College basketball hall calls its first team: The 1963 Loyola Ramblers
11/23/2013 11:30 PM
05/16/2014 10:48 AM
A newsreel clip on the Internet shows highlights of the 1963 NCAA Championship game between Loyola University of Chicago and Cincinnati, complete with long skirts on cheerleaders and fans in coats and ties. Standard fashion for the day.
But in a more significant way, this game appeared outside of the period’s norm.
Loyola’s Ramblers started four black players in its 60-58 overtime victory, Cincinnati’s Bearcats started three. Or, in the vernacular of the day, the championship game was the first with a majority of Negro starters.
Among them was Loyola’s Les Hunter, who has lived in the Kansas City area since 1976. He will join several teammates Sunday night at the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame ceremony at The Midland.
In the Hall’s eighth year, the 1963 Ramblers will be recognized as the first team inducted, and to Hunter the attention is well deserved.
“To be remembered 50 years later for something you accomplished, that’s a tremendous honor,” Hunter said. “This is an entire team award.”
One that will be presented to a group that has been somewhat historically overshadowed. Three years after the Ramblers’ championship, Texas-El Paso — then known as Texas Western — captured the NCAA title with an all-black starting five, and its achievement has been more wildly heralded. The team was the subject of 2006 movie, “Glory Road,” which depicted the Miners defeating blue-blooded Kentucky in the midst of a decade charged with social turmoil.
But Loyola helped pave Glory Road, and this anniversary year has included a trip to the White House to meet President Obama and enshrinement in the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame.
The NCAA championship wasn’t the Ramblers’ only landmark game.
In the Mideast Regional semifinal, Loyola played Mississippi State, an all-white squad that was barred from playing in the 1962 postseason by its state legislature because the NCAA Tournament allowed integrated teams.
Mississippi politics hadn’t changed in 1963, but the Bulldogs’ coach, Babe McCarthy, sneaked the team out of town before the governor could serve an injunction to prevent its departure.
The Loyola-Mississippi State game, later known as “The Game of Change,” was played at Michigan State, and Ramblers coach George Ireland remembered the setting in East Lansing as “a fortress,” with city and state police on hand to prevent any incident.
There was none. Loyola won by 10 and beat Illinois in the next game, advancing to the Final Four in Louisville. Ireland, who died in 2001, always said he admired the Bulldogs. But not others that got in the Ramblers’ path that season.
“He wanted to rub it in to the teams that had beaten him in the past, and the coaches he didn’t like, and there were a lot of them,” said Hunter, who recalled Ireland and Marquette coach Eddie Hickey coming to blows after one game.
Ireland, a Notre Dame graduate, understood basketball’s future better than most. Black players had been college stars on a national stage in the mid-to-late 1950s; Bill Russell and K.C. Jones at San Francisco, Kansas’ Wilt Chamberlain, Seattle’s Elgin Baylor and Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson were the most prominent.
But rosters didn’t include a majority of black players. Ireland, who had been Loyola’s coach since 1952, sought the best talent he could find, regardless of heritage. Recruiting took him to the South, where he lured Hunter and Vic Rouse from Pearl High in Nashville, Tenn. Jerry Harkness, a consensus All-America that season, and Ron Miller were recruited from the Bronx. The only white starter, Johnny Egan, was from Chicago.
The 1962 team finished 23-4 and was ranked 10th nationally but did not receive an invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
With a 24-2 regular-season record and No. 2 national ranking, there would be no keeping the Ramblers away from the 1963 tournament.
That year, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum and started to turn violent. The bomb at Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church killed four girls in September, three weeks after Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial. It also was the year of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
“We were right in the middle of it,” Hunter said. “A couple of years earlier, my high school team marched on the (state) capitol in protest.”
But when Loyola won the championship in a thrilling game — Rouse stuck back Hunter’s free-throw line jumper at the buzzer for the game-winner — Hunter knew something special, beyond a championship, had occurred.
It turned out that a newspaper man, famed Nashville columnist John Bibb, had come to Chicago to interview Hunter and Rouse on the eve of the Mississippi State game. Hunter had recalled that when his all-black Pearl High teams were winning state championships, they wouldn’t receive as much attention in the city’s newspapers as the white schools.
Now, Hunter and Rouse were the subject of a local-lads-make-good story.
“That’s when I knew what we were doing was a big deal,” Hunter said.