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Thursday, December 13, 2012
A game that should not be forgotten

By Dana O'Neil
ESPN.com

The significance was not lost in the moment. When Jerry Harkness extended his hand to Joe Dan Gold before the ball was tipped, the glare of the popping flashbulbs nearly blinded both men.

People understood then what was happening, what it meant that Gold, a white basketball player from Mississippi State, was shaking hands with Harkness, an African-American player from Loyola (Ill.) on a March day in 1963 in East Lansing, Mich.

Just five months earlier, with U.S. marshals and federal troops on hand to quell the rioting, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, integrating the school only 90 miles from MSU's campus.

MSU-Loyola handshake
The handshakes between Mississippi State and Loyola players proved to be a powerful moment in college basketball history.

Less than a month after the game, Martin Luther King Jr. would write his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," an influential essay that spread across the nation.

In between the two seminal moments in civil rights history, a team from Starkville snuck out of town, defying a state injunction to play a basketball game against a team with a largely African-American roster.

Nearly 50 years later, that NCAA tournament regional semifinal game between Mississippi State and Loyola has been all but forgotten, rendered a footnote to our racial, social and athletic history. The significance that was present in that moment has eroded over time.

Thanks largely to the movie Glory Road, everyone knows about Texas Western's meeting with Kentucky, in which Don Haskins' team, with five African-American starters, beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Wildcats for the national title.

Many, in fact, consider it the beginning of the end of racial barriers in college basketball.

Except it wasn't. That game was in 1966, three years after the Ramblers beat the Maroons (as MSU was known at the time) in a seminal stop on their way to a Cinderella national title.

"When those flashbulbs went off -- boom, boom, pop, pop -- you felt the history of it right there," Harkness said, "but I don't think many people even know about it now. That game, if you ask me, was key. I felt like it was the beginning of things turning around in college basketball. I truly believe that. I just don't know how many other people know about it."

Not many, it would seem, including the current generation of players who enjoy a melting pot of hardwood, thanks to the bold actions of these two teams. They simply don't know about the game -- "I'd never heard of it before you brought it up," said Virginia Tech's Erick Green, echoing the sentiment of many players, coaches and fans.

This weekend in Chicago the two schools will try to change that when they meet for the first time since 1963 to celebrate the Game of Change. The schools will honor the surviving members and, on Friday, Loyola will host a screening of a documentary about the game. And at Michigan State, a plaque now commemorates the game outside of Jenison Field House, where the two teams met a half-century ago.

It is long overdue recognition -- sadly too late for many who have passed away -- of some of college basketball's most courageous pioneers.

But to truly matter, the story of the Game of Change, many believe, needs to continue to be told.

"In 1966, I had to leave George Washington Carver, an all-black school for first through 12th graders, and was bused to a white school," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said of his days growing up in Maryland. "That shapes and molds who you are. This game, it shaped and molded an entire generation.

"I worry today. What will shape and mold people? The changes, they're so subtle now. That's why I think we have to constantly educate and share this story, so people can connect the dots from where we were to where we are today."


The irony is, before the game began, even the central figures didn't grasp its importance.

They were as tunnel-visioned as players are today, concerned about one thing and one thing only:

"We just put on our tennis shoes and went to go play," said former Mississippi State player Bobby Shows. "I don't think anyone was aware of what it meant at the time. We just wanted to go play."

Playing, at least in big games, had been a big problem for the Maroons for years.

Mississippi State won the SEC championship in 1959, 1961 and 1962, but each year, the Maroons watched Kentucky represent the league in the postseason, victimized by an unwritten but largely enforced Mississippi rule that prohibited state schools from playing against integrated teams.

That year, 1963, Loyola was 24-2 and ranked third in the country. The Ramblers, with four African-American players on their roster, beat Tennessee Tech by 69 points, setting up a regional semifinal against Mississippi State.

"The biggest thing at the time," said Harkness, a two-time All-American, "is we didn't know if they were coming."

Babe McCarthy
Known as the Ol' Magnolia Mouth, Babe McCarthy won or shared four SEC titles while at Missisippi State.

Neither did Mississippi State.

Gov. Ross Barnett, an avowed segrationist, made no secret of his stance concerning the game: The Maroons were not to leave.

But buoyed by an angry fan base that was tired of seeing its team stay home while Kentucky competed, and an equally fed-up coach in James "Babe" McCarthy, Mississippi State president Dean Colvard vowed to let his team play.

"It had begun to look as if our first major racial issue might pertain to basketball rather than to admissions," Colvard later said. "Although I knew opinion would be divided and feelings would be intense because of the unwritten law, I thought I had gained sufficient following that, win or lose, I should take decisive action."

The state, backed by the university board, wouldn't cede so easily. Sen. Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State student body president and cheerleader, convinced a judge to issue a temporary injunction to prevent the team from leaving.

But in perhaps the best end-around in sports history, Colvard directed McCarthy to head for the Tennessee state line and stay in Memphis while he traveled to Alabama for a speaking engagement to prevent the injunction from being served. The next day, an assistant coach ferried the freshmen and some of the reserve players to a private plane as decoys and, when they saw that the coast was clear, called for the rest of the team to join them.

"That was the nerve-racking part," Shows said. "We didn't have our coach. We didn't have half our team. We didn't know if we were going to be able to play the game. But it wasn't us boys. Don't build us up. It was Dr. Colvard and Coach McCarthy. Those two men had the backbone."

The plane carrying the players arrived in Nashville, where McCarthy and athletic director Wade Walker had flown into from Memphis. Reunited now, the MSU traveling party flew a commercial flight to East Lansing.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the Rambler players were quickly getting an idea of what they were up against. Hate mail arrived in the dorms -- some directly from Ku Klux Klan members.

