MSU, Loyola meet in rematch of landmark game
Mississippi State’s basketball team had to sneak out of state to
play a 1963 NCAA tournament game against Loyola of Chicago.
The travel itinerary won’t be nearly so complicated this
Saturday’s game between Mississippi State (3-5) and Loyola (6-3)
in Chicago will be celebrated as a reminder of the landmark contest
between that helped change race relations on the basketball
The all-white Bulldogs had turned down invitations to play in
the NCAA Tournament in previous seasons because of an unwritten
Mississippi law that forbade teams to play integrated opponents.
But in 1963, after winning the Southeastern Conference
championship, Mississippi State coach Babe McCarthy and others in
the university’s leadership helped facilitate a secret trip to East
Lansing, Mich., to allow Mississippi State a chance to play
Loyola won the game 61-51 and went on to beat two-time defending
champion Cincinnati for the NCAA championship one week later.
The score was mostly a footnote compared to the historical
significance of the game. Though it hasn’t received the same
publicity as other notable contests, such as Texas Western’s win
over Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA championship, it’s become more
appreciated in recent years.
Loyola’s Jerry Harkness – a guard on that 1963 team – referred
to the game as ”the beginning of the end of segregation” in 2008.
The NCAA picked the game as one of the 25 defining moments in the
organization’s first 100 years in 2006.
Still, most of the current players from both Mississippi State
and Loyola admitted they had no clue about that 1963 game until
recently watching a documentary about it.
”It’s unreal to think about everything those guys had to go
through just to play a 40-minute basketball game,” Loyola senior
guard Jordan Hicks said. ”The amount of respect of I have for what
they went through is huge … Being African-American myself, it’s a
remarkable story. I couldn’t imagine living in a world like
Mississippi State defied intense political pressure to play in
that NCAA tournament – even dodging an injunction that would have
prohibited the team from leaving the state. McCarthy left for
Tennessee and Mississippi State President Dean Colvard left the
state for a speaking engagement in Alabama days before the game –
and also before the injunction could be served. After the coach and
president left town, a group of trainers and the team’s reserves
quietly slipped away to an airport in Starkville, Miss.
When that group met no opposition at the airport, they called
for an assistant coach and the starters to join the rest of the
team in Starkville. The team flew to Nashville to pick up McCarthy
and head to the NCAA tournament.
”I love history and when you start really learning the dynamics
– it’s an incredible story,” current Loyola coach Porter Moser
said. ”Then getting to know the guys – people like Jerry Harkness
– and have them talk to the team is just a privilege. You can’t
forget you’re dealing with young people and take advantage of
Players from both 1963 teams will be in Chicago for Saturday’s
game. Many have become friends since the first reunion of the game
”We all shook hands after the game and then I figured we’d
never see each other again,” said Doug Hutton, who was a guard on
Mississippi State’s 1963 team. ”So it’s been a lot of fun to get
to know them a little more. It’s good the game is getting some
publicity – seems like it gets bigger every year.”
Hutton said the Bulldogs were simply excited to get a chance in
the NCAA tournament and didn’t give much thought to the
significance of the game. But the dozens of flashbulbs that popped
when Loyola’s Harkness and Mississippi State’s Joe Dan Gold shook
hands at midcourt pregame certainly provided a clue.
Les Hunter, one of the four African-American starters on that
1963 Loyola team, said he remembers a clean, hard-fought game.
”Considering we were just 19, 20 or 21 year olds, I don’t think
we fully understood,” Hutton said. ”We just wanted to play
basketball, and it was a great game. Like most close games between
two good teams, it came down to a few possessions at the end and
Loyola made the plays to win.”
Despite losing, Mississippi State returned to Starkville
triumphant – without having to sneak back into the state. There
were no legal issues awaiting them and no Mississippi State
officials lost their jobs or were punished. The team was greeted
warmly at the airport by hundreds of fans. Hutton said the reaction
around campus was largely positive to the decision to play the
Nonetheless, playing the game didn’t bring about immediate
change, but fifty years later there has been progress.
Mississippi State will be led by an African-American –
first-year coach Rick Ray – on Saturday and the majority of the
Bulldogs’ roster is African-American.
”It was an honor to be a part of that game, but there are also
some mixed emotions,” Hunter said. ”It’s good to know things have
changed so much since that game, but sometimes you wonder why it
couldn’t have happened a little sooner.”
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