by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Some college hoops insiders were probably aware of the historical significance of Mississippi State’s recent trek to the Windy City to do battle with Loyola-Chicago. While hardly the featured game on the December 15 slate, the matchup nonetheless received a good deal of coverage because it brought together two schools who faced off in a landmark NCAA Tournament game almost 50 years earlier in March of 1963.

Those who have been reading TGS Hoops for the past couple of years might recall an extensive two-part editorial feature on these pages which detailed the specifics of that year’s Mississippi State team and its never-to-be-forgotten journey into the ‘63 Big Dance, and in particular its Sweet Sixteen game at East Lansing against Loyola. In fact, that two-part story can still be accessed in the archive portion from January 2011 on our webpage at www.goldsheet.com. (“And A Story You Ought To Hear,” Parts I & II). Of course, that game was mired in the sort of controversy which cannot be fathomed in this day and age, as the Bulldogs, and in particular their nervy and brave school president Dean Colvard, decided to break with the school’s policy of not competing against integrated teams by accepting an invitation (as SEC champions) to that year’s NCAA Tournament, an invite which MSU had rejected in two previous seasons. The societal implications, especially in the Deep South, were almost incalculable. Meanwhile, the specifics of the political firestorm that ensued, including the hard-to-believe cloak-and-dagger “escape” by the Bulldog team from Starkville to avoid a late-filed court injunction to prevent the hoopsters from traveling to East Lansing to participate in the Big Dance, provided a startling retrospective on sport and race in American history from a different era which is still within the lifetime of this writer and many of our readers. And, as well, the life span of TGS. It was perhaps the best-received editorial piece we have ever run on the pages of TGS; we welcome any reader who hasn’t seen that two-part story to seek it from our aforementioned website.

While Mississippi State’s journey to that eventful night in East Lansing has been well-chronicled, we have always thought a more fascinating tale might have been written by that year’s Loyola Ramblers, who have been the subject of other stories on these pages, including a March, 2009 three-part tale from their journey through the NCAA Tournament and their dramatic win over Cincinnati in the 1963 NCAA title game. It’s all part of our book project entitled Ramblers and Bearcats, which has finally proceeded to the final stages of prep work before its hopeful publish date later this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of Loyola’s Big Dance crown. And that’s still the only NCAA Hoops title ever won by a team from the state of Illinois and part of a big 1963 year in Windy City sports that also featured the NFL Bears winning the championship that December.

Of course, the reason that Mississippi State-Loyola game had such social undertones and remains a landmark game in American sports history is the fact that those Ramblers fielded what at the time was a unique lineup featuring four black starters, which was almost unheard of in that era. During the All-College Holiday tournament in Oklahoma City in December of the 1962-63 season, the Ramblers employed perhaps the first all-black lineup in major college hoops (although which team was actually first remains the source of much conjecture, we know for a fact that Loyola did so in December of ‘62). All before Don Haskins’ more-romanticized Texas Western Miners a few years later. Credit was due to forward-thinking HC George Ireland, who simply wanted to find athletes who wanted a quality education at Chicago’s Jesuit university and could also play some basketball. While sensitive to the social issues of the day, Ireland could also not have cared less about the color of his players; as long as they went to class, behaved themselves as gentlemen, and could help him win games on the basketball court, it wouldn’t matter if they were purple or blue. Ireland would find a place for them on his team.

The societal climate, however, was much different a half-century ago. As was the college sports landscape of the ’50s and early ’60s, with Jim Crow laws still present in some regions. Segregation was still a fact of life in many parts of the country, especially in the South. Indeed, the “color line” would not be broken in several major conferences until the late ’60s; it wasn’t until 1967 that Vanderbilt hoopster Perry Wallace broke the color barrier in the SEC, but even then, change was slow to develop. Many SEC, ACC, and Southwest Conference schools took several more years before they would break the color barrier.

