March 15, 2009
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
Change came before the madness.
At the time, though, that’s not how Aubrey Nichols and his teammates on the Mississippi State men’s basketball team looked at it.
In their eyes, Loyola of Chicago was just another opponent they were going to play.
Nichols said the Bulldogs had that confidence because their coach, James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy, told them it was going to happen.
That game is one of the most important moments in NCAA history.
Today, when 65 teams learn their destination for the 2009 NCAA tournament, it’s difficult to imagine men’s Division I men’s basketball being like it is without the patience, courage, and strength of all the participants in the game played March 15, 1963, at Jenison Field House in East Lansing, Mich.
On that day, thanks in part to efforts set in motion by MSU President Dr. Dean Colvard, MSU challenged an unwritten rule in Mississippi that no school could play an athletic event against a team with black athletes.
What followed was an event that changed the course of history in the NCAA.
“We weren’t mixed up with the sign of the times, we were not fighting for causes, it was pure and simple basketball,” said Nichols, a letterman at MSU in 1962-64. “We would have played girls, blacks, or anybody who had played well enough to have gotten to the tournament.
“As I look back, I see people say, ‘Did you know what it really meant at the time? No, not really. We were not out there trying to prove to the world we could break that barrier — not on purpose.”
But Nichols and his teammates did just that.
A first for MSU
The game was special for MSU in another way.
After winning the Southeastern Conference championship in 1959, 1961, and 1962, the Bulldogs didn’t get an opportunity to play for a national championship.
Instead, with records of 24-1, 19-6, and 24-1 they were left to wonder how they would have fared against the best teams of that era.
With Leland Mitchell, Joe Dan Gold, Stan Brinker, Doug Hutton, W.D. “Red” Stroud, Bobby Shows, Don Posey, Richie Williams, and Nichols, the Bulldogs had a formidable group that finally was going to get a chance to showcase MSU basketball.
Under McCarthy, “Babe’s Boys", as they were affectionately known, didn’t play a typical brand of basketball. Nichols said McCarthy’s style was simple: Give me two points and I will beat you.
MSU protected those leads with an efficient stall (there was no shot clock in 1963) that spread the floor and moved the ball in and out and from side to side.
But few outside of the SEC saw how effective that style could be.
In 1963, MSU concluded another SEC championship season with a record of 21-5.
This time, the season went on.
Nichols said the MSU players were pretty much kept in the dark about what was going on. All they knew, Nichols said, was McCarthy told them they were going to play in the NCAA tournament, and they believed him.
“There are some leaders in this world and there are some followers,” Nichols said. “McCarthy was a leader. I knew that from the first few minutes after I met him.”
Nichols said the wrangling about whether MSU would be allowed to play in the game didn’t take long. Lawmakers in Jackson attempted to use an injunction to prevent the Bulldogs from going to the NCAA tournament.
But McCarthy and others put plans into action.
Nichols said the players weren’t sequestered but they were asked to remain in their dorm rooms and have little contact with people outside.
In the meantime, Nichols said McCarthy devised a plan. He split the team into two groups and planned to send the first group to the airport to see if was stopped.
If that happened, the second group of players could sneak out of town.
But Nichols said the entire team was able to leave town and it met up with McCarthy with one goal in mind: To win a basketball game.
The other team
Jerry Harkness wasn’t sure if Loyola of Chicago would have an opponent for the first-round game.
But he realized there could be trouble if his team played Mississippi State. Harkness, an All-America guard who was one of four black players on the team, said the Ramblers received letters at their dorm rooms from the Ku Klux Klan warning them not to play Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament.
He said he and his teammates didn’t learn until later that coach George Ireland instructed school officials not to deliver any suspicious looking letters or postcards that might further inflame the situation.
As it was, the letters gave Harkness a sense of the courage and togetherness it took for MSU to travel to Michigan.
Harkness, the team captain, discovered the magnitude of the game just before tipoff when he shook hands with MSU captain Joe Dan Gold.
“The place just lit up (with flashes from people taking pictures),” Harkness said. “I had never experienced anything like that. It just seemed like the whole floor lit up when the bulbs went on simultaneously.”
Harkness’ primary concern was winning a basketball game. He more than did his part, helping Loyola of Chicago overcome an early deficit, and an attempted stall by the Bulldogs, by scoring 20 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a 61-51 victory.
“We were really beating teams pretty good until we came to them,” Harkness said. “They had a different type of offense and slowed it down. They could have easily beaten us. Mississippi State played very well. They told us we were quicker than most of the teams they played against, and they had beaten a lot of good teams.”
Harkness and the Ramblers went on to upset Oscar Robertson and the University of Cincinnati to win the 1963 NCAA title.
And while winning a national title was satisfying, Harkness said he has come to realize he is blessed to have been a part of something special. He didn’t realize it at the time, but the passage of time and the efforts of his son, Jerald, who produced and directed a documentary of the game, “Game of Change,” have helped him see how and why the MSU-Loyola of Chicago game helped change history.
“The Mississippi State game is the most important game I played in because we did more than win a game,” Harkness said. “We played a part in history because there was so much going on and we were just playing our little part and bringing this nation around to integration and a little bit closer as far as the races.
“Early on (I thought) winning a national title man, that’s awesome. But every year there is a national champion. You do not have a chance to play in a Mississippi State-Loyola game every year. You play in a game like that once. That’s why you realize how important that game is.”
Nichols, 67, admits he probably relives the Loyola of Chicago game every year about this time.
He remembers the Loyola of Chicago band playing the MSU fight song as the team hit the court. He doesn’t recall the band doing that for any of the other teams.
He thinks back to April 2, 2008, when members of both teams reunited in the state of Michigan to watch the documentary “Game of Change” and to spend a weekend being honored and remembering all it took to play that game.
MSU went on to beat Nate Thurmond (19 points, 31 rebounds) and Bowling Green 65-60 in the consolation game of the Mideast Regional.
Leland Mitchell paced MSU with 23 points, while Doug Hutton (14 points) and “Red” Stroud (13) also scored in double figures.
“We really believed we were one of the top five teams in the nation,” Nichols said. “All of us felt on any given night we could have beaten anybody in the United States.”
MSU didn’t advance to the NCAA tournament again until the 1991 season.
By then, the landscape of NCAA men’s basketball had changed, largely due to the efforts of McCarthy, Colvard, and “Babe’s Boys.”
“We all think we should have won the ballgame (against Loyola of Chicago),” Nichols said. “We were comfortable (after beating Bowling Green) that we proved we deserved to be there. We always will have a little regret not winning that first ballgame. Frankly, we
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.