Houston, We Have a Problem

Above, Texas oilman Hugh Roy Cullen, who once vowed that “No nigger will ever set foot on this campus.”

In our last post, Jack Egan, Loyola’s feisty guard, tells a story about being recruited by Houston coach Guy Lewis. At the end of the story he says, “At that time it was all white, Houston was. And it turned out to be the most bigoted place we ever played!” Here’s the story of the Ramblers’ harrowing trip to Houston in 1963.

In Houston the Ramblers encountered the most hostile crowd any of them would be able to remember. It wasn’t just that they were coming in as a highly ranked team, a scoring juggernaut, and that Houston was fighting for a bid to the NIT. “It was very personal,” Ron Miller recalled. “It was very personal because we were black.”

The University of  Houston had begun in 1927 as a community college founded by Hugh Roy Cullen, an oilman, who once vowed that “No nigger will ever set foot on this campus.” But in early 1963 history had made a liar out of him. The school was in the process of converting from a private institution to a fully funded part of the state university system. It had recently admitted a few black graduate students, and in the fall it would be officially desegregating the entire campus. Not all of Houston’s fans were ready for the transition.

This was Loyola’s first time playing in Houston. The team was surprised by their reception. Hunter and Harkness both recalled coming into the arena through a tunnel in the stands. People were leaning over the railings into their faces, booing and gesticulating and yelling insults. They called the black players niggers. They called the white players albinos. They chanted “Our team is red hot. Your team is all black.”  (Inspired, probably, by the 1957 rockabilly hit “Red Hot” by Billy Lee Riley. The famous chorus went, “My girl is red hot, your girl ain’t doodley-squat.”) They spat. They threw stuff—popcorn, ice, pennies. At one point, Ron Miller remembered, Chuck Wood got hit with a piece of ice and for a moment thought he had been shot.

Cincinnati, another mostly black team, had been treated to this hospitality the year before, after one of Houston’s players got his face in the way of Bob Wiesenhahn’s elbow. “The fans got so outraged they started throwing cups of ice and money and popcorn and hot dogs and everything they could find,” Tom Thacker recalled. “They called us sambos and everything. They stopped the game and we had to go in the locker room until they cleaned the floor. We didn’t come back out until about 25 minutes later. They were threatening to clear all the people out and play the game without the fans.”

This intensity of feeling was not entirely new to Les Hunter, who had grown up in Tennessee. He remembered just wanting to get through the tunnel. He’d feel safe once he was out on the court. But Harkness, the New Yorker, was taken aback. “I felt the pressure” he said. “Are these people gonna come down on us—come out of the stands, during the game? That’s what I felt. I was worried.”

Houston, playing a full-court press and a slow, controlled offense, took an early lead. Loyola replied with a spurt and led 27-25 at halftime. At the start of the second half they stole several passes and put on another spurt, but they couldn’t quite shake the Cougars. They ended up with a narrow win, 62-58, and their lowest point total of the season.

The following year, Houston coach Guy Lewis (shown here with his constant companion, the towel) brought on two black recruits, Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney. In the 80s his “Phi Slama Jama” teams, led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, became nationally famous for their high-flying, fast-breaking, slam-dunking style of play.