RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
As all basketball fans know, March Madness is upon us. Today we're going to go back to an NCAA game that helped put an end to segregated basketball, Loyola University of Chicago battled Mississippi State 50 years ago in what's become known as the game of change. NPR's Cheryl Corley has more.
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CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: The band pumped up the crowd as the game horn blared at a recent Loyola Chicago home game. This year the team's been celebrating the NCAA Championship it won in 1963. They're also marking the tournament matchup with Mississippi State, the game many call a defining moment in NCAA history.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: In 1963, one NCAA tournament game, Loyola versus Mississippi State, helped change a way of life.
CORLEY: A documentary about the game of change explains the climate of the times. In 1963, college basketball was still predominantly white, with usually no more than two or three black players appearing on the floor at any one time. But that year, Loyola's starting lineup featured four black players. During the opening round of the NCAA tournament, the Ramblers blew past their opponent.
The next showdown would be with the Mississippi State Maroons, now known as the Bulldogs. Loyola captain Jerry Harkness, an African-American, says that's when the hate mail started pouring in.
JERRY HARKNESS: And that's kind of a little bit scary because they know where you are, like, and they're sending you mail, and it said the KKK, you better not play. Stop right here, and you better not play against any more white teams in the tournament.
CORLEY: The black community was sending a different message: You can't lose.
HARKNESS: The majority of people that called said please win, this is a great opportunity for the black race.
CORLEY: The Mississippi State Maroons had won their Southeastern Conference title year after year, but Bobby Shows, the center on the 1963 team, said the school did not play in the NCAA tournament.
BOBBY SHOWS: It was an unwritten law in Mississippi that no college basketball team from Mississippi would ever play against blacks.
CORLEY: The school's president, Dean Colvard, had accepted the NCAA tournament bid knowing that he could lose his job. Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, an avowed segregationist, and his allies tried to stop the Maroons from leaving the state. MSU's team manager, Jimmy Wise, said Colvard and the team's coaches decided to sneak out of town.
JIMMY WISE: And of course when the sheriff of the county could not find the coach or the president, he didn't have anybody to serve the injunction to. So that's when the players, we flew out the next day and actually picked our coach up in Nashville, Tennessee.
CORLEY: On March 15, 1963, the stadium at East Lansing, Michigan was packed. Bobby Shows says Mississippi State had no supporters there.
SHOWS: Somebody's pep band played our fight song, and that was a pretty touching experience, to think that sportsmanship was that good.
CORLEY: And then the captain of the Mississippi team, Joe Dan Gold, and Loyola's Jerry Harkness walked to mid-court and shook hands.
HARKNESS: And the flashbulbs just went off unbelievably, and at that time, boy, I knew that this was more than just a game. This was history being made.
CORLEY: Loyola won 61-51 and went on to win the NCAA championship. Mississippi State won the consolation game and returned home to a huge crowd of fans.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If the players from that game could come forward.
CORLEY: A few months ago, surviving members of both schools' 1963 teams showed up at Loyola when the now-Bulldogs and the Ramblers met to play a game for the first time since 1963. The men, all in their 70s, said they are proud that the game they played a half-century ago helped signal an end to the Jim Crow policies of the past. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.