The 1963 Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team wasn’t known only for winning that year’s NCAA championship – though they did that, too.
At the height of the civil rights era, the team challenged racial barriers in collegiate sports, forever changing college basketball for the better in the process.
In what became known as the “Game of Change,” Coach George Ireland broke what had been an unspoken rule not to have more than three Black players on the court at any one time.
A new documentary called The Loyola Project tells the story of the 1963 Ramblers team and premiered Monday evening on CBS Sports Network, giving a play-by-play of the team’s struggles and historic successes.
Patrick Creadon, the director of the documentary, told WBEZ’s Reset that he and his wife hadn’t heard the story of the 1963 team even though they grew up in Chicago, and members of today’s team only learned about it during the 2018 Final Four run.
That’s when he was approached about making a film and revisiting the story.
“It’s a great sports story, but there’s a heck of a lot more to it than that,” Creadon said. “It’s really the story of these guys off the court. That is at the heart of our story.”
Loyola’s ‘63 team faced discrimination and harassment throughout the season because out of its five starters, only one, John Egan, was white, according an article from Loyola University Chicago about the Game of Change. When he got subbed out, that left five Black players on the court.
The so-called Game of Change happened in the NCAA Round of 16, when Loyola was set to play the Mississippi State Bulldogs. There was just one issue, however: The all-white Bulldogs weren’t allowed to play against an integrated team because of a state legislative order.
“Bolstered by a determined coach James McCarthy and a fan base that no longer wanted to see its team miss games, Dean Colvard, the Mississippi State president, ensured that the team made it to the game,” according to the article from Loyola. “Both the Loyola and Mississippi State basketball teams battled for the right to play. Loyola emerged victorious, besting their opponent 61-51.”
Creadon says one reason such a big piece of Chicago history didn’t receive much attention before was because “there weren’t any superstars on their team.”
“The Loyola Ramblers, there were five starters who played almost every minute of every game,” Creadon said. “And they’re not really well-known as individuals.”
Lucas Williamson, the current captain and starting guard for the Loyola Ramblers, also says he hadn’t heard about this aspect of the team’s history before he got to the university. Creadon ended up approaching him about narrating the documentary, telling him he actually has a lot in common with some of the players in the story.
“For example, Jerry Harkness, he grew up playing at the YMCA,” Williamson told Reset. “I grew up playing at the YMCA and Jerry is from Chicago. I’m a member of Loyola’s basketball team, so it kind of just, you know, made sense for me to have perspective and tell their story. This story is just a story that should be told and should be done, especially for young Black kids in the city.”
Narrating and co-writing the documentary let Williamson learn the team’s history more intimately, he says, and Creadon emphasized the importance of bringing a young person of color’s perspective to the film.
“I can sit here 60 years later and I can have my opinions about the coach and what he did and some of the choices that he made,” Creadon said. “But I’m not an athlete, you know, I don’t play at the college level. Lucas can weigh in in a way that we can’t and it just makes the movie better […] Lucas is the storyteller. It’s not just his voice; it’s his perspective, and I think that’s a really important distinction.”
One aspect Creadon says Williamson weighed on in the film was a part where the ‘63 team traveled to Houston and New Orleans during their historic season. The team faced some tough crowds down South that went beyond name-calling. People would spit at and throw objects at the players, and there was one game in Houston where one of the players thought he was getting shot at.
“They were afraid that they might not get out of the arena alive, is how bad it was for them,” Creadon said. “What is so heartbreaking to me is that it wasn’t just life on the road that was hard for them; it was life back in Chicago.”
None of the Black players could get haircuts at a barber shop across the street from campus, for example.
Players were also expected to attend Loyola’s dances as a team, but the Black players weren’t allowed to dance with the white girls.
“This wasn’t 1863,” Creadon added. “This was 1963.”
Fast-forward to today and the Ramblers are having another great season.
Williamson says things are positive off the court as well as during games.
“I mean, team dynamics today is as good as it’s ever been in my time here,” he said. “Guys hang out with each other off the court. Guys generally like being around each other. The locker room is as tight as it’s ever been, and I think you can see that in our play out there on the court.”
If you missed Monday night’s premier, a one-hour version of The Loyola Project will air on CBS and stream live on Paramount+ at 12 p.m. on Saturday, April 2.