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GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI
Alexander Wolff
March 10, 2003
Forty years ago a courageous college president defied a court order barring Mississippi State from integrated competition and sent his team to face black players in the NCAA tournament
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March 10, 2003

Ghosts Of Mississippi

Forty years ago a courageous college president defied a court order barring Mississippi State from integrated competition and sent his team to face black players in the NCAA tournament

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His players obliged. "We were beating a student body, a system, the Klan," said Hunter, who with Rouse had graduated from segregated Pearl High in Nashville in 1960. "We weren't just playing a team, we were playing an ideology."

The meeting with Mississippi State might have been the mother of all such grudge matches. But in the run-up to the game, the Loyola players felt a welter of emotions. "We got letters from the Klan," remembers Harkness, the Loyola captain. " Ireland tried to keep us from seeing them, but the first few got through. At the same time we were getting pressure from the black community: 'You can't lose this game!' And there we were, in the middle." Meanwhile, as they awaited the arrival of the Maroons—the word maroon, ironically, was an old Southern term for a runaway slave, and the nickname gave way eventually to Bulldogs—the Ramblers couldn't help but admire them. "After we heard what they'd done to get there, all of us had our hats off to them," Harkness says.

Only just before tip-off, when he came out to shake hands with Gold, did Harkness realize what he would be a party to: "That's when I first felt that this was more than a basketball game. I couldn't believe how many flashbulbs went off, when all I'd done was shake his hand."

The Ramblers were 24-2, superbly conditioned and averaging almost 94 points a game. With an at-large bid into the field of 25 teams, Loyola had had to play the Ohio Valley Conference champion for the right to face Mississippi State in the round of 16 in the Mideast Regional. The Ramblers had beaten Tennessee Tech 111-42, a score so emphatic that it made McCarthy's pregame possum playing sound sincere. "I wish I'd stayed home," the coach said. "Nobody can beat a team like that."

In fact he believed his boys could beat Loyola the same way they'd won at Kentucky the season before: by seizing an early lead, then running their delay offense. Meanwhile Ireland, surveying the policemen who were securing Jenison Field House, decided to suspend his usual habit of punishing Southern teams. "Don't worry," he told McCarthy. "We won't even so much as breathe on your boys."

But the Maroons used their delay game to take a 7-0 lead in the first five minutes. "Then two of us had one-and-ones and missed," recalls Stroud. "It could have been 11-0."

At that point Ireland amended his instructions. "Go ahead," he told his players. "Breathe on 'em." Soon, with tighter defense and more patience on offense, the Ramblers pulled even at 12 and by half-time led 26-19.

Hunter, the Ramblers' center, had wondered if he would be cursed or spat at, and he took the floor hesitantly. The gentle-manliness of the Maroons surprised him, and their intensity impressed him. Mitchell helped Rouse up after the two hit the floor after a loose ball. "There wasn't one incident," says Mitchell, "and not because we weren't trying or were trying to be nice."

But Stroud wonders if both teams weren't affected by all the warm-and-fuzzies. Certainly the two weeks of turmoil had affected the Maroons' preparations. Amid the uncertainty, they hadn't practiced as regularly or as single-mindedly, and their rustiness showed. With the Maroons already trailing, Mitchell fouled out with six minutes to play, and Loyola went on to win 61-51. "It was no different," Mitchell said of playing against an integrated team. "They just seemed harder to keep up with and they seemed to jump higher."

The next day, without Gold, who had suffered a broken hand, Mississippi State beat Bowling Green, which had future NBA stars Nate Thurmond and Howard Komives, 65-60 in the Mideast Regional consolation game.

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