The 1963 Loyola Ramblers are the only team in our state ever to win a national championship in college basketball. Not Illinois, who have 5 Final Fours to their credit, and not DePaul who reached two Final Fours. Only the Ramblers cut down the nets at the end. However, the ’63 Ramblers weren’t just ahead of the game on the court. They were ahead of the curve on civil rights too.
Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team that Changed the Color of College Basketball, by Michael Lenehan. Ramblers is the dramatic, deeply engrossing, and meticulously researched story behind the 1963 NCAA basketball tournament, which featured seven African-American starters in the championship game. With the 50th anniversary of the Ramblers’ championship victory just around the corner, this is an important story that needs to be told. March Madness is the perfect time to reflect on sports and politics Civil Rights era. This team predates the famous Texas Western championship unit featured in the popular film “Glory Road” by three years.
I had an exclusive interview with Author Michael Lenehan (Q&A below) who was also recently featured in the Sunday New York Times, writing about the effect this story had on African-American athletes and on sports in general.
First, an excerpt from his NY Times article to set the scene, remind us of how far we’ve come, but also how far we’ve yet to go.
It was the height of the civil rights movement. A few months before the tournament, James Meredith enrolled at Mississippi, which led to rioting. President John F. Kennedy called out 30,000 federal troops — more than in the surge in Iraq — to restore order. A few months after the tournament, a bomb exploded in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., killing four black girls.
All-black colleges were not yet welcome in the N.C.A.A. tournament. Coaches at overwhelmingly white universities — in other words, most coaches — were squeamish about the number of black faces in their team photographs. They joked among themselves that they could play one black player on the road, two at home, three if they were way behind.
Earlier in the season, when their lone white starter was ejected from a game, they became the first major college team to have five blacks on the floor at once.
Q&A with Michael Lenehan, author of Ramblers
PMB: The Loyola Ramblers became the first major college team to have five blacks on the floor at once. That’s a milestone, and I believe it’s overlooked, why is that?
ML: It’s kind of a squishy record. I don’t think Loyola ever made any claim about it, and as I understand it this milestone was only made official a few years ago when the NCAA added it to the record book in its list of “firsts.” I think they put it in there figuring that if anyone had a prior claim they would come forward. I mentioned it in a story I had in the NY Times at the beginning of the month and someone did come forward to dispute it. But the Times did some research–God bless them for being the last paper that cares about such things–and found that the reader was mistaken.
But it’s not the kind of thing that would be easy to prove conclusively. I mean, how would you know, really, that it had never been done before? “Number of blacks” is not in the box score, and no newspaper would be likely to make it part of a game story. Even if one did you couldn’t be sure that it had never happened before. I wasn’t aware of it myself until I was nearly done with the book. I’ll be interested to see if anyone else disputes it.
Good points. Texas Western vs. Kentucky, the 1966 final, was the game made into a Disney movie “Glory Road” instead of this one, why? When you consider that this game featured more black players and occurred three years earlier. Is it because that game was an all-black vs. all-white match-up?
I think that was a big part of it. Also, it was the scrappy, hardscrabble border-town school against the stately, tradition-rich Kentucky blue-blood school, and the young upstart coach, Don Haskins, against the crusty old face of southern prejudice, Adolph Rupp. The good guys and the bad guys are so clearly delineated, the conflict is so clean and simple to summarize. I’m not real sure of my Hollywood lingo, but I think they would say the Texas Western-Kentucky story was higher-concept. What was important and significant about the Loyola-Cincinnati game is harder to say in a single sentence. It took me 80,000 words!
When researching the history for this book, doesn’t it shock you that all this happened just 50 years ago? That we were so far behind just 50 years ago?
Well, I’m not one who thinks we’re all that advanced 50 years later, but yes, it seems impossible that the game and the country were so different when I was a kid. One of the reasons I wanted to do the book was the feeling that younger people–my own kids, for example, who are in their 20s–would simply find it impossible to believe that some of these things ever happened. Players would be showered with garbage and called despicable names as they walked on to the court? The enrollment of a single black man at a state university would prompt an armed insurrection? The president would call out 30,000 federal troops–30,000!–to put it down? Or even that there was such a thing as an all-white basketball team in Division 1. Imagine that! It’s hard to imagine. I wanted to record the memories of these players while they were still firsthand.
I agree we have a long ways to go yet. If it weren’t for the ESPN 30 for 30 on Mississippi I would have forgotten all about the Ole Miss riots. Of course they did happen 15 years before I was born. Anyways, do you think Loyola basketball will ever return to the level of national relevance that it had back then?
I didn’t look very deeply into the present-day program, but the impression I have is that Loyola for a long time was reluctant to wade all the way into the big-time athletic pool. Or cesspool, as I tend to see it. I mean, I don’t blame them a bit. People tell me the current president, Father Mike Garanzini, is a little more interested in the benefits that big-time basketball could bring, and there are some indications that they are trying to raise the program’s profile. If they do want to step up in class–to get in with this new Catholic Seven someday, for example–I think they have a ways to go yet, but that’s what we love about college basketball and the tournament, right? A smaller program can still break through. We seem to have a Cinderella story every year. Fifty years ago George Ireland got a few key recruits and together they made history. Who am I to say it can’t be done again?
Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, a Google News site generating millions of visitors. He’s an author who also contributes regularly to MSN, Fox Sports , Chicago Now, Walter Football.com and Yardbarker
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