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Loyola legends were game-changers

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS APRIL 5-6 - FILE ** Loyolcoach George Irelright talks Jerry Harkness (15) other members LoyolChicago

** ADVANCE FOR WEEKEND EDITIONS APRIL 5-6 - FILE ** Loyola coach George Ireland, right, talks to Jerry Harkness (15) and other members of the Loyola of Chicago basketball team during the 1963 NCAA championship game against Cincinnati in Louisville, Ky. It was the first title game between teams with predominantly black starters, and it would be years before Harkness and others grasped the impact of the game. (AP Photo/file)

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Updated: March 17, 2013 6:49PM

The movie “Glory Road’’ that told the story of Texas Western’s all-black starting five winning the 1966 NCAA national championship made an impression on Jerry Harkness.

But not the impression others had.

“I wondered why there wasn’t a movie about our team,’’ the All-America star of the 1963 champion Loyola Ramblers remembered.

The story of coach Don Haskins’ team from the Southwest upending the all-white Kentucky team coached by legendary segregationist Adolph Rupp might have had more “Hollywood’’ elements than the story of the ’63 Ramblers, featuring four African-American starters, who defeated defending champion Cincinnati.

But the Ramblers’ story arguably had the greater ­enduring impact on basketball and American history.

“We all know it is the only Illinois team to ever win the national championship, but to history, the most important thing is it was a team in the vanguard of national change,’’ said Michael Lenehan, the author of an upcoming book, Ramblers: Loyola-Chicago 1963, The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball.

“Cincinnati had four African Americans on their 1962 team, but when Loyola played Cincinnati in 1963, it was the first time the majority of the players on the floor [eight] were black,’’ Lenehan said. “You can imagine what it was like for coaches and players and spectators — black and white — to tune in to this sight we now take for granted.

“Some people were shocked, and some were energized. But it was an important moment in the history of basketball and the civil rights movement — and in the evolution of the game.’’

The game was the first to air under a new long-term television contract negotiated by the NCAA, which previously had aired the game only through various syndications.

Audiences saw the Ramblers rally to an overtime victory.

But coaches saw something more dramatic.

“Bucky Buckwalter [then a young assistant at Utah who later became an executive for the Portland Trail Blazers] said he had just watched the game change from horizontal to vertical,’’ Lenehan said of the athletic moves. “It would look tame by our standards, but it was impressive then.’’

The Ramblers’ road to the title game was as historic, including a groundbreaking second-round game against Mississippi State, which had to sneak out of its state in defiance of a court order and a law barring play against integrated teams.

The Ramblers already had crushed Tennessee Tech 111-42 in the first round — still a tournament record for margin of victory. They defeated Mississippi State 61-51, then downed Illinois 79-64 to reach the Final Four. A dominating 94-75 victory against Duke set up the final against Cincinnati, which also had four African-American starters matching the Ramblers’ athletic ability.

Loyola trailed by 15 early in the second half, and Harkness had not scored a point.

But he tallied 11 of his 14 points in the last five minutes, including the jumper with four seconds left that tied the game.

The overtime ended with Vic Rouse tipping in the winner at the buzzer.

Off the court, the Ramblers were more than basketball champs.

“They were an important symbol to a lot of people,’’ Lenehan said of the players who will be honored Saturday, when Loyola hosts UIC. “Their whole season has an importance that no other single championship could ever have had.’’

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