SAN ANTONIO – Many Loyola Chicago Ramblers history stories are being written this week here, and rightfully so. I took a deep look at the current-day Ramblers in Saturday’s paper, but the 1963 Loyola team and its legacy won’t be topped this weekend, no matter the outcome of Saturday’s semifinal against Michigan, or even Monday’s final.
I talked to two former Ramblers Jerry Harkness and Les Hunter about their inspirational national championship run 55 years ago.
Loyola Chicago’s basketball alumni meet annually to talk about the glory days. But the chatter among those legendary former Ramblers this past fall wasn’t just about what they had achieved.
The buzz was that their alma mater could have one of Loyola’s best teams in a long time. The old-timers were right: this is the program’s best run since the ’60s.
After the alumni watched practice one afternoon last fall, Ramblers past and present ate burgers together at Ireland’s Pub in the student center. The 1963 team’s NCAA title game victory against Cincinnati was playing on the television.
“I could tell this team was something special,” former All-American and ’63 captain Harkness said. “They were watching, and we were meeting them and talking. They started asking us questions about the final game. We got close.”
Embracing history helped today’s Ramblers understand how much their success in getting back to the Final Four is appreciated by the players who came before them. It further honors the groundbreaking accomplishments of that 1963 team by bringing that inspirational NCAA tournament run back into the national spotlight.
In March of the same year that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech and President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, four black players started for a national champion Loyola basketball team that furthered discussion of social change.
The now-famous tournament game making headlines again, known as the “Game of Change,” occurred March 15, 1963, when Loyola beat Mississippi State in the regional semifinals in East Lansing, Mich. Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, a segregationist, had filed an injunction to prevent the Bulldogs from leaving the state to play against a mostly black Ramblers team. But Mississippi State sneaked off anyway to play.
Harkness called the iconic handshake between him and Bulldogs player Joe Dan Gold at midcourt before the game a “phenomenal” moment.
“We’re looking at each other, and then that’s when I realized this is more than a game, this was history,” Harkness said. “I was just overwhelmed by it.”
A week later, the Loyola team that won its first four games by a 29-point average margin needed a last-second tip-in by Vic Rouse to beat Cincinnati for the title 60-58 in overtime. Hunter, the starting center, remembers the play vividly.
“Jerry was going up to take the shot, and I was preparing to rebound,” Hunter said. “He changed his mind and flicked it off to me. I put it up hurriedly. It bounced on the front of the rim and Rouse tipped it in. Game over. We just started jumping for joy.”