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The story behind the story of the game that changed college basketball

Mike Lenehan's Ramblers aims to go behind the headlines about racial integration and the 1963 NCAA regional semifinals.

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Pity the writer with a story to tell that everybody but him is telling. This story dates back to March of 1963, when the lily-white Mississippi State Bulldogs sneaked out of their state—in defiance of its governor and a court order—to play an integrated Loyola of Chicago team in the regional semifinals of the NCAA tournament. Mississippi State lost. So did jim crow.

Last December Loyola and Mississippi State commemorated the 50th anniversary of that game by playing each other again, in Chicago. The press jumped on the invitation to look back. The Sporting News: "Loyola vs. Mississippi State: The game that changed American culture." The Tribune: "'Game of Change' echoes through history." The Sun-Times: "Loyola vs. Mississippi State: Remembering the round when everyone advanced."

I read those stories and winced. Mike Lenehan knows more about that '63 Loyola season than anyone alive, I was thinking. Where's his story?

At the time, it was in limbo. Lenehan, a former feature writer, editor, and part owner of the Reader who parted ways with the publication when he and its other owners sold it six years ago, was just then enduring that awkwardly pregnant period when you've spent years writing a book, have finally finished it, and are waiting for it to come out. He offered each of the Chicago dailies a piece on Loyola-Mississippi State but they had staff writers for that. (He did contribute 1,000 words to chicagosidesports.com.)

Four years earlier Lenehan had decided the '63 Loyola Ramblers were a book begging to be written. Before 1963, a few schools dominated college basketball. Cincinnati, the school Loyola defeated in the NCAA finals, had won the championship the previous two years; Ohio State, the school Cincinnati beat in the finals both those years, had won the title the year before that. And in 1964 UCLA began its run of ten titles in 12 years. But in 1963 the Ramblers came out of (and would soon return to) nowhere. They played in an exhilarating fast-break style that broke other teams down and wore them out—even though it was Loyola that had no bench to speak of. And Loyola started four African-Americans. They were a team about which a book could plausibly claim on its cover: "Loyola-Chicago 1963—the team that changed the color of college basketball." That book is Lenehan's Ramblers, finally released, just in time for March Madness.

"I'm not that much of a basketball guy," Lenehan tells me. "It was the integration side of the story that really sucked me in. It's such a dramatic story that it made it seem to me like there's got to be a book in there somewhere." The integration side was two-pronged: the Loyola-Mississippi State game was a clash of black versus white; the Loyola-Cincinnati final was almost equally black versus black (the two teams between them started seven African-Americans).

So what were you thinking last December, I asked, reading everybody's take on the Loyola-Mississippi game but your own?

"I was thinking, 'I'll have the last word, or a later word than all of these stories, and a more permanent word, so it doesn't bother me much.' I guess as a Reader guy I was used to thinking of it as being later but better."

Lenehan goes on: "That was our weakness as a weekly, and as a publication that could not command our troops." Reader writers wrote what they wanted to write when they wanted to write it. "You know as well as I do how many dozens of stories we ran long after they'd ceased being news, and long after the dailies had ceased their superficial treatment of them. And we made our reputation coming in later and better. Don't you think?"

Well, we certainly told ourselves that, I said.

At any rate, Ramblers has now hit the book shops, and on March 3 the New York Times carried a column by Lenehan in its op-ed pages. When I asked Lenehan about the hardest part of publishing a book these days—researching it, writing it, or finding someone to put it out—he didn't hesitate.

"I'm not naive about what goes on in the print world," Lenehan says. "But still, I guess I retained a residual belief that publishers actually want to publish, and it seems that mostly they don't. I had a New York agent who worked out of a very well-respected agency who sent it to 12 or 14 nice New York houses that had names we'd all recognize. And I didn't get so much as a nibble." (This despite a name with some cachet in the east: Lenehan spent about ten years in the 80s and 90s as a contributing editor to the Atlantic.)

The New York agent finally lost interest, and Lenehan was on his own. Though he knew Doug Seibold, who long ago had written some pieces for the Reader, Seibold's Evanston-based publishing house, Agate, specialized in cookbooks, lifestyle books, and African-American titles. "I thought that might be me," says Lenehan, "but it's for African-American authors." But when he heard that Agate was launching a new imprint, Midway, for books of special regional interest, he got in touch "and we came to an agreement pretty quick. He was happy to have the book and I was happy not to have to publish it myself."

Seibold tells me, "Mike grasped that sports fans are the principal target for the book." Not that the racial content didn't matter, or that Agate's experience marketing its African-American line wouldn't come in handy. Still and all, Seibold says, "literate sports fans, people who liked Seabiscuit and Saturday Night Lights, will like this book."

Treating his readers as literate grown-ups, Lenehan wrote a foreword to Ramblers that makes fun of the breathless claim on the cover. He confessed: "I don't really believe that the Loyola Ramblers singlehandedly 'changed the color of college basketball,' any more than I think the Texas Western-Kentucky game in 1966 'changed America forever' (Don Haskins, Glory Road), or that the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird championship of 1979 'transformed basketball' (Seth Davis, When March Went Mad), or that North Carolina's 1957 victory over Wilt Chamberlain and Kansas 'revolutionized college basketball' (Adam Lucas, The Best Game Ever). A book like this is obliged to make such a claim on its cover, but we all know better."

I ask Lenehan if he got into trouble for undermining Seibold's cover. "That was me," Lenehan says of the cover's claim; he wrote that, too. "I wrote the foreword in order to contradict the obligatory hyperbole of the cover. I take full responsibility for that. I'm only playing the game the way they sketched out the rules, and my foreword made that clear."

Yet the '63 Ramblers were transformative. "College basketball was still a pretty highly segregated world," says Lenehan. "You had Oscar and Wilt and your superstars, but players like Jerry Harkness, who were only really good, could not find a way to go to school. Historically black schools in the south weren't even allowed in the tournament. The student bodies were white, the faculties were white, and the alumni were whiter than both."

Which is why, Lenehan says, when the nation's college coaches gathered in Louisville for the Final Four and saw seven black players take the court to start the championship game, "they couldn't help but think they could add a few more black faces to the picture. And that's what changed college basketball."

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