by Matt Caputo / @MattCaputo
Quick, who won the 1963 NCAA Tournament? It wasn’t Duke, and it wasn’t the University of Cincinnati, who were ranked No. 2 and No. 1 respectively by the AP that year. It was the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, a team with four African-American starters in a time when most of the country’s athletic programs were still segregated. Ramblers: The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball, a new book by award-winning journalist Michael Lenehan, follows Loyola-Chicago’s magical run to the title and how 1963 changed college hoops forever.
By the spring of ’63, basketball had only begun to evolve out of the strict and somewhat choreographed sport it had been born as. The creative, athletic play that later made modern hoops so popular had yet to be infused into the floor-bound, system-heavy basketball of the time. Lenehan, through research and an attention to detail, recalls an era when big-time sports were still racially divided and a turning point that led to change. The meeting between the Ramblers and the Cincinnati Bearcats featured a combined seven black starters in the first NCAA Championship game to be broadcast nationally.
Lenehan’s success is in the telling of the greater history surrounding the Ramblers and their impact on sports during the height of the Civil Rights movement. The vivid description of the central figures is also endearing. Lenehan described a young version of former Mississippi State coach James “Babe” McCarthy as “a sharp dressing, smooth talking young oil salesman.” It’s that attention to context and nearly endless detail that make Ramblers worth reading.
In the big game, the Ramblers nailed a buzzer-beater in OT to claim their only title against the defending champion Bearcats. Lenehan reminds us that the game was a win for equality on the field of play and its impact is still being felt.