Loyola makes basketball history, part one

March 13, 2013

With the NCAA Basketball Tournament on the horizon, we look back fifty years at the remarkable--and historic--Loyola University basketball team of 1963.

The Ramblers were coached by George Ireland, then in his twelfth season at the post. Ireland’s teams played an aggressive, high-speed game that was labeled “organized confusion.” Loyola led the nation in scoring during the 1961-62 season, and was doing it again in 1962-63.

Jerry Harkness, an All-American forward, was team captain. The rest of the starting lineup included Vic Rouse at the other forward, Ron Miller at guard, John Egan at guard, and Les Hunter at center.

Egan was the only starter from Chicago. He was also the only starter who was white. That was notable in 1963.

Less than ten years had passed since the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Jim Crow wasn’t yet dead. Though some stellar African-American players had already emerged, there was an unwritten rule for college basketball teams then—you played only two blacks at home, and only one on the road.
 
Ireland delighted in ignoring the custom. He recruited the best players he could, and used them.
 
There were problems, of course.
 
“We would play games where guys from the other team were actually punching us on [the] court,” Hunter remembered.
 
When the Ramblers went on the road, they endured vicious taunting from opposing fans. In a few cities, the black players were banned from the “white” hotels. 
 
During a game against Wyoming, Egan fouled out. Pablo Robertson replaced him. It was the first time a major college put an all-black team on the court. 
 
Loyola won its first 21 games in a row, ranking #2 in the nation. Bowling Green finally snapped the streak with a decisive victory on its home court. The Ramblers bounced back and won three in a row before dropping their regular season finale to Wichita State.
 
That loss didn’t matter. With a 24-2 record and #5 ranking, Loyola was in the NCAA Tournament.
 
In the opening game the Ramblers overwhelmed Tennessee Tech, 111-42. The second round was scheduled for East Lansing, Michigan. Sixth-ranked Mississippi State was supposed to be Loyola’s opponent.
 
Gov. Ross Barnett of Mississippi didn’t like that. The year before he’d tried to keep African-American student James Meredith out of the University of Mississippi. Barnett had lost that battle—the federal government had sent in troops to put down riots, and Meredith had enrolled. 
 
Now the Mississippi State team wanted to play that “black team” Loyola. The governor wouldn’t allow it. He went to a friendly local court and got an order prohibiting his team from competing in the NCAA Tournament.
 
To be continued tomorrow...