To outsiders, it was all about race. To Joe Dan Gold and his Mississippi State teammates, it was all about basketball.
It was 1963, and the Bulldogs were set to face Loyola of Chicago, a team with four black starters, in the NCAA tournament. Gov. Ross Barnett, citing an unofficial state policy, said the team could not travel to East Lansing, Mich., to play the game. Other officials tried to solidify that proclamation with an injunction, but the Bulldogs snuck out of town anyway.
"There was absolutely no question from a team standpoint about what we wanted to do," said Aubrey Nichols, a member of that team. "I tell people this, it really was not a racial thing with us. It was a simple matter of wanting to go play and prove ourselves against some of the better teams. I think we did that to some extent."
Gold, who died Wednesday at 68, was team captain. He was a smart, conisistent player who coach Babe McCarthy said at the time was one of the most underrated players in th SEC. And while the whole affair has been romanticized a bit, Gold and his teammates were little more than helpless participants, awaiting word from their coach on what to do.
Just a year earlier, the Bulldogs had been denied – for the third time in four years – the chance to play in the tourney. They were in Jackson about to board a plane when the highway patrol showed up.
"They said, 'You can't go.' So we had to turn around and go back to campus," recalled George Oakley, who was a senior that year.
The 1963 team, which entered the postseason with a 21-5 record and the SEC title under its belt, only wanted a chance to prove its mettle against the best in the nation. But it was out of their hands.
"Most of the players were just huddled around with each other on go, ready as soon as the coach said we're going," Nichols said. "So we didn't get to participate in anything other than loading up and getting up there and playing."
However, there was great significance in the mere fact that all the Bulldogs were eager to play, that competing against blacks didn't bother them in the least. When Gold shook the hand of Loyola's Jerry Harkness before tipoff, he thought nothing of it, but others attached a great deal of symbolism to the act.
"I know this was a time in our country and in Mississippi where that was a big thing," said Kermit Davis, who served as an assistant under Gold for four years before taking over as MSU's head coach. "It wasn't really a big thing to Joe Dan at that time."
MSU lost, Gold broke his hand during the game, and that was it for his playing career. He became MSU's freshman coach the next season and did that until taking over for McCarthy in 1965. He spent five years as head coach at State.
Gold didn't have the best record – 51-74 – but Davis remembers it being a "pleasure" to work for him.
"He wasn't a real vocal type person. But he conducted practice in a great way, was really a tremendous guy to work for and work with."