TGS FINAL FOUR PREVIEW... REMEMBERING LOY-CHI '62-63
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
When memorable college hoops teams and stars of the past fifty years + are discussed, we're not sure how often the Loyola-Chicago '63 NCAA champs and their MVP, Jerry Harkness, get mentioned. Rest assured, however, there are few more fascinating characters than the former Rambler All-American, who resides these days in the Indianapolis suburbs, where he has lived since playing for the very first edition of the ABA's Indiana Pacers back in 1967.
(There's also an interesting bit of pro hoops history attached to Harkness' stint with the Pacers, to which we will allude in a few moments).
But perhaps the most intriguing aspects of the Harkness' days as a basketball star involve peripheral issues associated with his hard-to-fathom ascent in the college hoops stratosphere a half-century ago, and the peripheral events surrounding his playing days that serve as a complex narrative into how society functioned fifty-plus years ago. Including some very surprising revelations.
Harkness' journey to the top of the college hoops world was also about as far removed from the modern-day, highly-recruited prep stars as Anacortes, Washington is from Key West, Florida. Harkness' athletic feats as a prep at DeWitt Clinton High School in The Bronx were more featured around his exploits as a cross-country runner, not the basketball court. In fact, the 6'2½" Harkness didn't even play on the school's basketball team until his senior year. And he was good enough to hope to receive a college scholarship...for his distance running. "I was hoping for scholarship to St. John's," said Harkness when we sat down with him at his home outside of Indianapolis, "but it didn't happen."
Yet Harkness was also getting some attention for his basketball exploits. Harkness' DeWitt Clinton beat the high-powered Boys High side from Brooklyn that featured the incomparable (already as a teen) Connie Hawkins and future Illinois C Bill Burwell, and Jerry earned 2nd-team All-City honors as a prep senior. But he was still under-the-radar on the college hoops recruiting scene. "My grades were also only so-so in those days," said Harkness, and recruiters were not beating a path to his door. So, after graduating from high school, Harkness didn't go to college right away, knowing that something would likely transpire in the "off" year.
And Jerry's basketball skills caught the eye of a local promoter named Walter November, who organized a touring team called the "Clowns," mostly featuring kids from the vast Patterson Housing Project in the Mott Haven neighborhood of The Bronx. The Clowns' lineup in that era would feature several soon-to-be-recognized hoop names from local games in those days that included the likes of Satch Sanders, LeRoy Ellis, Billy Cunningham, and Doug Moe.
Meanwhile, Harkness was trying to get into local NYU, but nothing materialized, and Jerry was also thinking that a scholarship to Texas Southern (in Houston) might provide a college ticket, but a dorm fire at TSU scuttled those plans. Bowling Green also stepped forward with a half-scholarship offer.
Harkness, however, had caught the eye of a national icon, none other than Jackie Robinson, who used to watch the local basketball games and was so impressed with Harkness that he encouraged him to keep working toward his scholarship dreams. With the encouragement from Robinson, and the help of talent bird-dog Walter November, Harkness' name came across the radar of Loyola coach George Ireland, who, as we mentioned in Part I, had no qualms about finding players outside of the local Chicagoland area. (Ireland was also on the trail of another somewhat lightly-regarded New York product, Ron Miller, who would follow Harkness to Loyola the next year).
By that time, Harkness was ready to leave New York, having also been unknowingly exposed to the seedier underside of college hoops that operated beneath the surface in the city during those days. Harkness had also been targeted by gambling interests as a perfect go-between as a link to high-profile players with New York prep connections, but Jerry rejected any involvement and was soon off to the Windy City and Loyola, where Ireland had offered the scholarship.
Harkness was in for a bit of a rude awakening when arriving on campus north of downtown off of Sheridan Drive, however. "(Coach) Ireland had shown me all of these nice pictures of campus," said Harkness, "but they were taken in summer. And the campus of my high school DeWitt Clinton was bigger than Loyola!"
Jerry was taking a while to adjust to life at Loyola, perhaps because he was a bit of a loner at the time. "I was a little bit angry at everything in those days," a very pleasant Harkness related to us in our chat. "Some of the other guys on the team, like Les Hunter, were a bit more outgoing, and they would spend more time on the South Side of town, where more was happening socially for the younger black guys," Jerry said. "But I mostly stayed around school."
Harkness, however, was having little trouble adjusting to basketball at the college level, starring for the Loyola frosh team in 1959-60 and then taking the varsity Ramblers by storm, scoring 22.6 ppg as a soph. Harkness' cross-country background was apparent in his basketball style, in which he could run all day and night, and a perfect fit for the go-go tempo that Ireland was preaching to his Rambler teams. A lefty who would often contort into all sorts of angles as he shot, Harkness emerged as a one-man wrecking crew for a Loyola team whose uptempo style wouldn't be replicated on the college level until Jerry Tarkanian put the "Runnin" into the UNLV Rebels more than a decade later. Harkness' distinctive free-throw style would also cause a lot of modern-day players and coaches to wince, although he was a respectable 71-76% FT shooter throughout his varsity career at Loyola.
Harkness would proceed to true star status by his senior year at Loyola when being named to All-American teams and as the national MVP by several outlets. The early '60s were also a "smaller" era in college hoops, with few big men among the star players of the day. Indeed, a look at the 1962-63 All-American team notes several guards and forwards (Harkness, Cincinnati's Ron Bonham and Tom Thacker, Duke's Art Heyman, NYU's Barry Kramer, Kentucky's Cotton Nash, and UCLA's Walt Hazzard among them); it was an era in which a sort such as Ohio State's 6'8 Gary Bradds would be considered a prototype post player, just after another 6'8 frontliner, Jerry Lucas, had terrorized Buckeye opponents in the previous couple of years. The only "traditional big" of real note in that early '60s era was Bowling Green's 6'10 Nate Thurmond. Some have theorized that American college players in the early '60s were born in the World War II years, when many males were serving in the military overseas rather than having families at home. Perhaps it's no coincidence that when the war ended and more children were being born in the "Baby Boom" years commencing in 1947, that eventually bigger and taller college basketball players began to a appear on the screen in the mid to late '60s.
