GAME CHANGER–In this image provided by author Michael Lenehan, the cover of his book “Ramblers” is shown. (AP Photo/Courtesy of Michael Lenehan)
by Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
ATLANTA (AP) — If you tuned into the start of the 1963 NCAA championship between little Loyola of Chicago and mighty Cincinnati, it looked like few, if any, of the college basketball games you’d ever watched before.
Seven of the 10 starters from the two teams were Black.
Fifty years later, one of the more revolutionary contests in sports has largely faded from memory. Ask any player at this year’s Final Four about the game that changed the color of college basketball and they’ll likely cite the 1966 finale, when tiny Texas Western, with its five black starters, upset all-white Kentucky. That’s because of the popularity of the book, “Glory Road,” and even moreso the movie released in 2006, which detailed the exploits of Texas Western and its coach, the late Don Haskins.
But if anything, the mood in the country was much more racially charged in 1963. That atmosphere provides the backdrop for “Ramblers,” a new book in which author Michael Lenehan pulls together all the disparate threads that produced Loyola’s serendipitous championship run. The previous fall, riots erupted at the University of Mississippi when a lone black man enrolled there, and the unwritten rule among college coaches was you could play one Black on the road, two at home and three if you were way behind.
“When I tell my kids those stories,” said Ron Miller, who became Loyola’s fourth Black starter at the end of the 1962 season, “they think I’m exaggerating.
“The night we played, none of us had a sense of what it meant. We’d run across some ugly scenes, playing in the South, but I grew up in New York City watching St. John’s and NYU, so I’d seen black players before and never thought much about it. But not long after we won, I went home for Easter break and so many people came by to congratulate me, my mom just left the door open. Then I went over to my cousin’s store. He said, ‘I’m really proud of you guys. I never thought I’d see so many Black faces on a court all at the same time.’
“That was the first time I realized it was more than just another game, more even than a championship game. It’s nice to be able to look back now, from a distance, and think we helped a little, maybe gave some people an opportunity that wasn’t there prior to that.”
Even easier to forget is what an upset Loyola’s 60-58 win was.
Cincinnati was playing in its fifth straight Final Four under coach Ed Jucker, who had played four Black starters the previous season. But after losing the first two of those with the great Oscar Robertson in charge, he changed from an up-tempo style to a more deliberate system and won back-to-back championships — beating Ohio State both times — before running into the Ramblers.
Cincinnati led 29-21 at the half after a miserable shooting performance from both teams, then 45-30 with 12:29 left. The Ramblers made one improbable shot to force overtime, then Vic Rouse rebounded a missed shot in the final seconds of overtime and carefully banked it off the glass for the game-winner.
For all that excitement, Lenehan wasn’t looking for a basketball story when he stumbled across a flashback show about the Loyola team on public TV in Chicago.
“Anybody who’s spent any time in the city knew about Loyola, but mostly it was a ‘Cinderella-type’ story. It wasn’t until the show that I realized there was a whole other dimension to it. A while later, I tried finding some books to follow up and there weren’t any,” he said. “The more research I did, the better it seemed to get. The story of how the Mississippi State team had to sneak out of the state in the dead of night — just to be able to play in the tournament — is one of the braver acts of defiance in the whole story.”
All these years later, the ties that knotted the Ramblers together, uncomfortably at first, have become as strong as steel cable. The one unresolved question that still bounces back and forth between them is what drove their coach, the late George Ireland.
“You could never be sure of his motives for anything,” recalled Johnny Egan, the point guard and lone White starter of the 1963 team. “In my mind, he was the guy most coaches think they are — a guy who wanted to win more than anything — and he eventually realized the only way to do that was to recruit Black players agrressively.
“In that sense, he didn’t care if you were green. He’d sit a Black player if the green player was better. I doubt he cared whether we played two Blacks, three or all five, though he certainly knew he could only get away with so much. And honestly, we didn’t feel like trailblazers. It was more like he was taking the chance to benefit himself first and us maybe a distant second.
“But you know what?” Egan continued. “I barely knew or even saw many blacks growing up. So all of us arrived with our prejudices, and because we were thrown together, we had to work things out.”
Chicago embraced them, reluctantly at first, if only because college basketball was down the city’s list of sporting priorities. The NCAA championship TV broadcast was in only its first year of national syndication in 1963 and the game was shown on tape delay — after live telecasts of the Illinois and Indiana high school championships and a Blackhawks’ hockey game. By the time it ended, most of the town was fast asleep.
“That might be one of the funniest stories I heard,” Lenehan said. “When Loyola went down by 15 points early in the second half, some guys apparently went from tavern to tavern making bets on the Ramblers.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.