'A handshake' resonates most from Loyola's historic NCAA title

'A handshake' resonates most from Loyola's historic NCAA title
April 5, 2013, 1:30 am
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Joe Posnanski

I think that was the first time I had seen basketball played above the rim for such a long stretch of time.
—Jeff Mullins

I look at this year’s Louisville team and that should give you an idea of how we played...it was organized hysteria.
—Jerry Harkness

They tell me it was a good game, it’s hard to remember games for 50 years. The handshake … that was something more than a game.
—Jerry Harkness

Think if you will about the single proudest achievement of your life. Maybe it was the moment you held your first child for the first time. Maybe it was the day you passed the bar or the day you graduated or the day you made a hole-in-one or climbed Everest or bought your first home or finished your novel or saved somebody’s life or hit the game winner or watched your son or daughter get married.

Think about your proudest day. And ask yourself: What exactly do you remember?

“A handshake,” Jerry Harkness says. “That’s all. Just … a handshake.”

* * *

Meet Jimmy Ward. Yes, if you want to really understand this story — this astonishing story about Mississippi State and Loyola — you must wind the clock backward. Otherwise, this will all seem comical. Whimsical. Ridiculous, even. It wasn’t any of that. It was dangerous and risky and bold and a bit frightening.

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To see that, you must meet Jimmy Ward, and that means going back and back, past high definition television and Facebook and 9/11, past the O.J. Simpson trial and the Gulf War and the Space Shuttle Challenger, past Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill and long gas lines and the first Rocky movie, past Watergate and the summer of love and two Kennedy assassinations.

To fully understand, you have to go back and back until all around is crackling black-and-white film and tension. You are in Mississippi. And it’s 1963.

“The first likely team to be faced by the Maroon club,” Jimmy Ward wrote in his newspaper, the Jackson Daily News, “has a first string that is all Negro. It would be most unfortunate if friction developed during this sporting contest.”

James Myron Ward had been around newspapers all his life. He grew up delivering the Daily News and, after he serving as a combat pilot in the army during World War II, he went back to the Daily News to be a newspaperman. He spent his long and fiery career fighting mostly for a single cause: Segregation in Mississippi.

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The words he wrote above were about a basketball game. The Maroon club — Mississippi State — was threatening to go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Mississippi State had been invited to the tournament three times before, but had turned it down each time. There was an unwritten rule in the state, a rule formed wordlessly in the trepidation after Brown vs. Board of Education: Mississippi teams were not allowed play in athletic competitions against black players.

The words “unwritten rule” suggest something unofficial and less than menacing. But it has always been unwritten rules that have crushed progress. It was an unwritten agreement that kept dark-skinned men from playing in the Major Leagues until Jackie Robinson crossed the line in 1947. The unwritten rule in Mississippi had forced three Mississippi State teams in four years to turn down NCAA invitation, twice giving up their spot to much-despised Kentucky. In 1959, an informal poll taken by a Jackson sportswriter had shown that locals favored the Bulldogs going to the NCAA Tournament 6-to-1. They didn’t go. The power of unwritten rules.

Jimmy Ward deeply believed in this unwritten rule. According to a fascinating article by David R. Davies and Judy Smith, Ward had crusaded against what he called ‘Race mixing” for a long time. He called the Freedom Riders “Idiotic agitating nitwits.” He called Washington “a model city for race mixing.” When it was ordered by the Supreme Court that James Meredith be admitted to the University of Mississippi, there was a photo of a burning cross on the front page of Jimmy Ward’s newspaper. The caption: “Greeting for Negro.”

And so, when word got out that Mississippi State might go to play in the NCAA Tournament — and not only play but might face Loyola (Chicago) with “a first string that is all Negro” — Ward wrote that threatening paragraph about potential friction. He then found out that only four of the five Loyola players were black, which led to this spiteful correction:

“Presumably, only four of the starting five are Negroes. If the Daily News said all five were Negroes it was an honest error based on the best sources of information then available. Or maybe a lucky white boy finally graduated to the first team.”

