Game of Change

by January 07, 2013

by Rick Telander / @ricktelander

It seems crazy. It seems as though it could not have happened ever, or if it did, it must have occurred a thousand years ago or on another planet.

But only 50 years ago in East Lansing, MI, two college basketball teams met in a Mideast Regional NCAA Tournament game and history was created in a most stunning—some would say, incomprehensibly symbolic, even banal and baffling way: an all-white team, Mississippi State, risked life and soul to play a mixed-race team, Loyola of Chicago, for the first time in Mississippi state history.

Just a half century ago, an unwritten but zealously adhered to state law said that no Mississippi university basketball team could compete against a team that had an African-American on it. Just would not play. Never. Wouldn’t schedule such a game. Wouldn’t show up if it occurred. And if folks thought this was a joke, they could contact the Ku Klux Klan, which was willing to burn crosses, terrorize and kill to prevent the mixing of races in anything other than relationships resembling Jim Crow subservience.

This was 1963 America. I was 14. I was sheltered from the worst of racial conflict because I lived in the rural North, and I was white. But I heard the hum of it, felt the flames. As a child I went down South to visit my grandparents in coastal Georgia. I had seen the “Whites Only” drinking fountains and restrooms, and had been scared by the knowledge that the world was not what I thought it was.

The now-legendary “Game of Change” occurred the way all breaks with evil history occur, through courage, defiance, desire and, yes, a tad bit of “We just want to play!” The Mississippi State president, a brave man named Dean Colvard, slipped out of the state—not even telling his wife where he was going—so he could not be served an injunction by Mississippi lawmen trying to prevent the Southeast Conference champion Bulldogs from heading North. Coach Babe McCarthy, with assistant Wade Walker, slipped out to Nashville soon after. There, the small plane carrying the team’s players—who had also made an FBI-like exit from Starkville—touched down to pick up the men and continue on to the Tourney.

As I stood on a recent evening in a Loyola hall, leading a discussion between almost all the surviving players, coaches, and managers from both sides in that Game of Change, I was suddenly overwhelmed thinking about the handshake, seen in the photo above, before the opening tip, between MSU’s Stan Brinker and Loyola’s Vic Rouse, who would help his team to the NCAA Championship that season.

Yes, it was simple. No, it was not easy. In the half-century celebration game that took place between MSU and Loyola on December 14, it was amusing to see Mississippi State have as many as five black players on the floor at one time, under a black head coach, Rick Ray.

But here are the old players now, all of them friends, black and white, still tall and funny and competitive.

“Really, we just wanted to play basketball,” says MSU’s Bobby Shows.

“We were concerned,” remembers Loyola All-American Jerry Harkness. “We got threatening letters from the Klan. And then black people in Chicago said, ‘You better not LOSE!'”

The game was beautiful. Loyola won, 61-51. It was clean and tough and respectful. And 50 seasons later, we’d be fools to forget it.