Published in The Athletic March 29, 2018
By Michael Lenehan
CHICAGO — The first time Loyola-Chicago went to the “final four,” nobody called it the Final Four. They didn’t say “March Madness” either. It was 1963, Year One of the NCAA’s first long-term TV contract. A syndication outfit called Sports Network had purchased the right to televise the championship game for six years for a total of $140,000, a little more than $23,000 a year. The most recent NCAA Tournament contract is valued at about $771 million per year.
If that doesn’t tell you how much has changed since the Ramblers’ first trip to the semifinals, consider this: When viewers tuned in to watch Loyola and Cincinnati play that ’63 final, they saw that most of the players on the floor for the opening tip — seven of the 10 — were black.
So what, you say. What’s so momentous about that? But that’s the point. You think nothing of it, but in 1963 it was momentous. To use the words of Cincinnati forward Tom Thacker, it was a sight to make “your eyes pop out.”
It was the height of the civil rights era. A few months before, James Meredith enrolled as the first black student at the University of Mississippi, causing a riot that prompted President John F. Kennedy to call out 30,000 federal troops. A few months after, a bomb exploded in a Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four black girls. All-black colleges were not yet welcome in the NCAA, and coaches at overwhelmingly white colleges — which is to say, most coaches — were squeamish about having too many black faces in the team picture. They joked that they could play one black player on the road, two at home and three if they were way behind.
And yet there were Loyola, with four black starters, and Cincinnati, with three, facing off as the two best teams in college basketball. Both had endured the pains of prejudice — angry crowds, raining garbage, humiliation in restaurants and hotel lobbies. One night in Houston, according to a story told by Loyola guard Ron Miller, the pregame vibe was so intense that Chuck Wood, the team’s sixth man, thought he had been shot after getting hit by a piece of ice. In the second round of the tournament, Loyola played an all-white team from Mississippi State; because of an unwritten law forbidding them to play against integrated teams, the Bulldogs had to devise an elaborate ruse to evade a court order and sneak out of state to play the game.
In the final, Cincinnati was the heavy favorite, and the Bearcats led by 15 points with less than 13 minutes to play — an almost insurmountable lead in the days before the shot clock and the 3-point line. Loyola tied the game at the buzzer, on a classic fast break after a missed foul shot, and won it in the last seconds of overtime, 60-58. It’s remembered as one of the most dramatic comebacks in tournament history, but also as a milestone in the integration and evolution of college basketball. More than 700 coaches were there, watching what to many was a new style of play. One of them was a young assistant at the University of Utah, Morris (Bucky) Buckwalter, who went on to a long and respected career as an NBA coach and executive. After seeing Loyola demolish an all-white team from Duke in the semifinals and its dramatic comeback in the final, he realized that “with all the shot blocking and the rebounding and the high-flying dunks, it was no longer a horizontal game. It had become vertical.”
Some coaches also noticed that the presence of seven black players on the floor did not bring an end to civilization as they knew it. Loyola and Cincinnati gave them the permission that many of them had been waiting for. A door had been kicked open. Modern basketball walked through.
The coach of that Loyola team was George Ireland, a stubborn Irishman who had played college ball at Notre Dame with Ray Meyer, who would later become his crosstown rival as the beloved coach of DePaul. Ireland was less beloved. Though Loyola was a small commuter school at the time, it had an honorable basketball tradition. Its program had been started in 1913 by Lenny Sachs, a college basketball pioneer who’s in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. He took Loyola to the 1939 NIT, which was then the more important tournament, and finished his career with a winning percentage of .634. Coach Tom Haggerty went to the NIT in 1949 and had a winning percentage of .730. After five years on the job, Ireland had taken the team nowhere and had a winning percentage of .470. He needed a new approach.
Like many Jesuit schools, Loyola had a long history of welcoming black players. Its teams had been integrated since 1946. In the late 1950s, Ireland began actively recruiting in the places where black players congregated — on the playgrounds of Harlem and the Bronx, and at the National High School Basketball Tournament. Held at Tennessee State in Nashville, it was an annual event for all-black high school teams that were not allowed to play in their own state tournaments.
It was a time when black superstars were well-recruited but merely excellent players were not. In New York, Ireland found Jerry Harkness, who had led DeWitt Clinton High School to the 1957 city championship but couldn’t find a college that wanted him. And Ronnie Miller, a 6-foot-2 center (!) who wanted to go to Dayton but whose mother succumbed to Ireland’s Mom-focused recruiting. Ireland was the only coach who visited Miller’s home. “As soon as he walked through the door,” Miller recalled, “it was ‘Ronnie Miller, nice to meet you,’ and my mother came out and he went straight to my mother, almost passed me to talk to my mother, and he was there less than 30 seconds and he was complimenting her on how clean the place was, how orderly everything was. My mother had a cake. He ate the cake and he said, ‘This cake brings tears to my eyes. This is the best cake I’ve ever eaten.’ And he said to her, ‘I can tell you that every kid who comes to Loyola and spends four years with me graduates, period. There’s not one kid who’s ever gone four years who didn’t have a degree.’ And what does a mother want to hear? It’s like, we’re gonna take care of your son. And that was pretty much it. I said, ‘Mom, I really like the University of Dayton. And she said, ‘No, I like that George Ireland man.’”
