Someone asked McCarthy what kind of reception he expected back in Starkville. "I don't think they're going to shoot us down," he said.
Indeed, 700 people greeted the team's charter. "We saw the lines of cars backed up from the airport," Hutton remembers. "Then someone said, 'Do you reckon they're here to welcome us back, or send us back?' But over all these years, I don't know that any of us have heard any negative comments."
"You look back," says Stroud, "the way TV hypes every little bitty thing now, and it was one of the biggest, most historical things in the world. And it passed us by."
Eight years later Hutton would be a high school coach in Florence, Miss., during the early days of statewide public school desegregation. One day in practice he gave each of his players a ball and asked them to line up for rebound-your-own-shot drills. One black kid would shoot once or twice, then scurry off to retrieve other lads' balls. "Thomas!" Hutton found himself yelling. "You quit chasing those white kids' balls! Let 'em chase their own balls!"
Harkness has his own benchmark moment. During its run to the 1996 Final Four, Mississippi State played in the Southeast subregional in Indianapolis, and a few older, white Bulldogs fans wandered into the sporting-goods store the old Loyola captain then owned in a downtown mall. Harkness spotted the group, dressed in maroon and of a certain age, and went over to introduce himself. "They remembered everything about the game," he recalls. "We embraced. They were almost in tears. They didn't want to leave my store.
"You know, back then we thought it was going to be another situation like [when we played in] Houston or New Orleans. And then those bulbs started flashing. But isn't that how life goes? People go along with the norm until someone takes the lead. And then people are ready."
The game did little immediately to unite white Mississippians. The Rebel Underground, a brotherhood of segregationist students born on the Ole Miss campus in the fall of 1962, distributed a mimeographed flyer around campus: "Niggers 61—nigger lovers 51. MSU, being the first Mississippi school to be defeated by a bunch of niggers, has caused our forefathers to turn over in their graves.... Stand up and be counted now or forever suffer the consequences."
But shortly after Loyola won its NCAA title a week later, Robert Taylor, Mississippi State's student body president, wrote Ireland a letter of congratulations. "All the students at Mississippi State were rooting for you in the NCAA tournament and were overjoyed when your team made the magnificent comeback to beat Cincinnati," it read. "We were honored to have played you and look forward to meeting you again."
To judge by those two extremes, opinion in the state seemed to be sharply split. But the gubernatorial campaign in the fall of 1963, in which Mississippians chose a successor to Barnett, turned out to be the last in which candidates used the n word on the stump, and even the victor, segregationist Paul Johnson, spoke healing words in his inaugural address: "If we must fight, it will not be a rearguard defense of yesterday. It will be an all-out assault for our share of tomorrow.... God bless every one of you, all Mississippians, black and white."
Two years later, during summer term, Richard Holmes, the foster son of a Starkville physician, integrated the Mississippi State campus without incident. Holmes happened to enroll the same July day that former Illinois governor and U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Adlai Stevenson, was buried. The school president had ordered that the flag be flown at half-mast. "When it was flown at full-mast the next day," Colvard would write in his memoir, Mixed Emotions, "it would symbolize not just another day but a sense of liberation." A basketball game had helped make possible the tranquility of that day. Even people who thought they supported Mississippi's "closed society," it turned out, weren't absolute segregationists when faced with one of the costs of keeping the races separate.