The 1963 Loyola men’s basketball championship was more than 50 years ago. The trophy is in the Loyola hall of fame outside Gentile Arena, and inside the arena the players’ names and jersey numbers hang on the walls. Why do we need to keep talking about it?
The Ramblers’ dominant run through the regular season and playoffs was already noteworthy, but its impact on breaking the race barrier in college basketball was what made it stand out.
Four black starters, breaking the “gentleman’s agreement” not to have more than three black players on the court per team at the same time, opened the door for college basketball teams to be formed by their talent, not by the color of the players’ skin. Fifty years after the Ramblers won the championship, 64 percent of Division I college basketball players were black, according to a 2013 study from the University of Pennsylvania — far beyond the stipulations of the “gentleman’s agreement.”
College basketball is fully integrated today, but you knew all this already. So why is the Ramblers’ story important now?
When I hung up the phone after an interview with Jerry Harkness, the captain of the championship team, I was overcome with emotion. For the first time in my life I felt I had actually learned about the civil rights movement. I read the history books and watched the documentaries. I thought I was informed on the issue.
But after that interview, I realized I had listened to someone who actually lived the struggle. Over the course of an hour, a chapter in a history book from grade school became a shared experience with someone I knew. The stories Harkness told me of discrimination he and his teammates faced put a sour taste in my mouth, and I was flabbergasted.
The experience I had was more valuable than any textbook ever could be. I gained empathy, understanding and an indescribable feeling of guilt that it took me 22 years to make the realization that as a white man, I can never fully understand the plight of black people, past or present.
Black history month is not just about learning about the contributions of black people to society. It’s not just about learning about how black people faced discrimination. Black history month is about listening. It’s about going back in time and letting those who were long-quieted tell their stories in order to keep moving forward, and never make the mistake again.
There is nothing wrong with dwelling on the past, especially when it played such a role — bad as it may have been. I never thought basketball would be where I made that realization, but isn’t it ironic that sports, the one place that’s thought to be free of social conflict, was the learning moment I needed? It makes sense: If sports are devoid of partiality concerning color and creed, why should everyday life be any different?
When you hear about the 1963 men’s basketball team, know that it’s more than a team. It’s more than the inspiration for that bar you go to on Thursdays. The 1963 men’s basketball team was known as the “iron men” because the five starters would play all 40 minutes of the game. More than a game though, the team’s iron will in the face of hate, fear and discrimination helped forge the path to how we can have a black history month in the first place.
The story of the 1963 Loyola men’s basketball team is still relevant because the work they did is not done. A black man may be able to play basketball with a white man, but that same black man may still be a victim of racial profiling. A black man may be able to play basketball with a white man, but that same black man may have hate speech written on his dorm room door. The latter just happened here on our own campus at Loyola a couple weeks ago. The 1963 Ramblers paved the way for equality on the court, but off the court there is still a lot of work to do.
So why do we need to keep talking about the team? Well, actually, I don’t think we should be talking about it at all. For as long as the 1963 team is on this earth, we need to be listening