1963 game helped break down college basketball's racial barriers

1963 game helped break down college basketball's racial barriers

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SOUTHFIELD, Mich. (WJBK) -

The movie "Glory Road" tells the story of a basketball team out of Texas Western College that won the NCAA championship with an all black starting lineup.  The year was 1966.

However, few people know the story of a history changing game played three years earlier on the campus of Michigan State University.

In 1963, the three time SEC champions Mississippi State were having another successful season and had earned the right to advance to the Final Four.  There was only one problem.  The team that they were scheduled to face at the semifinals, Loyola, had four blacks in the starting lineup.

Back then, segregation was the law in Mississippi, and the governor at that time, Ross Barnett, made no secret of where he stood on the issue.  He would not allow whites and blacks to play on the same court and ordered the Mississippi State team not to leave the state.

"Personally, I feel it is not for the best interest of Mississippi State University or the State of Mississippi or either of the races," said Barnett.

Although Mississippi State won the SEC championships in 1959, 1961 and 1962, each year the Maroons, as they were called back then, watched Kentucky represent the league in the postseason robbed by an unwritten, but largely enforced Mississippi rule that prohibited state schools from playing against integrated teams.

"As you play the games, as you win them, as you win your conference, then you begin to wonder why can't we go to that next level, and all of us always felt like we were good enough to play with the guys that were winning national championships during those years," Aubrey Nichols, who played forward for Mississippi State from 1962 to 1964, told Broadcast Media Group.

Mississippi State President Dean Colvard vowed to let his team play, and then Coach Babe McCarthy came up with an elaborate plan.

"A gentleman that was the manager of that particular team, he was a close friend of mine.  They took a car and they drove to Memphis in order to throw the police and the press off, and they followed them while Babe and the team went in another direction," said Tuskeegee men's basketball head coach Leon Douglas.

The head coach even had to hide in the backseat of a car to avoid being seen as they drove to the airport.  Their destination was East Lansing, Michigan, the home of Michigan State University.  The Michigan State University president had agreed to host both teams allowing them to play on campus at Jenison Field House.

"It speaks for players of every color, of every nationality, that there were barriers out there and sometimes they're big barriers, and to think this university was part of breaking one of them and in some ways part of opening its arms up to it, I'm proud to be a Spartan," said current Michigan State University men's basketball head coach Tom Izzo.

Mississippi State wasn't the only team that was feeling the social pressure.  In Chicago, the Loyola Rambler players were quickly getting an idea of what they were up against.

"We had started receiving letters and mail at our Chicago dorm, and it was from the Klan, and it was bad, and you better not play in this game against Mississippi, and you don't have the right.  And then the coach came over and intercepted a lot of that mail.  So prior to that, we didn't realize to what extent this meant this game," Jerry Harkness, who played for Loyola from 1959 to 1963, told Webstream Production.  "So we knew it was more than just a game, that it was history."

Despite all of the anger and death threats, the game went on without any protest or violence, and when Jerry Harkness and Joe Dan Gold shook hands at center court of Jenison Field House, they not only made basketball history, they made racial history.

"What Michigan State did back in those days, it's unbelievable where we've come as a country from a game that happened all those years ago to now just to see everybody blended as one," said former NBA player and Michigan State alumnus Steve Smith.

In the end Loyola won 61 to 51 and went on to win the national title.  Mississippi State returned home to a surprisingly warm reception from fans.  However, bigger than all of that the racial barriers in college basketball began to fall that night on the campus of Michigan State University.

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