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With the correction, Ward ran a photo of the Loyola team, its one white player, Jack Egan, surrounded by four black teammates. It was, as author Michael Lenehan says in his excellent book “Ramblers,” a photo perfect for clipping. It was a call to action.

Many people took his cue and cut out the photograph and sent it along with extreme letters to the president of Mississippi State University. Those players weren’t going to the NCAA Tournament without a fight.

* * *

“You don’t remember anything else?” I ask Jerry Harkness.

“Nope. Nothing.”

“Not a single play? Not a basket?”

“No,” he said. “A handshake.”

* * *

That Loyola basketball team was a wonder. Their coach, George Ireland, had always coached his teams pretty conventionally. But he was a sharp man, and he liked to mix things up. It is generally believed that Ireland in 1961 was the first college coach to play five black players at the same time. In 1963, he had a team with five great athletes. His big men, Les Hunter and Vic Rouse, were uncommonly agile. All-American Jerry Harkness was an unstoppable scorer (21.4 points per game) who, at 6-foot-2, played big enough to match up with small forwards.

“Ireland had not always played such a full-throttle game,” Lenehan says. “But with this team he had two big guys who could rebound and make an outlet pass, and three guys who could press and harass. And all of them could run … so he let them run.”

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Loyola played in that time before the shot clock, before the three-point shot, back when many teams — Mississippi State among them — loved to slow down the game. The funny thing was: The more teams tried to slow down Loyola, the better it played. The Ramblers averaged 92.9 points a game. They were the highest scoring team in America. Their pressing, stifling, attacking style defied slow-down strategies.

“I look at this year’s Louisville team,” Harkness says, “and that should give you an idea of how we played. We would press them, make them play faster than they wanted, it was organized hysteria. That’s what we called it. Organized hysteria.”

Loyola reached the Final Four that year (before it was called the Final Four), and then proceeded to obliterate Duke by 19. That was a great Duke team (the Blue Devils’ first Final Four team). Jeff Mullins, who would be a three-time NBA All-Star, was on that Duke team, and so was National Player of the Year Art Heyman. Mullins remembered that before the game, they had only seen one blurry tape of Loyola, a tape of one of Loyola’s two losses. So it was quite a jolt when they faced the real Loyola and before anyone could get settled in, Loyola led 27-9.

“I don’t know if we were shell-shocked or what,” Mullins says. Duke did get work its way into the game, cutting the score to 74-71 at one point. Then Loyola unleashed one of their spectacular second-half runs, outscoring Duke 20-3 the rest of the way.

“Duke was a good basketball team, but they played right into our hands,” Harkness said. “They liked to run. We liked to run. Their strength was our strength. We were just better at it.”

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That led to the championship game against two-time defending national champion Cincinnati. It was a classic.

“I remember I was sitting in the stands for that championship game against Cincinnati,” Mullins says. “And after the first 10 minutes, I turned to my Dad and said, ‘I don’t think the ball’s come down below the rim this entire game.’ … They were just so athletic, I think that was the first time I had seen basketball played above the rim for such a long stretch of time.”

Cincinnati seemed to have things under control. At one point, the Bearcats led by 15 points. “They had scouted us so well,” Harkness said. The Bearcats, coached by Ed Jucker, then made the fatal mistake so many teams made against Loyola: They tried to slow things down. Cincinnati was a great slow-down team. On this day, though, it was the wrong move. Loyola’s defensive pressure and great speed kept Cincinnati from keeping possession. And the Ramblers chipped into the lead.

All game long, Cincinnati great Tom Thacker checked Harkness, who did not score his first field goal until late in the game. But Harkness did score the basket that tied the game and sent it into overtime. In overtime, his teammate Vic Rouse grabbed a rebound and put the ball back in with one second left to give Loyola the victory over Cincinnati and the national championship.