Harkness, however, also had the misfortune of entering the pro basketball world in 1963, in a period of time just after the demise of the old ABL and four years before the ABA would materialize. In 1963-64, the only pro league in the states was the NBA, which in those days featured all of nine teams. There were barely 100 athletes employed as pro basketball players that year, which made breaking into the league a real challenge. Harkness was drafted by the Knicks and made the roster in the 1963-64 season, but played in only five games. Jerry then moved back to Chicago and took a job with Quaker Oats while continuing to play hoops and hoping for another chance at the pros. Which arrived in 1967 when the ABA was formed. Jerry took the chance and tried out for the brand-new Indiana Pacers and made the team.
Little did Harkness know that his name would become etched in pro hoops history in any early-season game against the host Dallas Chaparrals on Monday night, November 13. Long-ago Chaps announcer Terry Stembridge once accounted for what happened at the end of that wild game.
"I had already called it a Chaparral victory that night in Dallas, a heartbeat before Jerry Harkness scored the longest shot in the history of basketball to give Indiana a 119-118 victory," recounted Stembridge years later. "It turned out to be the most premature journalistic announcement since that Chicago headline in 1948 proclaimed, 'Dewey Defeats Truman.'
"Since history never hands you the script for its most dramatic moments, no one in Memorial Auditorium thought there could be anything beyond what had just taken place for 47 minutes and 59 seconds between the Dallas Chaparrals and the Indiana Pacers. No one dreamed there could be another stroke of fortune beyond John Beasley's field goal in the final two seconds to give Dallas a 118-116 lead and apparent victory.
"When I saw Beasley's shot bury itself in the cords, I shouted over the deafening roar that Dallas had won. Even as I spoke, I saw the clock and Jerry Harkness. I was surprised to see that a second remained but I knew it would make no difference. I watched Harkness, barely in bounds, drawing back to throw the ball. And then, suddenly, the red, white and blue ball was gone on its 88-foot journey into history."
Harkness described the blind heave of 90 feet when we spoke. "I got a short pass from Oliver Darden right about at the baseline and just whirled and flung it blindly as far as I could, almost like a discus throw," said Harkness. "Darned if it didn't go in." Harkness confirmed that, for a moment, everyone by habit believed the miracle bucket was a 2-point shot and had merely forced an overtime period, until the referees reminded all that it was indeed a three-pointer (as the league had introduced in its initial season), which was still a new concept at the time. So Harkness' miracle shot had not only gone in, but also gave the Pacers a one-point win that HC Larry Staverman didn't even see as he was storming toward the locker room after he believed Beasley's shot had won the game.
More specifics of Harkness the player, and the 1962-63 Ramblers, will be recounted in our final installment of "When Loyola Had Chicago 'Ramblin'" in the next issue of TGS Hoops. But it's some of the peripheral factoids about this fascinating gentleman that remain so unique. Such as his up-close-and-personal look at the civil rights movement in the '60s, gained in part from unique perspectives in New York and Chicago, the latter where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had established operations of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the mid '60s. Harkness had friends involved with the movement, met with Dr. King, and became acquainted with a young chap named Jesse Jackson, who would often play some hoops with Jerry and others.
Harkness also was keenly aware of what had become of his old New York haunts by later in the decade, and was embittered by the political process that he believed had a lot to do with the erosion of black society in his native Harlem. "We had our own society, with lawyers, accountants, doctors, barbers, butcher shops, you name it," said Harkness. "But by later in the '60s, a lot changed. Businesses closed, and so many people moved into the housing projects. You also never saw the big names coming back into the neighborhood. We used to get stars like Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sarah Vaughan, all coming to the neighborhood to mingle. It was uplifting to everyone. They were the heroes in the community. But then they stopped coming, and a lot changed for the worse." Others from the era would confirm Harkness' observations from the days following the Civil Rights Act, when an unintended consequence of the "welfare state" was exactly to which Harkness referred; from the projects would emerge the new big shots in the community, only these would be gang leaders with criminal and drug-related ties.
Harkness also had a unique observation regarding the Loyola basketball team and its encounters with segregation in the South, where it would occasionally travel for games. In those days, hotels in places like New Orleans or Houston were segregated, so the school had to find different accommodations for the black players on the team. Which usually meant homes in the black neighborhoods of town.
We asked Harkness how difficult that must have been. Jerry simply smiled and shook his head. "No, no, no," said Harkness. "Let me explain."
I was mesmerized as Harkness recounted some specifics of an era that have never been acknowledged by the mainsteam sports media.
"We had a ball in the neighborhood," said Harkness. "When we arrived, the whole neighborhood got involved. They loved having us, and it became a big party on the block. We had lots of food at almost every house, all of the girls from the neighborhood wanted to hang with us, music everywhere. Man, we had some fun.
"When we would finally meet up with the rest of the team at the game, the white guys had no idea of how much fun we had. They thought that staying in their hotel was cool. The black guys just kind of smiled when we heard about them watching TV in their hotel rooms and all of that. We knew we had a blast in the neighborhood, but we let those guys think they had all the fun.
"Staying in some hotel? Uh uh uh. Man, we were the guys who had the real fun!"
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