It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Kidding aside, though, in the midst of horrible stories from the world of sports – Steubenville, Oscar Pistorius – it’s worth noting that sometimes sports lag behind society, and sometimes sports lead.
Fifty years ago, Loyola University of Chicago won its first and only men’s basketball championship. The title game, played against the University of Cincinnati, ranks as one of the greatest college basketball games of all time:
On March 23, 1963, the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team achieved its greatest moment when it rallied from a 15-point, second-half deficit to defeat two-time defending champion Cincinnati, 60-58 in overtime, in the NCAA Championship game. In a new book written by Tom Hager titled The Ultimate Book of March Madness, the Ramblers’ win over Cincinnati was named the No. 1 game in NCAA Tournament history, edging North Carolina State’s upset of Houston in the 1983 NCAA Championship game.
For the record, the 1963 title game eludes my memory, as I was just shy of 11 months old at the time. Nonetheless, I grew up with the knowledge that Loyola won a basketball championship, because (a) I grew up in the Chicago area, where this is one of the key pieces of knowledge you learn at an early age; and (2) my father got multiple degrees from Loyola and taught there for three decades or so, my mother got her undergraduate degree there, two of my siblings got their undergraduate degrees there, and at least two other siblings attended Loyola at one point or another.
I, of course, went to the University of Illinois. Which, if you must know, never won a men’s basketball title, a fact not lost on the people who run the Ramblers’ website, which gloats:
To this day, Loyola remains the only school in the state of Illinois to have won the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship.
In fact, though, Loyola’s 1963 basketball championship is far more significant that. From Sports Illustrated:
The 1963 NCAA title game between Loyola of Chicago and Cincinnati was surely one of the most memorable in tournament history: It was the last title game to be decided in overtime; the last one before UCLA began its intimidating reign of 10 championships, including seven in a row, over the next 12 years; the first one to be played under a lucrative new six-year television contract that launched college basketball into the big-money era; and, most significantly, the first in which the majority of players on both sides were black—or, as most of the nation was still saying back in March of 1963, Negro. Four of the Loyola and three of the Cincinnati starters were black. …
… By ’63, black stars were accepted by the public, but black teams, excepting, of course, the Harlem Globetrotters, were not. …
“The unspoken rule then was two blacks at home, if you had to play them, and one on the road,” says George Ireland, the Loyola coach in 1963. “I played four, and rarely substituted.”
“No matter where we went, people didn’t like us,” says Jerry Lyne, Ireland’s assistant then. Says [former Loyola forward Vic] Rouse, “We were, in fact, pariahs.”
Ireland still keeps the voluminous file of racist hate mail he received that season. “I had all the letters to the players come through me, and I kept the worst of it from them,” he says. “That may have been illegal, but I didn’t want them reading that stuff.” When Ireland’s team played Loyola of the South in New Orleans in the 1962-63 season, his black players weren’t allowed to ride in taxis or stay in the same hotel with the rest of the team—which consisted of [guard John] Egan and a couple of rarely used substitutes.
Ireland exacted revenge by deliberately running up the score on southern teams. “Yes, I poured it to them,” he says. “I was 20 years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee.” During the 1962-63 regular season, his Ramblers walloped Loyola of the South 88-53, Memphis State 94-82, and Arkansas 81-62; in the NCAA regionals, they trounced Tennessee Tech 111-42 and Mississippi State 61-51; and in the NCAA semifinals, they routed Duke 94-75.
Perhaps the most significant game of that season, though, was not Loyola’s amazing come-from-behind championship win over Cincinnati, but its Regional Semifinal win over Mississippi State in East Lansing, Michigan, earlier in the tournament:
Although the victory sent Loyola on to the NCAA Regional Final where it dispatched Illinois [hey!! – ed.] the game gained notoriety because of plethora of obstacles Mississippi State had to overcome just to play the contest. Because of unwritten laws that prohibited Mississippi State from playing integrated teams, the team snuck out of town under the cover of darkness before Gov. Ross Barnett could serve papers preventing the team from playing the game, to travel to East Lansing.
That’s right. The Governor of Mississippi went to court and obtained an injunction prohibiting the Mississippi State Bulldogs from playing Loyola in the NCAA tournament, because Loyola’s team was integrated. The Bulldogs defied the injunction, and bully for them, but … holy hell.
In my lifetime.
So, when I say the sports world sometimes provides us with great, inspirational stories, too, it’s equally true that the flipside of those great, inspirational stories very often is deeply ugly. Nonetheless, it’s a source of immense pride in Chicago that Loyola’s team not only won the NCAA basketball title that year, but defied racism and unwritten racists rules to do so.
For what it’s worth, I’m also proud that my family’s Loyola roots run deep. Even though I’ll always bleed Illini Orange and Blue.
But, goddammit, watch this, and tell me if it doesn’t give you chills:
I. Love. This. Game.