George Ireland to do something that was still pretty radical: Start games with his best five players, regardless of their race.
Almost a decade after the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 school desegregation decision, desegregation came slowly. For schools that had black players, an unwritten rule said you started “One at home, two on the road and three if you’re losing badly.”
You may remember that from the book and movie Glory Road, about Don Haskins, coach at Texas Western (now the University of Texas at El Paso) who in 1966 led the first all-black starting lineup to an NCAA championship.
Ireland took Loyola’s Ramblers to the championship with four black starters. They went on to defeat the reigning champs, the University of Cincinnati, 60-58 in overtime and become the only Division I team in Illinois to capture the men’s Division I basketball title.
But before that game, there was the regional semifinal that is remembered as “The Game of Change” against an all-white team from Mississippi State University.
That game almost didn’t happen. Mississippi is where Gov. Ross Barnett’s unsuccessful efforts to block the enrollment of black Air Force veteran James Meredith sparked bloody riots a year earlier. After that, even white Mississippians increasingly were pressuring state leaders to drop their ban against black players — or playing against black players.
As Chicago journalist Michael Lenehan details in his new book Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball, Mississippi officials had to take extraordinary measures to dodge a last-minute court order against the game with Loyola.
In a clandestine operation that reads like a Cold War espionage thriller (including a sheriff’s deputy who may have dragged his heels on purpose in delivering the papers), Mississippi State’s President Dean W. Colvard, basketball coach James H. “Babe” McCarthy and other officials fled the state.
They left the team behind, figuring correctly that “not even a Mississippi politician” would try to arrest or serve papers on a group of fine, young three-time conference champions. Mississippi State’s team made it to the semifinal held at Michigan State University. There they lost to Loyola 61-51 amid far more news coverage than either team ever experienced before.
In those racially tense times, many wondered whether the Southern students would be picketed or worse. Instead, they received a standing ovation, helped along by Michigan State students who came — in the absence of a Mississippi crowd — to boost their fellow “MSU” students.
Did the 1963 team change the color of college basketball, as the book’s subtitle suggests? It’s hard to say just how much the Ramblers helped the civil rights revolution, but they moved the ball down the court. They showed how basketball love can beat racial hate and serve in unexpected ways as an agent of social change.
CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc.