SI Vault
 
It Was More Than Just a Game
Ron Fimrite
November 18, 1987
On March 23, 1963, Loyola of Chicago and the University of Cincinnati met for the NCAA championship—and college basketball entered a new era
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
November 18, 1987

It Was More Than Just A Game

On March 23, 1963, Loyola of Chicago and the University of Cincinnati met for the NCAA championship—and college basketball entered a new era

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

At the very end, the long and tense game had an almost dreamy aspect to it. Larry Shingleton, the University of Cincinnati guard, said it seemed as if the players were all moving in slow motion, transformed somehow into shadows gliding in surreal patterns beneath the basket. Vic Rouse, the Loyola University forward, was aware of an apparent suspension of time, as if there were not just a few seconds left to play but an eternity. The score was tied at 58. The last shot of the overtime period would surely be taken by Jerry Harkness, Loyola's All-America forward, captain and leading scorer. And with seven seconds left, he did, indeed, have the ball. He dribbled in the left corner and tried with graceful fakes to free himself from the box that Cincinnati's Ron Bonham and Tony Yates had built around him with their bodies. Then, just as Harkness began to go up for his shot, Bonham got a hand—"two fingers," he remembers—on the ball. Harkness didn't want to attempt a shot while juggling the ball in midair, so he passed off to center Les Hunter at the free throw line. The clock had all but run out; Rouse floated to the right side of the basket, in the unlikely event that there was time for a rebound, as Hunter soared up and released the ball toward the hoop. "I've taken that shot in my mind's eye four thousand times these past 25 years," Hunter says. "And it's always the same." The players became spectators as the ball left Hunter's hand. "We all just seemed to freeze in place, "recalls Yates, the Cincinnati captain. "It was as if we were frozen in time. "

And so they seem to be. The 1963 NCAA title game between Loyola of Chicago and Cincinnati was surely one of the most memorable in tournament history: It was the last title game to be decided in overtime; the last one before UCLA began its intimidating reign of 10 championships, including seven in a row, over the next 12 years; the first one to be played under a lucrative new six-year television contract that launched college basketball into the big-money era; and, most significantly, the first in which the majority of players on both sides were black—or, as most of the nation was still saying back in March of 1963, Negro. Four of the Loyola and three of the Cincinnati starters were black. The only white players on the court at the beginning and end were Shingleton, Bonham and Loyola guard John Egan. And, with the lone exception of Cincinnati center George Wilson, who sat out four minutes in the second half because of foul trouble, every starter played the entire game.

While black players had been prominent in previous NCAA finals—the University of San Francisco's championship teams of 1955 and '56 were led by black stars Bill Russell, K.C. Jones and Hal Perry—they were still considered to be something of an aberration. Kansas's Wilt Chamberlain and Seattle's Elgin Baylor were the tournament's Outstanding Players in successive years, 1957 and '58, and Cincinnati itself was led into the tournament in the late '50s and early '60s by the great Oscar Robertson and All-America center Paul Hogue. By '63, black stars were accepted by the public, but black teams, excepting, of course, the Harlem Globetrotters, were not. That attitude may seem unfathomable, given the racial makeup of basketball today, but it represented the mood of much of the country 25 years ago.

"The unspoken rule then was two blacks at home, if you had to play them, and one on the road," says George Ireland, the Loyola coach in 1963. "I played four, and rarely substituted."

"No matter where we went, people didn't like us," says Jerry Lyne, Ireland's assistant then. Says Rouse, "We were, in fact, pariahs."

Ireland still keeps the voluminous file of racist hate mail he received that season. "I had all the letters to the players come through me, and I kept the worst of it from them," he says. "That may have been illegal, but I didn't want them reading that stuff." When Ireland's team played Loyola of the South in New Orleans in the 1962-63 season, his black players weren't allowed to ride in taxis or stay in the same hotel with the rest of the team—which consisted of Egan and a couple of rarely used substitutes.

Ireland exacted revenge by deliberately running up the score on southern teams. "Yes, I poured it to them," he says. "I was 20 years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee." During the 1962-63 regular season, his Ramblers walloped Loyola of the South 88-53, Memphis State 94-82, and Arkansas 81-62; in the NCAA regionals, they trounced Tennessee Tech 111-42 and Mississippi State 61-51; and in the NCAA semifinals, they routed Duke 94-75.

The Mississippi State game was closer than it might have been because Ireland admired the fortitude shown by the Maroons and their coach, Babe McCarthy, in coming north to play against an integrated team in defiance of a court injunction (see box, page 113). The game was played in East Lansing, Mich., and, says Ireland, "They had city police, state police, the FBI, the Secret Service, everybody there to see that nothing happened. The place was a fortress. I was so anxious to avoid an incident that I told Babe, 'Don't worry, we won't even so much as breathe on your boys.' But they had a pretty good team, and when they got ahead 10-4, I told our players, 'Go right ahead. Breathe on 'em.' "

The victory over Duke, accomplished against a team led by such outstanding players as Art Heyman and Jeff Mullins, was particularly gratifying, not only because the Blue Devils were ranked No. 2 in the country to Loyola's No. 3 but also because Ireland had said, "They don't play Negroes. Any good team with a predominantly Negro lineup could beat them."

The racial turmoil affected Ireland's players variously but profoundly. Egan, white and a native of Chicago, objected to Ireland's penchant for socking it to the southerners. "I didn't like the idea of embarrassing their players," he says. "And I thought it wasn't good for team morale to have guys sitting on the bench when we were up by 25 points. But I think I understood George. He was consistent, anyway."

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6