During the March Madness of 1963, playing was infused with politics. The NCAA matchup between Loyola University of Chicago and Mississippi State helped put an end to segregated basketball. Loyola’s win 50 years ago became known as the “game of change.”
At the time, college basketball was still predominantly white, with usually no more than two or three black players appearing on the floor at any one time. But in ’63, the Loyola Ramblers’ starting lineup featured four black players.
During the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the Ramblers blew past their opponent. The next showdown would be with the Mississippi State Maroons, now known as the Bulldogs. Loyola captain Jerry Harkness, an African-American, says that’s when the hate mail started pouring in.
“And that’s … a little bit scary because they know where you are, and they are sending you mail, and it said … ‘Stop right here,’ and, ‘You better not play against any more white teams in the tournament,’ ” Harkness says.
The black community was sending a different message: You can’t lose.
“The majority of people that called said, ‘Please win. This is a great opportunity for the black race,’ ” Harkness says.
The Mississippi State Maroons had won their Southeastern Conference title year after year, but Bobby Shows — the center on the 1963 team — said there was resistance to playing in the NCAA tournament.
“It was a unwritten law in Mississippi that no college basketball team from Mississippi would ever play against blacks,” Shows says.
The school’s president, Dean Colvard, had accepted the NCAA tournament bid knowing that he could lose his job. Then-Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, an avowed segregationist, and his allies tried to stop the Maroons from leaving the state.
MSU’s team manager, Jimmy Wise, said Colvard and the team’s coaches decided to sneak out of town.
“Of course, when the sheriff of the county could not find the coach or the president, he didn’t have anybody to serve the injunction to,” Wise says. “We [the players] flew out the next day and actually picked our coach up in Nashville, Tenn.”
On March 15, 1963, the stadium at East Lansing, Mich., was packed. Shows says Mississippi State had no supporters there.
“Somebody’s pep band played our fight song, and that was a pretty touching experience to think that sportsmanship was that good,” he says.
Then the captain of the Mississippi team, Joe Dan Gold, and Loyola’s Harkness walked to mid-court and shook hands.
“The flashbulbs just went off unbelievably, and at that time, boy, I knew that this was more than just a game. This was history being made,” Harkness says.
Loyola won 61-51 and went on to win the NCAA championship. Mississippi State won the consolation game and returned home to a huge crowd of fans.
In December, surviving members of both schools’ 1963 teams showed up at Loyola when the now-Bulldogs and the Ramblers met to play a game for the first time since 1963.
The men, all in their 70s, said they are proud that the game they played a half-century ago helped signal an end to the Jim Crow policies of the past.