Loyola vs. Mississippi State: Remembering the round when everyone advanced
BY TONI GINNETTI firstname.lastname@example.org December 8, 2012 1:30AM
Loyola captain Jerry Harkness (left) and Mississippi State captain Joe Dan Gold shake hands — the iconic moment that preceded their Mideast Regional game in the NCAA tournament on March 15, 1963. | Rich Clarkson
Game of change
What: Commemoration honoring the 50th anniversary of the historic Game of Change.
Who: Loyola vs. Mississippi State.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Gentile Arena.
Tickets: (773) 508-9653.
On TV: Delayed at 10 p.m. on ESPNU.
What: A screening of “Game of Change,’’ a documentary that chronicles the civil-rights issues faced by the Ramblers during the 1962-63 season.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Galvin Auditorium, 6339 N. Sheridan Road.
Admission: $10; a Q&A session with members of the 1963 Loyola and Mississippi State teams will follow the screening.
Updated: January 10, 2013 6:18AM
All-American Jerry Harkness achieved all that a college basketball player could dream of when he starred at Loyola from 1960 to 1963, including winning the NCAA championship.
‘‘I thought winning the national championship was the greatest accomplishment in my life,’’ he said. ‘‘But then you get older and realize things, and it’s not even close.
‘‘Winning the championship fell way down to second place.’’
What meant more was the game the Ramblers played against Mississippi State in the regional semifinals before they faced defending national champion Cincinnati.
It was much more than “a game.’’ It was the episode that forever changed college athletics in the South and became a watershed event in the turbulent civil rights era of the early 1960s.
It happened because of individual acts of courage by Mississippi State officials who risked their careers and lives to defy a court order barring their team from playing against an integrated team.
It was played peacefully despite tense days of hostility.
The NCAA still calls it ‘‘The Game of Change.’’
Key players for change
Almost five decades have passed since the March 15, 1963, meeting between Mississippi State and Loyola in East Lansing, Mich. Gone are some of the central figures:
† Mississippi State president Dean W. Colvard, the moderate academic who chose to risk his position, and perhaps his life, to take a stand;
† Maroons coach James ‘‘Babe’’ McCarthy, who promised his players he would find a way to get them to the NCAA tournament after three years of being denied their place as champions of the Southeastern Conference;
† Loyola coach George Ireland, the tough-willed legend who assembled the first predominantly black team to win the national title;
† Joe Dan Gold, the Maroons captain whose handshake with Harkness at center court became an iconic photo — and who decades later formed a close friendship with the Loyola captain.
But the memories remain vivid for the survivors, and they will share them as the Bulldogs and Ramblers meet Dec. 15 at the Gentile Center to commemorate the anniversary.
For many of the survivors, it will be their second meeting since the historic game. The first came four years ago when the NCAA honored them at the Final Four in Detroit near the site of Michigan State’s Jenison Field House, where the game had been played in defiance of autocratic Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett’s vow of ‘‘segregation now and forever.’’
‘We were in a fight’
Federal troops amassed on the campus of the University of Mississippi on Oct. 1, 1962, ordered in by President John F. Kennedy to protect James Meredith as he won a battle to enroll as the school’s first black student. The world saw another chapter of the civil rights movement unfolding in violence and rioting.
Also watching was Colvard. He wanted no part of the ugliness at Ole Miss on his campus some 100 miles away, and he wrote in his diary of ‘‘not running away’’ from what he knew was “a major issue of our time.’’
‘‘I knew we were in a fight and had to finish it,’’ he wrote.
That fall also brought the start of the basketball season. Mississippi State had won the SEC title in 1958-59 and again in 1961 and 1962. Each time, rival Kentucky represented the SEC in the NCAA tournament because of an unwritten law barring Mississippi state schools from competing against teams with black players.
As the season evolved and Mississippi State climbed to a No. 6 national ranking, McCarthy and Colvard anticipated the coming storm.
‘‘I didn’t know the depths of what they went through,’’ remembered Bobby Shows, a forward for Mississippi State who went on to found the Sports Crusaders ministry. ‘‘We weren’t sure what was going on. We just put on our tennis shoes and wanted to play.’’
Facing anonymous threats and a simmering campus, Colvard told McCarthy he intended to get the team to the tournament.
Then he went public with his decision.
Some state officials threatened to cut funding to the school. Barnett’s legislative allies moved more quickly, getting a court injunction barring the team from leaving the state.
