By David Brandt/The Associated Press
Mississippi State’s basketball team had to sneak out of state to play in a 1963 NCAA tournament game against Loyola of Chicago.
The travel itinerary won’t be nearly so complicated this time.
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 alter race relations on the basketball court.
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.
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 that.”
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 teaching moments.”
Players from both 1963 teams will be in Chicago for Saturday’s game. Many have become friends since the first reunion of the game in 2008.
“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 game.
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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