The Game of Change

basketballWhen the people of Starksville, Mississippi opened the sports page,  one morning in early March 1963 the locals were up in arms.  Fans of the Mississippi State Bulldogs should of been anticipating reading about the teams bid to the NCAA Tournament.  In the headlines of the sports page  was news about the Bulldogs upcoming opponent, the Ramblers from Loyola University of Chicago.  The problem was Loyola had consistently started four African Americans.  This was Mississippi in 1963, things like this just did not happen.    So instead of a scouting report and other news, they read a message from the Governor of the state, Ross Barnett.  Barnett stated, the team should not participate. As his justification was an unwritten rule that sports teams from Mississippi would never participate against any team having African American members.   So the people of Mississippi were instead encouraged to write the president of the university Dean W. Colvard demanding that the team not play in the upcoming game.

So president Colvard was expected to do as he had done the previous two years and decline the invitation.  This year was different, he decided along with the board that the team would play.  What followed is a story of courage, political intrigue and danger in the depths of the JIm Crow South.

This is the story.   After the decison to play the game was made,  a court in Mississippi issued an injunction making it illegal for any member of the team to leave the state to play the game.  Thus making an unwritten law, a written law.  The courts action led president Colvard, and head coach the popular Babe McCarthy to put into play a sophisticated and courageous contingency plan.  Learning at 8:30 p.m. the day before the team was to leave that the local sherriff was due to arrive on campus at 11:00 p.m. to enforce the ruling of the court.   Fearing, arrest or worse the President Colvard, Coach McCarthy, realized  if they were not on campus  they could not be served the court injunction.  So they and 6 reserve players snuck out of town and headed for Nashville Tennessee, and then on to the Memphis airport.  The rest of the team was to remain on campus that night, hiding out in a dorm room.  So with no one to serve the injunction to the sherriff was left wondering what had happened.

Early next morning once it was apparent that the coast was clear the varsity team was spirited down back roads out of town in a pre-dawn drive to an airfield.  From their they safely flew to Memphis, and after meeting up with the rest of team flew to East Lansning Michigan the site of the game.

And so a day or so later Loyola team captain James Harkness and  the Bulldog captain Joe Dan Gold stood at mid-court shook hands, smiled at each other.  The game was started, the ball was tipped and a blow for change was struck.  What happened during the game?  Well nothing, and everything.  No fights….No riots…No drama.   Bobby Shows, the Bulldogs star player remembered it this way.  “We just put on our tennis shoes, laced them up and played.”  We loved the game and we just wanted to play.  Harkness, recalled during the game no one thought about the black and white thing, or even the overall significance we just wanted to win”   It in fact was just a game, played like a million before and a million after.  Loyola won the game 61-51 and they went on to be crowned National Champs.  Mississippi State won the consolation game two days later and returned home.  Probably fearing the worse, the team returned home to a warm reception.  The same paper that had encouraged its readers to protest, found that its readers were overwhelmingly in favor of the actions of president Colvard.

Fifty one years later the game remains a little known event.  The story is stuck between more famous events of the era.  But events like this helped to change the way people looked at the world.  Last year there was a reunion game, Mississippi State visited the campus of Loyola, ESPN was there to televise the game, and many of the living team members were present in the case of Harkness and Gold they had become friends over the years.  They all spoke of the bond they shared because of their actions.

feature image loyolaAs I composed this blog, I read many quotes from the people involved in the game.  I drew heavily upon the accounts of the game from the Mississippi State University sports website.  Also there is an excellent half hour documentary, entitled, “The Game of Change”, it aired recently on KTWU here in Topeka, and I promise I will put in a order here at the Library to obtain a copy.  It is available through interlibrary loan as well, ask a librarian here if you’d like to order it.  It will cost you a $1.00 but well worth it.

Many of the comments can be summed up in this way–  Its been 50 years since this event.  So many of the key players in the drama are dead now and some passed from memory.  But all comments go something like this:

“The game and the decisions of the people of Mississippi State University help us all to remember what sports can do.  At its best the games we watch and enjoy serve a higher purpose amidst the competitiion.  They serve to bring people together from across all boundaries and cultures.  Sometimes as in this case the bringing together is done in defiance of what is expected, helping us to realize it is as easy and as hard as simply doing the right thing.”

Perhaps Tubby Smith, who was 12 at the time and himself went on to be the first black coach at the University of Georgia and at the University of Kentucky, and the current Texas Tech head coach, said it best, “those coaches and administrators made a choice; they made a choice to do the right thing.  They were sending a message at the time–that it was time to move beyond”