Loyola had been through its own racial strife before. Coach George Ireland loved showing up Southern teams and already had taken his squad to New Orleans and Houston, where they were met with less than warm receptions. In New Orleans, the black players had to stay with other black families, sequestered from their teammates, and in Houston, fans spewed vitriol and hate from the stands.

But this -- printed letters arriving directly in the dorms -- was worse.

"That was personal," Harkness said. "They know where you are, where you live. It was frightening."

Ireland eventually had the mail forwarded directly to him, and on March 15, the two teams made history.

"God bless those kids," Shows said. "We had no fans there, but someone played our fight song. I'll never forget that."


So what really happened in this game?

Nothing and everything.

No riots or fights. No drama.

Loyola won 61-51 and went on to win the national title, upsetting two-time defending national champion Cincinnati at Louisville's Freedom Hall in front of a crowd that included, Harkness remembers, native son Cassius Clay.

Mississippi State returned home to a surprisingly warm reception from fans. Shows remembers the plane flying over the highway and seeing bumper-to-bumper traffic below, with throngs of people driving to the airport to greet the Maroons. A postgame newspaper survey found that Mississippians were overwhelmingly in favor of letting the team play the game.

MSU-Loyola
Loyola beat MSU in East Lansing and went on to become what is still the only national champion from the state of Illinois.

Colvard kept his job, as did McCarthy. For a time, the players and participants were rightly feted. Harkness went with Jesse Jackson to listen to Dr. King speak, and was stunned at the number of people who knew about his game.

"We did it together," Harkness said. "To me, that's why it's so important. We showed you could do it together, without a fight."

The game didn't usher in dramatic change immediately. The SEC wouldn't welcome its first black basketball player until 1967, when Perry Wallace played for Vanderbilt, and it wasn't until 1968 that an African-American earned a football letter in the league.

But small change happened, a subtle attitude shift that was as important as the sweeping changes that would come down the road.

"My dad was pretty much a segregationist until the latter part of my college career," Shows said. "He wasn't Ku Klux Klan or anything, but he used the N-word in the house. He didn't know any better. But he was 100 percent in favor of me playing in that game. He wanted me to have a chance, and after it was over, I can't remember him ever saying anything derogatory after that."

Three years later, Texas Western beat Kentucky, the first champion with five African-American starters. That they beat the signature program of the era -- and more significantly Rupp, a man who did not dress an African-American in a UK uniform until 1970 -- gave history its more dramatic story arc to better tell the tale.

In 2006, that story came to celluloid life via "Glory Road," educating an entire generation in the process.

Comparatively, Loyola and Mississippi State's more subtle and peaceful role in integrating the game is remembered in small pockets. Tubby Smith knew about it when contacted by ESPN.com, as did Shaka Smart, a self-proclaimed history buff.

But for the most part, the game dropped off the historical radar.

Less than a year ago, the Bulldogs named Rick Ray as their head coach. He is the first African-American to hold the position at MSU, and, until he was told about the Loyola game, he had no idea about the role his new employer played in desegregation.

"I hate to say it, but before I took over here and heard about it, I had no idea. Zero idea," Ray said. "And when you hear, it makes you feel so badly not knowing about something so significant."

According to the most recent Racial and Gender Report Card completed by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, 60.9 percent of the college basketball population is comprised of African-American players.

More than 20 percent of the Division I head coaches are African-American. The importance of the game between Mississippi State and Loyola, then, is evident.

So why don't people know?

The lazy answer is to say that kids simply don't care, that the hyper-privileged athletes of this generation can't appreciate, let alone imagine, what Harkness and others went through.

That's simply not true. Ask players about it, educate them, and they are keenly interested.

"For a game like that, not to be highly publicized, for people to never hear of it, that's a shame," said Syracuse senior Brandon Triche. "It pretty much means everything -- to sports, to our culture."

Gavin Ware grew up in Starkville. The Mississippi State freshman knew of his state's role as both a blockade and a violent road to the Civil Rights movement.

What he didn't know is that his state, and more, his school, did something positive.

"I was shocked when I learned about this game," he said. "For a team to play an integrated school, to bypass all of those naysayers that said they couldn't play, that's something that we should never overlook. That's something this school can be proud of."

The lessons, if taught properly, can go even deeper.

In today's world of big business and big money, it's sometimes hard to find a meaningful reason for sports' existence. This game, plenty point out, serves as a reminder of what sports can do -- bring people together, across cultures and in defiance of what is expected to do what is right.

"The interesting thing about a game like this is, at the time, there were a large group of people that truly believed they were right, that these games should not occur," Smart said. "Fast-forward to 2012, or even 20 years ago, and people know that's just ludicrous. That's the exciting thing, the effect that sports can have."

Smart, along with his fellow coaches, admit it is on them to educate their players better, to carve out a few minutes when the opportunity presents itself to tell them about the history of the game and not just how to win the next game.

Current Loyola coach Porter Moser did just that recently. The Ramblers played at Michigan State last weekend and when the game ended, he and his team left the Breslin Center and went to Jenison Field House, site of that first game.

But the Ramblers and Bulldogs, who will square off at 8 ET on ESPN3, have an edge on everyone else. Playing this game has forced their coaches to educate the players on its meaning.

It's everyone else who needs to catch up.

"You can't teach or share what you don't know," said Smith, who was the first African-American head coach at both Georgia and Kentucky. "But we need to invigorate coaches like myself to bring this story to our team, to bring it back to people's attention. We shouldn't let people forget this game."

Perhaps after this weekend, they won't.