Ireland found two more players at the 1960 tournament in Nashville: Victor Rouse and Leslie Hunter, from the city’s powerhouse Pearl High School. They were friends and rivals, and according to Hunter, they wanted to go to college together. Neither one had a solid college offer, but Ireland was happy to take them both. They had matriculated at a special summer school, the Tennessee State gym, where legendary coach John McLendon welcomed select high school players to scrimmage with members of his varsity. Tennessee State was in the process of racking up three consecutive NAIA championships (the NAIA being the only national athletic association that welcomed all-black schools). Given the cockeyed distribution of basketball talent caused by the racial attitudes of the time, Tennessee State was arguably the best team in the country.
McLendon championed the fast break and a press-and-run philosophy he had learned from James Naismith himself. He emphasized steals and especially rebounding as the crucial first steps in an offensive attack. A defensive rebound was the start of an offensive play, he preached. “Get the ball! Get it out! Get going!” The summer scrimmages were meant not only to practice the techniques, but also to build the endurance needed to play that style of game. “We would have two courts going,” Hunter recalled, “and he would never turn the air on or have the doors open. You played in the heat, three-on-three, full court. And you played constantly, because if you’d lose on this court you’d go play on the losers’ court. Just constantly going three on three.”
The only Chicagoan on Loyola’s ’63 starting five — and the only white guy — was John Egan, who didn’t look much like a basketball player. He was 5-10 and stocky. But he was smart, pugnacious and tough, with such a taste for contact that he used it to get into his rhythm at the start of a game. “For me,” he once told me, “to get hit or hit someone physically, it makes you feel better, it just loosens you up a little bit. It’s just a regular game now.” Egan was the son of a Chicago cop, one of nine kids in a thoroughly Irish Catholic family. They lived on Chicago’s southwest side near Marquette Park, where Martin Luther King Jr. led a fair-housing march in 1966. Many people in the neighborhood disagreed with Dr. King on the issue. One of them threw a brick that struck him on the head. Egan’s buddies in the neighborhood figured they understood his role on the team: As the only white starter and the playmaking guard, he obviously was the brains of the operation. According to the stereotypes then in fashion, the black players would run wild if Egan wasn’t there to channel their brute athletic ability. Egan liked to confound his friends by insisting that Hunter was the mastermind.
This was the team that won George Ireland his place in history. But it took him a while to embrace it. For most of the 1961-62 season, he started Harkness, Hunter, Egan, and Rouse, but Miller sat in favor of an experienced senior guard named Mike Gavin. Miller was just a sophomore, and having played center in high school, he was still working on his ball-handling skills. But as the season progressed, Miller was getting more minutes and scoring significant points, and some of his teammates thought he should be starting. Hunter believed he knew why he wasn’t: Gavin was white. Miller remembered that at some point Ireland tried to explain the situation to him. “It was code. Totally code,” Miller said. “He said, ‘I can’t play you and you know why.’ I don’t even think he said, ‘You know why.’ Because I knew why. And I didn’t even think of making a stink about it or being upset. You know, that’s just how it was, and you kind of accepted how it was.”
The Ramblers went to the NIT in 1962. After they lost to Dayton in the semifinals, Ireland changed the lineup for the consolation game against Duquesne. Maybe he had seen the error of his ways. Maybe he had crossed some kind of psychological threshold. Or maybe in his mind the loss to Dayton essentially marked the end of the 1961–62 season and the start of the next year. Whatever his reason, the Ramblers’ starting five against Duquesne was Harkness, Hunter, Rouse, Miller and Egan—four blacks and one white, the same as it would be for the whole of 1962–63.
“Ireland was created after that loss to Dayton,” Hunter told me. “That’s when he became George Ireland. Prior to that, he was just a coach.”
The 1962-63 Ramblers were a rip-it-and-run team of the first order. They scored more than 100 points in each of their first five games. At the end of January, they were 17-0 and averaging 97.7 per game. By the start of the NCAA Tournament, they were 24-2 and the highest-scoring team in the country, averaging 92.9 points. In the first round they defeated all-white Tennessee Tech, 111-42, the 69-point margin of victory an NCAA record that still stands. Then came wins over Mississippi State (61-51), Illinois (79-64) and Duke in the semifinal (94-75). The Ramblers put the Blue Devils away with the kind of display that had become familiar to Loyola fans, a devastating 20-4 run. “It was all over for Duke and everyone knew it,” Roy Damer wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “The crowd gasped in amazement and wonder at one of the most decisive spurts ever seen on a basketball court.”
