The NCAA Basketball Tournament has come a long way in the past 50 years.
When Loyola of Chicago beat Cincinnati, 60-58, to win the 1963 championship, it marked the first time that the majority of the players on the floor were black.
“The unspoken rule then,” Loyola coach George Ireland told Sports Illustrated in 1987, “was two blacks at home, if you had to play them, and one on the road. I played four, and rarely substituted.”
“No matter where we went,” assistant coach Jerry Lyne told SI, “people didn’t like us.” Added forward Vic Rouse, “We were, in fact, pariahs.”
The times were changing, but not fast enough for some.
“Yes, I poured it to them,” Ireland told SI about playing all-white teams. “I was 20 years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee.”
In the tournament’s opening round, Loyola beat Tennessee Tech, 111-42, still the most lopsided win in NCAA Tournament history.
Yet Ireland had a great respect and compassion for one all-white team the Ramblers played. A team just as courageous as Loyola.
The Bulldogs won the SEC championship in 1959, 1961, and 1962, yet they never played a game in the tournament, barred by Mississippi’s “unwritten” rule that prohibited state teams from competing against blacks.
Coach Babe McCarthy promised his players that in 1963 they would play in the tournament, and Mississippi State president Dean Colvard agreed. After witnessing the turmoil the previous fall, when James Meredith integrated Ole Miss amid National Guard protection, Colvard wrote in his diary that he would not run away from a major issue of our time.
“I knew we were in a fight, and had to finish it,” he wrote.
Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who declared of Ole Miss “segregation now and forever,” had his legislative allies obtain an injunction keeping the Bulldogs from competing in the tournament.
In a bit of intrigue unimaginable today, Colvard quietly left for Alabama, avoiding service of the injunction.
McCarthy hid on the floor of a car, and was driven out of Starkville to Nashville, where he awaited his team.
And the team? As forward Bobby Shows told the Chicago Sun-Times in December, “The team trainer was the one who got us together. We sent the B-team to the airport first as a decoy, to see if the deputies might be there.”
No deputies had been dispatched by the sheriff.
“He said he was taking a coffee break,” Shows said. “He wanted us to go.”
Mississippi State arrived in East Lansing, Michigan for the game without incident, and played the game without incident.
“They had city police, state police, the FBI, the secret service, everybody there to see that nothing happened,” Ireland told SI. “The place was a fortress. I was so anxious to avoid an incident that I told Babe, ’Don’t worry; we won’t even so much as breathe on your boys.’ But they had a pretty good team, and when they got ahead 10-4, I told our players, ‘Go right ahead, breathe on ‘em!’”
Loyola won, 61-51, but the enduring image from that game took place right before tipoff. The two captains, Jerry Harkness of Loyola and Joe Dan Gold of Mississippi State, one black and one white, shook hands at center court.
“I thought winning the national championship was the greatest accomplishment of my life,” Harkness told the Sun-Times. “But then you get older, and realize things, and it’s not even close. Winning the championship fell way down to second place.”
Things changed in Mississippi as a result of The Game of Change, too. The Bulldogs weren’t quite sure what kind of reception they’d receive when they got back home.
“When we landed,” Shows told the Sun-Times, “there were cars for 20 miles waiting to meet us, and people cheering. That said something about what people were thinking. There was a movement toward change.”
Two years later, Richard Holmes enrolled as Mississippi State’s first black student, and no one noticed. “I want to believe we played a part in that,” Shows told the Sun-Times.
The two captains met again at a reunion ceremony in Detroit in 2008. They became good friends.
“Until then, they had only shaken hands,” Gold’s wife, Rosemarie, told the Sun-Times. Added Harkness, “We talked about the possibility of telling the story together.”
They didn’t get the chance. Gold died on April 13, 2011. Harkness went to his funeral.
“He was the only black man there,” Rosemarie told the Sun-Times. “I knew who he was. It was so touching. It was almost as if Joe Dan had come full circle.”
“I went up to the front, and the whole family embraced me,” Harkness told USA Today. “Then I went over to the casket, and to the left was the picture of me and Dan Gold shaking hands.
“I just lost it right there, at the head of the casket. I went back to the family, and we all cried. I wouldn’t have missed it. He would have made it to my funeral.”
Denton Ashway is a contributing columnist for The Times. His column appears each Thursday.