PHOTO COURTESY MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY ARCHIVE, MISSISSIPPI STATE UNIVERSITY LIBRARIES
The Ramblers played all-white Mississippi State in the NCAA semifinals—but only after the Bulldogs sneaked out of Mississippi in defiance of the governor and a court order to make the game.
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It's likely most college basketball fans already know this, but everybody else should know that the Loyola Ramblers are having a hell of a year. They're currently dominating the Missouri Valley League with a 11-3 record in-conference, and 21-5 overall, including a December victory over number five-ranked Florida, and seem poised for their first trip to the NCAA tournament since 1985.
Which makes this as good a time as any to look back on Loyola's first great season, 1963. It was extraordinary for two reasons. First, the Ramblers won the NCAA tournament. Second, they did it as the first integrated team in college basketball. Their success changed the game forever.
Previously, the unwritten rule had been that no team could have more than two black starters. Loyola coach George Ireland had four. ("George didn't see color," Jack Egan, the team's lone white starter, said at Ireland's funeral in 2001. "He hated all of us the same.") Former Reader
editor Mike Lenehan published Ramblers
, a history of that season, in 2013, on the fiftieth anniversary. Steve Bogira
and Michael Miner
both talked to Lenehan about the book when it came out.
"Do sports diminish the prejudices of fans as well as players?" Bogira wondered.
Lenehan thinks so. When the team you pull for becomes integrated, "a little bit of your prejudice has got to be worn away. Sure, some people would watch Jackie Robinson and still feel they were superior to him. But that's not the way my father watched him. He loved the guy. And it had to have an effect on the way he looked at the races."