ATLANTA — Jerry Harkness is a positive person. An optimist. The high road is his permanent street address.
But in his late 70s, Harkness surveys the current American mood and despairs a bit. It reminds him of a time that should be tucked into our nation’s past, not part of its present. It reminds him too much of what he experienced 55 years ago, on his way to becoming a star of a growing American sporting phenomenon called the NCAA basketball tournament.
“It’s depressing,” Harkness said Wednesday.
In 1963, when Harkness was one of four African-American starters on Loyola Chicago’s pioneering national championship team, white fans threw ice and shouted slurs at the players at a game in Houston. In New Orleans, the projectiles were coins. The team was denied service at a restaurant in St. Louis.
Loyola was violating the unwritten basketball rules of the time — segregated teams were on the way out, but quotas were kept. Teams were discouraged from starting more than two black players. The Ramblers started four and they were winning big.
The backlash in a divided time was as palpable as it was inevitable. Loyola felt it on the road and then felt it at home — threatening letters began to arrive at their dorms, some from writers who said they were in the Ku Klux Klan.
Harkness lived through that, enduring so many indignities and insults just to play basketball at the highest level. He led a powerful team that altered the complexion of college basketball — and did it three years before the more celebrated Texas Western champions of 1966. He was part of the iconic picture from that ’63 tournament, when he shook hands with Joe Dan Gold before Loyola played all-white Mississippi State in what would be remembered as “The Game of Change.”
Experience all that as a young man, and you expect things to be different as an old man. They are, in many ways. But then one day you turn on the television and see racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Confederate flags waving and white supremacists marching, and you feel a dispiriting nostalgia.
“We have to take a step back and look at ourselves,” Harkness said. “We’re not doing that. This is not who we are. Charlottesville is not who we are, and our leaders are not who we are.
“Somehow we let people sneak into those leadership positions, and, hey, that’s not us. They shouldn’t represent us. To see a group of people, once they feel like they can do what that group did in Charlottesville, we let that happen too easily.
“I don’t want to get into politics, but it’s painful.”
That pain undercuts some of the joy of this March for Harkness and his 1963 teammates. They have watched their alma mater make its first NCAA tournament in 33 years, then barge into the Sweet 16 as a No. 11 seed, the last real Cinderella standing. They have rejoiced as Loyola advanced to Atlanta on the strength of two last-second shots, a seamless collective playing style and the divinely inspired support of 98-year-old team chaplain, Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt.
“You’re biting your nails, cheering their every basket,” Harkness said. “We’re the talk of the tournament, and it’s all positive.”
The men of ’63 are coming here for the Sweet 16, from various parts of the country. Coming to support the Ramblers, and to remember their own breakthrough season 55 years ago. They’re slower afoot and harder of hearing — but if Sister Jean can make the trip, so can they.
The team they’re coming to watch bears scant resemblance to theirs, other than the school colors. This Loyola team plays deliberately, possesses an unremarkable athleticism and maximizes fundamentals to camouflage some of its weaknesses. The ’63 Loyola team was something else entirely.
“We were laden with talent,” said Richard Rochelle, another member of that squad. “We didn’t have the best coaching in the world, but we had talent and the genius on the court. We were a run-and-gun team, a lot of movement, a lot of speed.”
Coming off a 23-win season in 1961-62, the Ramblers started the next season ranked in the top five and never left it. They started 16-0 and entered the NCAA tourney 19-2, with high expectations.
Their first game was on a Monday, March 11, in nearby Evanston. Loyola obliterated Tennessee Tech 111-42, setting a record for NCAA tournament victory margin that still stands. (Coach George Ireland was not above running up some scores, especially against teams from the South, to make a point.) That game was followed five days later by the historic matchup against Mississippi State in East Lansing, Michigan
The Bulldogs literally had to sneak out of Mississippi to play the game, defying an injunction from Gov. Ross Barnett forbidding them from competing against integrated opponents. Mississippi State had won the Southeastern Conference but stayed home from the previous two NCAA tournaments in obeyance of segregationist Barnett. It would not do so a third time.
The Ramblers were largely unaware of the racial history they walked into that day in East Lansing. Harkness said it hit home when he shook Gold’s hand at center court before the game.
“When the flashbulbs went off — pop, pop — I knew right then it was more than a game,” he said. “I was a little stunned going back to the huddle.”
Loyola was a little stunned coming out of the huddle as well, falling behind 7-0 before regrouping and going on to a 61-51 victory. After thumping Illinois the next day, the Ramblers were in the Final Four.
They smashed all-white Duke in the semifinals in Louisville, 94-75, reaching the title game against two-time defending champion Cincinnati. It was played much more at the Bearcats’ pace, but an overtime putback basket by Vic Rouse beat the buzzer and gave the Ramblers the title, 60-58.
March Madness wasn’t really a concept then — the tournament was still vying with the New York-based NIT for exposure and attention. So Loyola’s championship wasn’t exactly greeted with nationwide celebrating. But for the players, the accomplishment in the face of cultural opposition and amid turbulent racial times was hugely satisfying.
“When racism is being thrown in your face, it takes its toll on you,” Rochelle said. “But that was the culture we grew up in. At the time, the country was literally split. The South was segregated and there was a lot of violence, but we had our problems in Chicago as well. You want to see the best in people, and when they show you their ugly side it’s always disappointing.
“You didn’t like it, but you had to deal with it.”
The difficult part, for Jerry Harkness and many others who thrived despite the racism of that era, is seeing some of the old attitudes coming out of the darkness and into the light. The Loyola Ramblers of 1963 did their part to desegregate basketball and open the eyes of the nation. They don’t want to believe it was in vain.
“I’m hoping it’s just a step back,” Harkness said, “and in the near future we can take two steps forward.”
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