April 5, 2003
By JASON STRAIT
AP Sports Writer
CHICAGO (AP) - Forty years ago, Loyola of Chicago won a national championship game that changed the landscape of college basketball.
Loyola started four black players against defending champion Cincinnati, which started three.
It was the first game to feature what would soon be commonplace, two teams with predominantly black starting lineups. For some of the participants, the impact on society has become more important than the title itself.
"As you go through life the emphasis changes," said former Loyola player Jerry Harkness, 62. "I'm at the point, the exposure we gave to black ballplayers was just as important as winning the national title. It's so important to me now, because you played in a game that made a difference in people's lives.
"The title was just a basketball game. This was more."
It would still be three years before Texas Western, featuring five black starters, would defeat Adolph Rupp's Kentucky squad in the 1966 title game, and teams starting more than two black players were rare.
"The unspoken rule then was two blacks at home, if you had to play them, and one on the road," Loyola coach George Ireland later said. "I played four and rarely substituted."
When Loyola went on the road that season, they weren't always welcomed - particularly in the South.
During a trip to New Orleans, Harkness, Les Hunter, Ron Miller and Vic Rouse weren't allowed to stay in the same hotels or eat in the same restaurants as their white teammates.
"It was hurtful for me to experience the name calling against them," John Egan, the team's lone white starter, said. "It was a growing process."
Loyola's response was to embarrass opposing teams on the court.
The Ramblers were the highest-scoring team in the nation, averaging 91.8 points a game, and especially delighted in putting up big numbers against southern schools.
"I was all for rubbing it in," Hunter said. "It was also good for padding your stats."
Hunter also appreciated the message it sent - that schools couldn't afford to ignore black athletes.
"As you get older, you think about it in a different light. It takes on a certain significance, particularly in the deep South and a lot of places black athletes have become the norm," Hunter said.
"We had something to do with that."
The Ramblers' win over Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament may have been, with the exception of the title game, the team's most significant victory.
Mississippi State, out of the Southeastern Conference, had never played in the NCAA tournament because school didn't compete against teams with black players. But in 1963, coach Babe McCarthy defied public opinion and a court injunction which sought to prevent the Bulldogs from playing Loyola.
Harkness said the team received hate mail in the days leading up to that game, which Ireland intercepted and hid from his young players. Pressure also came from friends.
"Wherever we went in the black community, we were told, 'You can't lose. You've got to win this one,"' Harkness said. "We got pressure from the Klan and the black community.
"We just decided, I know I did, all of that was just going to be put out of my mind. That drew us, strange enough, closer together as a team."
The four surviving starters of Loyola's title team - which had only three reserves who rarely played - still keep in touch. And Harkness, who was inspired to play basketball in college because of a chance meeting with baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, said they are beginning to understand the stereotypes their victory helped to disprove.
"I think sports is underrated for what it did for the civil rights movement and black ball players," he said. "I think it was predestined for us to win."