“I had always thought that was my greatest game and my proudest moment, winning the national championship,” Harkness would say. “That was the one thing I wanted … the thing we wanted. But I was young then.

“Now I look back, 50 years later, and I know that wasn’t it. I had no idea then. But my greatest game happened one week earlier.”

* * *

When Mississippi State president Dean Colvard announced that he would allow the Mississippi State basketball team play at the NCAA Tournament, he hedged. Colvard was a courageous man who dedicated his life to academics. But he also believed that he could not change the bearing of an entire state by himself. He released a statement that included this sentence: “I have decided that unless hindered by competent authority I shall send our basketball team to the NCAA Tournament.”

For two weeks, everyone tried to figure out what the heck that meant. Unless hindered by competent authority. What was that? What constituted competent authority? Colvard was bombarded by mail, some of it hate-mail (including clipped photographs from Jimmy Ward’s Daily News) but he said until his death in 2007 that more of the mail was from people who supported him and the team.

Mississippi governor Ross Barnett made a public statement against the school competing in the tournament (“I feel that it is not for the best interest of Mississippi State University, the state of Mississippi, or either of the races,”). But fewer and fewer people in Mississippi viewed him as a competent authority. As Lenehan writes in “Ramblers,” one particularly defiant school board member, M.M. Roberts, was so angry that he raised a motion requesting Colvard’s resignation. The motion was not seconded. The school board refused to keep the team out of the tournament. Meanwhile, Jimmy Ward continued his attacks.

Then, a state senator named Billy Mitts got an injunction from a Hinds County court to prevent the team “from allowing any athlete enrolled at Mississippi State University to compete in any athletic contest against members of the Negro race.”

Mitts and someone named B.W. Lawson then raced from Jackson to Starkville — 125 miles southwest — to find a local sheriff and serve the injunction. But in the meantime, Mississippi State coach Babe McCarthy caught wind of the injunction and … see, if you do not put yourself in Mississippi in 1963, this all preposterous and laughable, like some sort of madcap “Smokey and the Bandit” sequel. It doesn’t make much sense in today’s world. How could it have mattered to anyone — 16 years AFTER Jackie Robinson — that the Mississippi State players would face African Americans on the basketball court? Lenehan in his book quotes a letter written to the local paper that included this remarkable image:

“Only yesterday I saw a Negro maid walking down the street with the hand of a white child in each of her hands. I wondered just how much more bodily contact she could have had with these children who were in her complete care …”

Yes, how could it matter? But it did matter to some because they could feel their world slipping away. They could feel themselves losing their grip. The murder of civil rights activist Medgar Evers in Jackson … the arrests of the Freedom Riders … the rioting surrounding James Meredith’s entry into Ole Miss … these were the last desperate and terrible cries of a lost time. Mississippi was changing. The majority of people may not have been ready for all that was coming, but they DID want Mississippi State to play in the NCAA Tournament.

As Leland Mitchell, a member of that Mississippi State team told Lenehan, Mississippi State wasn’t a team running from the law. “This was more like a wedding,” he said. “Everyone was for it.”

There was the matter of the law, though. The injunction. Babe McCarthy and Colvard formed a plan. Well, it was probably McCarthy. He always had plans. He was a character who had never played college basketball or coached it before he got the job. He was an oil salesman. He never lost that salesman side of himself. Once in a heated argument with an official he said: “If that was a foul, I hope the Lord strikes me down right here on the spot.” After a couple of lightning-free seconds, he said: “See, I told you.”

McCarthy’s plan was convoluted but dazzling. First, he and Colvard would skip town. Without them around, the sheriff would have trouble serving the injunction. Second, the basketball players were sent back to the dorms EXCEPT a few of the backups and scrubs. The backups would go to the airport. If police stopped them, then the real team would go to a DIFFERENT airport and fly a chartered plane to Nashville to meet McCarthy.

