Normally, a Saturday night college basketball game between Loyola University of Chicago and Mississippi State University would not garner much attention. In fact, the two teams had not played for nearly 50 years when they took the floor Dec. 15 in Chicago.
The game was important because it was the first time the schools had faced off since the NCAA tournament matchup on March 15, 1963. Loyola won the regional game back then that might not have been played. The Mississippi State team, coach and university president maneuvered around a court injunction that would have prohibited them from leaving Mississippi to fly to East Lansing, Mich., to take the floor.
The issue back then was race and bigotry. Loyola of Chicago had players of color on the roster — four of them starters — and a segregationist governor and legislature in Mississippi forbade the MSU team to participate because of the black players.
The Mississippi State team did indeed defy the governor, and when the competing centers took the court, the photographic image of them shaking hands before the tip-off became the defining image of a historic game of which too few people have been reminded in the years since.
The game was played in the midst of a cauldron of a nation embroiled in the explosive battle over race relations in America.
The game played barely two weeks ago reminded a nation that largely didn’t know such a historic match was staged two generations ago. There was no particular racial rancor, simply a hard-fought battle to determine which team would move on in the tournament. The game was marked by good sportsmanship. The Loyola players were fully aware of the risks taken by the Mississippi State Maroons to even show up.
On the court, mutual respect overshadowed racial concerns.
Loyola won that game and then advanced through the field to win the national title, the only college or university in Illinois to win an NCAA Division I basketball championship.
The more recent game provided an opportunity for coaches and players on the current teams to learn more about the significance of the original game. A documentary titled “Game of Change” — about the 1963 contest– aired ahead of the 2012 game.
Loyola hosted the most recent game and invited surviving players and the surviving family members of principle coaches to festivities, including a rousing introduction — one by one — at halftime.
I knew the story of the original game; it had been recounted and reflected upon by retired Sports Crusaders leader Bobby Shows, a member of the Mississippi State team 50 years ago. The story had appeared in Word&Way.
It was great to hear Bobby’s name announced and to see him stride across the court to greet the Loyola University president, as did all the other guests. Bobby had been interviewed for an ESPN story that advanced the game. Typically, he was all smiles during the festivities.
When it was all over, a new generation of sports fans had been able to look on the faces of men who as much younger men had struck a blow for race relations by making sure they played the game for what it was — a mere athletic contest important on those merits alone.
ESPN broadcast the most recent game and the festivities but relegated it to its ESPN 3 channel, thereby limiting its audience. I wish more people could have seen it.
Opportunities to air life lessons should get greater priority.