Colvard made the next move, telling his wife he would be gone for a time, leaving at night and traveling to Birmingham, Ala., to avoid being served the injunction.
McCarthy was eating at a local diner when he learned he had to flee, lying on the car floor to avoid being seen by sheriffs as a friend drove him away. He and athletic director Wade Walker went to Nashville, Tenn. where they would await the team.
The players, meanwhile, were confined to their dorm to avoid the risk of facing deputies — or the Ku Klux Klan.
‘‘We were on a roller coaster,’’ Shows said. ‘‘All they told us was, ‘We might go, we might not go.’
‘‘The team trainer was the one who got us together. We sent the B-team to the airport first as a decoy to see if the deputies might be there.’’
But the local sheriff didn’t dispatch anyone right away.
‘‘He said he was taking a coffee break. He wanted us to go,’’ Shows said.
Ramblers felt it, too
Loyola was 24-2 and ranked third as it opened the tournament by demolishing Tennessee Tech 111-42.
Harkness, Vic Rouse, Les Hunter, Ron Miller and John Egan played almost every minute of every game. South Side native Egan was the lone white starter.
‘‘We started getting letters from the KKK at the dorm,’’ said Harkness, a native of Harlem who had been urged to pursue basketball by another black sport pioneer, baseball’s Jackie Robinson. ‘‘Ireland went to the residence office and said, ‘Anything sent to my players, I want.’
‘‘But we felt pressure from the black community, too, because they’d tell us, ‘You have to win. We have to prove we’re as good as them.’ ’’
Egan took abuse as well, ‘‘but of a different nature,’’ he said. ‘‘I was called ‘n-lover,’ things like that. When we played in Houston or Oklahoma or New Orleans, that’s where there was a lot of prejudice.’’
Harkness remembers a trip to Louisiana to play Loyola of New Orleans and getting in a cab with his black teammates to go to one part of town while the rest of the team went to the other.
“We didn’t see Egan until the game,’’ he said. ‘‘Xavier of New Orleans, an all-black school, offered to house all of us, but Ireland said no. He had a reason. He wanted all of this to be exposed. I’m convinced of that.’’
On game day, NCAA officials still weren’t sure if Mississippi State would take the floor.
‘‘I never thought we wouldn’t play because I didn’t think we’d be so fortunate to get a bye,’’ said Egan, still a practicing criminal attorney in Chicago.
But the Bulldogs arrived in time, and as they took the floor, they were greeted with their fight song played by another school’s band.
‘‘We had no one there — not a band or a cheerleader — and that thrilled my heart,’’ Shows remembered. “It showed unbelievable sportsmanship. And nobody treated us better than the Loyola players. I admired those guys because they had gone through their own things.’’
Harkness and MSU captain Joe Dan Gold shook hands at center court as the gym lit up with hundreds of flashbulbs.
‘‘I never saw anything like it,’’ Harkness said. ‘‘I thought, ‘Oh, my, this is not just a game. This is worldly.’”
The Ramblers prevailed 61-51 to advance to face Illinois, while Mississippi State won the consolation game against Bowling Green in what became another irony.
“We had only two losses during the season — and one was to Bowling Green,’’ Harkness said. ‘‘I think things happen for a reason. Bowling Green beat us, but they beat Bowling Green. They went back a winner, too.’’
But the Bulldogs weren’t sure what they were going back to.
‘‘When we landed, there were cars for 20 miles waiting to meet us and people cheering,’’ Shows said. ‘‘That said something about what people were thinking. There was a movement toward change.’’
The change was validated two years later when Mississippi State’s first black student, Richard Holmes, enrolled with nary a word said.
‘‘I want to believe we played a part in that,’’ Shows said.
Image lives on forever
Joe Dan Gold died April 13, 2011, in his native Kentucky. His widow, Rosemarie, was standing near her husband’s casket when Harkness walked in.
‘‘He was the only black man there,’’ she said, ‘‘and I knew who he was. It was so touching. It was almost as if Joe Dan had come full circle.’’
Gold and Harkness had become friends after the 2008 reunion ceremony in Detroit.
‘‘Until then, they had only shaken hands,’’ she said.
‘‘We talked about the possibility of telling the story together,’’ Harkness said. ‘‘When I heard he had passed, it hit me hard.
‘‘I went to the casket, and as I looked to the side, there was the photo [of their handshake]. I started to cry, and we all hugged. They were crying, too.’’