All of it turned out to be overkill. The backups made it to the airport fine, and the rest of the team joined them. Why? Well, this is probably the best part: A deputy sheriff named Dot Johnson was summoned to serve the injunction. And Ol’ Dot Johnson did his duty … but maybe not as fast as Billy Mitts and the others might have liked. There are numerous legends, one that Dot took an hour and a half coffee break before setting out to find those basketball players.

Whatever legend is real, Johnson did not get to the airport in time. And the players flew to meet their coach and then flew to East Lansing, Michigan to play the game.

“I wouldn’t say they were VERY CLOSE (to not playing the game),” Lenehan says. “But I might say they were PRETTY close. … It could easily have gone the other way. If they hadn’t been tipped the injunction was coming, or if the local deputy had been against them rather than with them, the team could easily have been stopped at the airport.”

Back home in Mississippi, a state Supreme Court justice revoked the silly injunction saying it was entirely without authority of law. Well, of course. In East Lansing, the Mississippi State players ran on the court for their first ever NCAA tournament game against Loyola. As they ran on the court, a pep band — none of the players were ever sure which one — played the Mississippi State fight song. Years later, this memory would still spark tears in the eyes of some of the Bulldogs players.

“They were basketball players,” Lenehan says. “They wanted to play basketball.”

* * *

Loyola players did not know any of this, of course. Until a day or two before the game, they were not even sure which team they would play. Georgia Tech was on call if Mississippi State did not show up. That did not prevent the Loyola players from getting some racist mail.

“I got one that had KKK written right on the front,” Harkness said. He had grown up in New York and had not experienced that sort of blunt racism until the team had traveled to Houston to play a game earlier in the year. There in Houston, people in the crowd threw coins at them and screamed all sorts of names at them. In New Orleans, a little later, the team had to split up with the white players staying at a hotel and the black players at homes in the black community (“We got the better of that one,” Harkness said. “I remember the food was amazing and there was a band.”)

So, Harkness had some negative feelings about the South. He had some negative feelings about Mississippi. He felt angry about the letters and tense about the game. It was understandable. Only then, the most amazing thing happened. He walked out on the court for the opening handshake with Mississippi State’s captain Joe Dan Gold. Cameras surrounded them. Flashbulbs started popping. This was history, of course, the first time a Mississippi team would play against black players, and there was the handshake and …

… and then, Harkness felt the strangest emotion.

“Warmth,” he says.


“Yes,” he says. “Warmth. … Everything I knew and read about Mississippi — how they killed Medgar Evers and the trouble with the Freedom Riders and everything else — it was terrible. That’s all I knew. That was the image I had in my mind going into that game.

“But when I looked at his face, looked into his eyes, I just felt this warmth. It was like he was saying, ‘I’m glad to be here to play you guys. Let’s play some basketball.’”

They played. Mississippi State jumped to a 7-0 lead. Then the Bulldogs tried to slow the game down. You already know that slowing down the game didn’t work against Loyola. They came back. They took a lead. They never relinquished it. The game was clean and it was fairly close and Loyola eventually won by 10 points.

Harkness says that he remembers none of it. The game, he insists, is all a blank. It is 50 years later, and he says that his Loyola team is getting much more publicity about it now that they got at the time. Stories have been written throughout the year. The whole Loyola team was just elected into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Harkness is here in Atlanta to represent the team at the Final Four. He tries to remember something more about the game.

He cannot remember any of it. But that handshake, yes, he remembers every millisecond of that handshake, every detail, every color, every sound, the way Joe Dan Gold looked at him as they shook. Jerry Harkness says that even now, 50 years later, he can still reach back and feel just a hint of the warmth.

“They tell me it was a good game,” he says, and he laughs a little bit. “But that was just a game. It’s hard to remember games for 50 years. The handshake … that was something more than a game.”

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JPosnanski. Click here to subscribe to Joe's stories.