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Earl McKay: Taking a stand for racial justice

Setcoach BrandThomas talks strategy his players during one final timeouts game. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media

Seton coach Brandon Thomas talks strategy to his players during one of the final timeouts of the game. | Patrick Gleason~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 7, 2013 6:08AM

Seton Academy, where I work as vice principal, recently placed second in the Illinois High School Association Class 2A boys basketball tournament, but the achievement was clouded in controversy.

Coach Brandon Thomas felt our players and fans had been subject to racial taunts and hostile comments on the floor and in the stands during the title game against Harrisburg at Peoria’s Carver Arena, and little was done to address the matter. When taunts continued from the stands after the game, our team left the floor without accepting the runner-up trophy.

Father Dan Mallette, retired pastor at St. Margaret of Scotland Parish on the South Side and my mentor, followed the story through news reports. When we discussed it, Father Dan was saddened to realize that incidents of this nature are still taking place 50 years after Coach George Ireland and the Loyola University Ramblers made a strong statement for racial equality in basketball by winning the national championship with four African-Americans in the starting lineup, at a time when African-American players were still a rarity in the college game.

Father Dan was a feisty young priest in the 1960s, serving St. Agatha’s parish on the West Side and battling racial injustice. Coach Ireland would bring his college players to St. Agatha’s to help out in any way they were needed. Father Dan expressed particular admiration for Jerry Harkness, an All-American black player from New York, and Johnny Egan, the team’s only white starter, from St. Rita High School on the South Side.

Racial tension burned throughout the nation, and Father Dan said he feared for his life at times. Loyola’s players were barred from certain hotels and restaurants when they traveled, forcing Coach Ireland to improvise on their eating and sleeping arrangements. They heard racial taunts whenever they played in the South, and they weren’t exactly welcome in many parts of Chicago, despite their status as a top 10 college team and a national championship contender.

One thing was evident: Coach Ireland was passionate about the game and took pleasure in applying defensive pressure to secure victory against Southern teams. This was his way of showing he was an equal-opportunity coach who would buck the system and start four African-American players when it required real courage to do so.

Father Dan believes Coach Ireland and his players literally changed the complexion of college basketball when they tipped off against an all-white Mississippi State team in the 1963 Mideast Regional in East Lansing, Mich. Mississippi State left Starkville, Miss., under cover of darkness and traveled to East Lansing in defiance of a state law banning mixed-race athletic competitions.

Loyola defeated Cincinnati for the national championship one week later. Cincinnati started three African Americans, marking the first time the majority of players in an NCAA title game were African American.

Fifty years later we still play the same game of basketball. Our Seton Academy boys team placed second in the Class 2A state tournament, making the trip Downstate for the second year in a row and the third time in five years. Finishing first, second and fourth is a huge accomplishment that gives us much to celebrate.

But we are disappointed by the lack of good sportsmanship and the racial animosity our African-American team encountered.

Brandon Thomas is a competitive, dynamic coach who is passionate about the game of basketball. He has put great effort into helping our young men grow on and off the court. They are better off for having been under Coach Thomas’ guidance.

Coach Thomas encouraged our players to maintain control and retain their dignity in an emotionally charged setting, and they did. Like all those who are passionate about something, he has a breaking point.

At Seton, we have decided to re-evaluate our athletic program and seek solutions so that all participants — players, coaches, parents, fans and officials — know how to handle sensitive situations and will practice the sportsmanship needed to conduct athletic competitions positively and honorably.

We’re 50 years removed from Loyola’s groundbreaking 1963 season, but we still have far to go.

“I don’t have the fight in me anymore,” Father Dan said, sounding old and weary, “but I certainly have seen the landscape change.”

The same situation but different faces.

The March Madness or the Madness of March continues.

Earl McKay is vice principal at Seton Academy in South Holland and a longtime leader in youth sports programs.

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