Men's Basketball

Jerry Harkness: Athlete, Storyteller, Man for Others

Courtesy of Loyola ArchivesJerry Harkness (right) shook the hand of Joe Dan Gold to start the historic "Game of Change" in 1963

“I think I would change places with Jerry, when the chances were ‘Whose eternal salvation are you going to take, yours or his?’” Jack Egan, former Rambler men’s basketball player and friend of Jerry Harkness said. “I’ll take his.” 

Harkness, captain of Loyola’s 1963 men’s basketball national championship team, passed away Aug. 24 at the age of 81. Although his legacy has been shaped by his contributions on the basketball court, he is remembered by close friends and family as a man with a humble heart and selfless disposition. 

Born in Harlem, NY in 1940, Jerry began playing his sport as a kid — meeting long-time friend Elbert Shamsiddeen playing basketball together on a neighborhood team in the Bronx. The two became lifelong friends, and Shamsideen said Jerry would still come back to visit their housing project in the Bronx after he left to play for Loyola.

He remembers Jerry as someone who loved to sing, dance merengue and of course, win. 

“Five, ten, fifteen seconds left in the game, he’d make sure we weren’t gonna lose,” the 82-year-old said. 

With the Ramblers, Jerry was a two-time All-American and captain of the squad that won the 1963 NCAA Championship — Loyola’s sole men’s basketball championship. He went on to briefly play in the NBA for the New York Knicks before playing three years in the short-lived North American Basketball League (NABL) and finishing out his playing career with the Indiana Pacers in the American Basketball Association (ABA).

Courtesy of Jerry Harkness Jerry Harkness (right) coached his son Jerald’s basketball team when he was in third grade.

After retiring from professional basketball, Jerry went on to become Indianapolis’ first Black sportscaster. He also worked with 100 Black Men and other community organizations, always trying to give back to his community, according to his wife, Sarah. 

“He was just amazing,” Sarah, 69, said. “Just to sit back and watch him and his relationship with everybody, it’s just amazing. He was a really great man … he’d do anything for everybody.”

Egan said whenever instances of injustice were brought to Jerry’s attention, he would immediately become active in the cause — especially at Loyola. Egan said he remembers his friend as someone who was passionate about all sorts of causes, intervening even if they didn’t affect him directly. 

However, in the 1963 NCAA Regional Semifinal against Mississippi State University — the “Game of Change” — he faced an issue that affected him directly. The team’s Black starters faced discrimination, which included letters from the Ku Klux Klan and having to travel separately from the rest of the team.

That night, as one of four Black starters on the Loyola team — where Egan was the only white one — the historic photo of Jerry and Mississippi State’s Joe Dan Gold shaking hands marked more than just tip-off. The gesture represented an important subversion of segregation laws that forbade the Maroons from playing integrated teams, which they broke when the team snuck out of town to play the Ramblers. 

Courtesy of Jerald Harkness Jerry Harkness (left) at one of his son’s high school cross country meets.

However, this wouldn’t be the last meeting between Gold and Jerry, according to Jerald Harkness, Jerry’s son. During the filming for Jerald’s documentary “Game of Change” — which Jerry came up with the idea for — Jerald reached out to Gold, who lived near Indianapolis. He then offered Gold gas money so he could drive up to record an interview. 

The two former opponents ended up becoming close from that day forward, forming a friendship that lasted until their deaths. Gold was buried with the famous handshake photo in his casket. 

“[Jerry] was very, very good at making people feel good about themselves, because he always sought the positives of people,” Jerald said. “I don’t know a better compliment to give someone than that. If he came in contact with you, he would make the type of connection that would always be positive.”

While the basketball world may remember Jerry for his skills in the game, Jerald remembers his father fondly for his talents off the court — especially his creativity and his storytelling ability. 

“I think a lot of people overlook this part about [him],” Jerald said. “He was a huge storyteller, [he] had an absolute passion for movies … I remember him taking me to see ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind,’ and that passion for movies lasted our entire relationship together.”

Jerald currently works as a documentary filmmaker, a career that came out of a shared passion with his father, and lives in Indianapolis. He said he and his father used to talk about movies “twice as much” as they did about sports, and Jerry enjoyed pitching Jerald ideas and coming up with stories of his own. He even told his own life story through his book, ‘Connections.’

Courtesy of Jerald Harkness Jerry Harkness (left) with his son and actor Michael Warren for Jerald’s first documentary, ‘Steppin’.’

Jerald said after Jerry left television and got to working in radio, he started a local show in the early ‘80s. He said he remembers his father taking his tape recorder to local football and basketball games, and how much he loved covering those types of stories in his community.

“He would use sound effects and he would use music intros,” Jerald said of his dad’s creative mind shining through his work. “He had relationships with so many professional athletes, when they would come to Indianapolis … he got the best scoops.”

Jerry created memorable stories as often as he told them. Egan, 79, has fond memories of Jerry from their days at Loyola, their time together as teammates in the NABL and their lives after basketball. 

Egen said he will remember Jerry’s genuine selflessness when receiving awards, crediting those around him.

One of Egan’s fondest memories of Jerry’s kindness was from the team’s banquet following the 1963 national championship. Egan said Jerry had convinced their coach to give all the starters the Most Valuable Player award, and he did this without almost any of the other players knowing. 

“Most of the time you’ll hear someone say, ‘Well, you know, the credit doesn’t go to me, it goes to the other guys on the team,’ I hardly ever believe that they really mean that,” Egan said. “But Jerry actually meant it … He’s the only one that has ever convinced me.”

Jerry is survived by his two children, Jerald and Julie, his four grandchildren and his wife, Sarah.

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