The Tennessee Tech and Duke games were especially satisfying to Hunter. Years later he admitted he felt something extra playing all-white teams from the South. Ireland was known as a coach who liked to run it up, and that suited Hunter just fine. “I wanted to run it up on those guys,” Hunter told Ron Fimrite of Sports Illustrated. “We weren’t just beating players. We were beating a student body, a system, the Klan. We weren’t just playing a team, we were playing an ideology.” Against Duke, Hunter led Loyola with 29 points and 18 rebounds. He hit 11 of 20 shots from the floor. Duke’s Art Heyman, a white player from New York, had 29 points and 12 rebounds. He hit 11 of 30 shots from the floor. His team did not play in the final. As if to prove Hunter’s grievance, Heyman was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
The final featured a collision of opposites. Loyola was playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time; Cincinnati was looking for its third consecutive championship. Loyola had the highest-scoring offense in the country, Cincinnati the best defense. Loyola played a running, freelancing offense that Ireland called “controlled chaos.” Cincinnati played a deliberate, disciplined, low-scoring floor game and was expert at slowing it to a crawl when it had a lead.
So not surprisingly, when the Ramblers dug that 15-point hole, they thought they were sunk. But then Harkness came alive, making his first field goal, and Loyola began climbing back. Ahead by two with 12 seconds left, Cincinnati’s Larry Shingleton missed a free throw and Loyola started its fast break. Hunter took the rebound and looked to the side for Miller. They knew what to do. “Get the ball! Get it out! Get going!” Miller took the pass on the run and dribbled full speed down the left side. He stuttered once; some claim he traveled, but there was no call. He pushed a chest pass to Harkness in the corner, who dribbled once with his left hand and lifted off, turning in midair to face the basket squarely. With just his left hand on the ball, he pushed it up and put it through, a swish that tied the game at the buzzer.
Tied at 58-58 with 1:45 left in overtime, Loyola turned the tables on Cincinnati and began to hold the ball for a last shot. With about eight seconds left, the Ramblers got the ball to Harkness in almost the same spot he’d tied the game from. He went up but didn’t feel it. He flipped the ball to Hunter, who put up a 10-footer. “I’ve taken that shot in my mind’s eye 4,000 times,” Hunter said later. “And it’s always the same.” It clanked off the rim. But Rouse, Hunter’s teammate since high school, was waiting for it. “I’ve played with Les a long time,” Rouse told the press after the game. “So I was able to get into position.” He shot up out of the scrum, gathered the ball with both hands and gently banked it in for the game-winner.
Now, 55 years later, members of that championship team look at today’s Ramblers and their coach, Porter Moser, and see a team that’s similar to the one that almost beat them — the kind of team that always gave them trouble, the deliberate, disciplined outfits that stifled Loyola’s run-and-gun instincts. Miller says this team is “extremely disciplined, and that Coach has done a terrific job with them, how they play, with what they have. I’m very, very, very impressed with that. The guys are very confident too in the way they play that style. I would hate playing in that style. They remind me of Wichita State when we were playing. They were well-coached, they were very disciplined and we never beat them. They would get an eight-point lead or something, and then they would slow it down to the point where you couldn’t make a mistake. And they always beat us.”
“I just love the way they play,” Egan said the other day. “Moser invited a number of us to see them scrimmage before the season started, and it was apparent to me that they have 10 or 11 good ballplayers. And now I see how he can substitute. He substitutes liberally, unlike George Ireland, and it’s amazing the way he does it. I don’t think I’d be capable of it. He really uses the bench as well as anyone I’ve ever seen.
“We never played a team that moved like this team. When I say moved, I’m talking about passing the ball. You have a 30-second clock, right? They pass the ball so much, so often, so fast, that they use up 22 seconds. They’ve only got eight seconds to shoot, and they don’t seem rushed. The fact that they shoot it with two seconds to go is fine by them.
“I’ll tell you the truth: I have seen just one bad shot thrown up by a Loyola player in this whole tournament. Which is amazing. Every team throws up bad shots. They don’t do it. They continue to work the ball. And they think that everyone on their team is capable of making that big shot. And they know that, they believe that, and therefore the ball continues to move until they get the shot they’re looking for. Fortunately, they’ve been making that big shot. That’s why they’re still in the tournament. They made three big shots.”
How many big shots do the Ramblers have left? They only need two.
(Top photo by AP)