A game-changer 50 years ago in East Lansing

December 11, 2012

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- Jerry Harkness drove from Indianapolis to the hills of eastern Kentucky for Joe Dan Gold’s funeral last year.

Harkness came to honor his foe from the 1963 NCAA Mideast Regional semifinal played at Michigan State. That game was perceived by many to be a racial pressure-cooker destined to boil over.

A bond between the men developed over the years that represented what sports competition is supposed to be all about: extending a hand before and after playing your hearts out.

So much ran through Harkness’ mind as he approached the funeral home and saw the loving smile of Joe Dan’s widow, Rosemarie, and the appreciation and tears in her eyes. Nearly five decades had passed since the “Game of Change,” as it came to be known.

Harkness was one of four African-American starters on the '63 Loyola University Chicago team. Mississippi’s fiery segregationist governor, Russ Barnett, had prohibited Gold and his all-white Mississippi State team from playing Loyola because of its black players.

Despite Barnett's bluster and ahead of an injunction, Mississippi State coach James “Babe” McCarthy snuck his team out of the state to face Loyola.

Nobody knew what to expect on March 15, 1963, when the two teams lined up at Jenison Fieldhouse. The FBI, Secret Service and various police agencies were on hand for possible action, and Harkness himself wondered what would happen as he walked toward Gold to shake hands with his fellow captain.

“I was immediately struck with the eyes of Joe Dan,” said Harkness, now 72 and living in Indianapolis, where he played for the Pacers. “His eyes and that little grin have stuck with me all of these years. His eyes said, ‘We’re together in this.’ He looked me directly in the eye. I felt a closeness. I saw respect.

“We said nothing, but it was like Joe Dan was saying, ‘We want to play hard. We don’t have these feelings (of bigotry).' Red Stroud, their All-American, also went out of his way for us.

"We were getting mail from the (Ku Klux) Klan saying, ‘You better not play!’ Oh, it was something. We were shocked and leery.”

As it turned out, Loyola won an incident-free game, 61-51, and advanced to win the national championship game over heavily-favored University of Cincinnati. The final took place in Louisville, Ky., with the boxing legend and civil-rights activist Muhammad Ali -- then known as Cassius Clay -- in attendance, and he shook the Loyola players' hands afterward.

Harkness became a pioneer himself -- first black salesman for Quaker Oats, first black sportscaster in Indianapolis and first black fundraiser for the United Way -- after meeting many high-profile civil-rights trailblazers, such as Ali.

Harkness ran track but didn't play basketball until his senior year at DeWitt Clinton High in Bronx, N.Y. A “guy” who watched him go against players such as hoops legend Connie Hawkins at the Harlem YMCA urged him to go out for the varsity.

“That guy was Jackie Robinson,” Harkness said.

After winning the national championship, Harkness said he was invited to a Chicago church to hear a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“King spoke and I got introduced,” said Harkness, disbelief still in his voice a half-century later. “I got a stand-up round of applause, and Jesse Jackson got close to us guys on the team, too.”

His connection to the civil-rights movement was as amazing as his lasting bond with Gold.

“Joe Dan and I would become close friends years later, and he told me they always played pickup games against black players in Mississippi,” Harkness said. “I went to the funeral and, next to the casket, was that photo of me and him shaking hands. I broke into tears with his wife and family.

"I went boo-hoo, and it all just flowed out of me. Our wives also became close over the years, too. It was really emotional.”

Harkness expects the emotions to flow again Saturday when the two schools play in Chicago for the first time since their historic meeting 50 seasons ago. That same night in East Lansing, Michigan State will commemorate the “Game of Change” by playing predominantly-black Tuskegee (Ala.) University, coached by former Pistons first-round pick Leon Douglas.

“That’s a real nice touch by Michigan State,” Harkness said. “I wish we could be there. With the lack of attention our game got, I’m not used to all that attention.”

Rosemarie Gold -- at the insistence of Jerry and Sarah Harkness -- will be in Chicago to represent her husband, who went on to become the head coach at Mississippi State and the long-time superintendent of schools Morgan County, Ky.

“At first I said, I didn’t want to come to Chicago,” said Rosemarie, who was married to Joe Dan for more than 44 years. “But I had supper in Indianapolis with Jerry and Sarah, and the third time Jerry looked across the table and said, ‘I really would like for you to come.’ Well, I had to accept. I told them, ‘I just feel drawn to your family.’

"It’s an amazing friendship. We all met back in 2008, when Jerry’s son, Jerald, was making the documentary ‘Game of Change.’ Then they had so many phone conversations and helped each other with health issues. My husband died of mouth and colon cancer, and Jerry supported him through the toughest times.”

Rosemarie paused and cried.

“That’s OK,” she said. “These are good tears.  It’s like when I cried when Jerry came to the funeral. It was just ... I felt such gratitude. I said, ‘You drove to Kentucky to honor my husband!’

"That picture of them shaking hands was by the casket, and now it is in the living room on a stand by the TV.

“Joe Dan told me, he didn’t realize the significance of the moment until all those flashbulbs popped. He said, ‘We were just there to play basketball.' And that’s all they wanted to do.”

Harkness said that game has come to overshadow the NCAA championship.

“Winning the NCAA was the greatest game in the world for me,” Harkness said. "But now the greatest game is the Mississippi State game.

"I hold it in the highest esteem. It had a lot to do with history, improving life and desegregation.”

It had everything to do with Joe Dan Gold.