A game that should not be forgotten
Dana O'Neil [ARCHIVE]
December 13, 2012
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The significance was not lost in the moment. When Jerry Harkness extended his hand to Joe Dan Gold before the ball was tipped, the glare of the popping flashbulbs nearly blinded both men.

People understood then what was happening, what it meant that Gold, a white basketball player from Mississippi State, was shaking hands with Harkness, an African-American player from Loyola (Ill.) on a March day in 1963 in East Lansing, Mich.

Just five months earlier, with U.S. marshals and federal troops on hand to quell the rioting, James Meredith enrolled at the University of Mississippi, integrating the school only 90 miles from MSU's campus.

Less than a month after the game, Martin Luther King Jr. would write his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," an influential essay that spread across the nation.

In between the two seminal moments in civil rights history, a team from Starkville snuck out of town, defying a state injunction to play a basketball game against a team with a largely African-American roster.

Nearly 50 years later, that NCAA tournament regional semifinal game between Mississippi State and Loyola has been all but forgotten, rendered a footnote to our racial, social and athletic history. The significance that was present in that moment has eroded over time.

Thanks largely to the movie Glory Road, everyone knows about Texas Western's meeting with Kentucky, in which Don Haskins' team, with five African-American starters, beat Adolph Rupp's all-white Wildcats for the national title.

Many, in fact, consider it the beginning of the end of racial barriers in college basketball.

Except it wasn't. That game was in 1966, three years after the Ramblers beat the Maroons (as MSU was known at the time) in a seminal stop on their way to a Cinderella national title.

"When those flashbulbs went off -- boom, boom, pop, pop -- you felt the history of it right there," Harkness said, "but I don't think many people even know about it now. That game, if you ask me, was key. I felt like it was the beginning of things turning around in college basketball. I truly believe that. I just don't know how many other people know about it."

Not many, it would seem, including the current generation of players who enjoy a melting pot of hardwood, thanks to the bold actions of these two teams. They simply don't know about the game -- "I'd never heard of it before you brought it up," said Virginia Tech's Erick Green, echoing the sentiment of many players, coaches and fans.

This weekend in Chicago the two schools will try to change that when they meet for the first time since 1963 to celebrate the Game of Change. The schools will honor the surviving members and, on Friday, Loyola will host a screening of a documentary about the game. And at Michigan State, a plaque now commemorates the game outside of Jenison Field House, where the two teams met a half-century ago.

It is long overdue recognition -- sadly too late for many who have passed away -- of some of college basketball's most courageous pioneers.

But to truly matter, the story of the Game of Change, many believe, needs to continue to be told.

"In 1966, I had to leave George Washington Carver, an all-black school for first through 12th graders, and was bused to a white school," said Minnesota coach Tubby Smith said of his days growing up in Maryland. "That shapes and molds who you are. This game, it shaped and molded an entire generation.

"I worry today. What will shape and mold people? The changes, they're so subtle now. That's why I think we have to constantly educate and share this story, so people can connect the dots from where we were to where we are today."

The irony is, before the game began, even the central figures didn't grasp its importance.

They were as tunnel-visioned as players are today, concerned about one thing and one thing only:

"We just put on our tennis shoes and went to go play," said former Mississippi State player Bobby Shows. "I don't think anyone was aware of what it meant at the time. We just wanted to go play."

Playing, at least in big games, had been a big problem for the Maroons for years.

Mississippi State won the SEC championship in 1959, 1961 and 1962, but each year, the Maroons watched Kentucky represent the league in the postseason, victimized by an unwritten but largely enforced Mississippi rule that prohibited state schools from playing against integrated teams.

That year, 1963, Loyola was 24-2 and ranked third in the country. The Ramblers, with four African-American players on their roster, beat Tennessee Tech by 69 points, setting up a regional semifinal against Mississippi State.

"The biggest thing at the time," said Harkness, a two-time All-American, "is we didn't know if they were coming."

Neither did Mississippi State.

Gov. Ross Barnett, an avowed segrationist, made no secret of his stance concerning the game: The Maroons were not to leave.

But buoyed by an angry fan base that was tired of seeing its team stay home while Kentucky competed, and an equally fed-up coach in James "Babe" McCarthy, Mississippi State president Dean Colvard vowed to let his team play.

"It had begun to look as if our first major racial issue might pertain to basketball rather than to admissions," Colvard later said. "Although I knew opinion would be divided and feelings would be intense because of the unwritten law, I thought I had gained sufficient following that, win or lose, I should take decisive action."

The state, backed by the university board, wouldn't cede so easily. Sen. Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State student body president and cheerleader, convinced a judge to issue a temporary injunction to prevent the team from leaving.

But in perhaps the best end-around in sports history, Colvard directed McCarthy to head for the Tennessee state line and stay in Memphis while he traveled to Alabama for a speaking engagement to prevent the injunction from being served. The next day, an assistant coach ferried the freshmen and some of the reserve players to a private plane as decoys and, when they saw that the coast was clear, called for the rest of the team to join them.

"That was the nerve-racking part," Shows said. "We didn't have our coach. We didn't have half our team. We didn't know if we were going to be able to play the game. But it wasn't us boys. Don't build us up. It was Dr. Colvard and Coach McCarthy. Those two men had the backbone."

The plane carrying the players arrived in Nashville, where McCarthy and athletic director Wade Walker had flown into from Memphis. Reunited now, the MSU traveling party flew a commercial flight to East Lansing.

Meanwhile in Chicago, the Rambler players were quickly getting an idea of what they were up...
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