The byproduct was that young black athletes from the South had two choices in those days; either stay nearer home and attend one of the historical black colleges, or head elsewhere, likely to the Midwest or East, where the color barriers had mostly (although in some cases not completely) been broken down in previous decades. It is well-documented how several Big Ten schools would recruit from Texas and the South in those days, and on the football side few were more active than Michigan State’s Duffy Daugherty and Minnesota’s Murray Warmath, who routinely plumbed the region for top-flight back talent that couldn’t find a place at an SEC or Southwest Conference school in those days. That’s one reason the Gophers and Spartans excelled on the gridiron for much of the ‘60s. Among the memorable black gridiron stars of the era lured from the region to those Big Ten outposts were Michigan State’s Bubba Smith (from Beaumont, Texas) and George Webster (from Spartanburg, South Carolina) and Minnesota’s Bobby Bell (from Shelby, North Carolina) and Carl Eller (from Winston-Salem, North Carolina). And there were many more black athletes who trekked far away from the South to fulfill their major college sports dreams.

And for young black hoopsters, schools in the Midwest and East often provided the opportunity closest to home to play major college basketball. The Missouri Valley Conference was a popular destination, as a quick glimpse at the rosters of many Valley teams from the era confirms. Ralph Miller’s Wichita State powerhouse squad in the early ’60s featured a pair of black athletes from what would soon be known as the Metroplex; star F Dave Stallworth hailed from Dallas, while C Nate Bowman came from Fort Worth. Less than a decade later, both of these future New York Knicks would have likely stayed in the state, but in those times, schools such as Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, and TCU were off limits to athletes such as Stallworth and Bowman.

The Lone Star State also produced another of the Valley’s star players of the era, as Houston-bred McCoy McLemore, a slithery forward who would go on to a solid 8-year career in the NBA, decided to go north to Des Moines and Drake University. A few years later, a player of McLemore’s caliber would likely have stayed closer to home, perhaps at the University of Houston. Which itself didn’t begin to recruit black athletes until 1964, when the likes of Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney enlisted with Cougar HC Guy Lewis, who realized it was time for his program to break the color barrier in early 1963, when Loyola-Chicago’s fully-integrated team played a game at Houston on the way to the national title.

Bradley University would also feature a star black performer who came from far away, G Levern Tart, who arrived from South Carolina. And of course, there were the great Cincinnati teams of the era that along with Loyola really re-set the color line in college hoops. Among the African-American Bearcat stars of the era were thick, 6’9 C “Tall” Paul Hogue, a bespectacled behemoth who hailed from Knoxville, Tennessee; do you think future Tennessee Volunteer teams would let an eventual Final Four MVP (as Hogue was in 1962) ever slip away to Cincinnati? Star swingman Tom Thacker was a product of Covington, Kentucky, just on the other side of the Ohio River from Cincy. Thacker, however, wasn’t even recruited by Kentucky HC Adolph Rupp, who steadfastly maintained his color line until late in the decade when finally relenting and signing C Tom Payne. As for the gifted Thacker, his choices came down to nearby Cincinnati and New York University, which was a hoops powerhouse in the day. Of course, the “Big O” himself, Oscar Robertson, had matriculated at Cincy by way of Indianapolis.

But perhaps no one blazed that sort of breaking-the–color barrier trail in the late ‘50s and ‘60s any better than Ireland and his Loyola Ramblers. Ireland was also not averse to recruiting outside (far outside) of the Chicago city limits. Putting together his powerhouse teams from the early ‘60s, Ireland mined other regions, particularly the South, where he lured future stars Vic Rouse and Les Hunter, both from Nashville’s Pearl High, and indeed almost had Willis Reed a few years later before Reed decided to stay near home at Grambling.

Ireland also tapped New York City, where, along with a local scout extraordinaire named Walter November, was able to convince some Big Apple stars to move to Chicago. Including a pair of eventual star performers from the 1962-63 title team, Ron Miller and Jerry Harkness.

Next issue: Part II of When Loyola had Chicago Ramblin’...and some fascinating recollections and insights from the great Jerry Harkness, including never-before published accounts of how he and his Ramblers teammates dealt with some of societal hurdles from a half-century ago!

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