The Game of Change: How a handshake changed NCAA history

t was a simple handshake at midcourt but it symbolized much more. And now, half a century later, we know that the basketball game between Loyola University and Mississippi State was so historic that the NCAA calls it one of the greatest moments in the 75-years of the tournament – beginning with two athletes shaking hands.

This was a time in the South when segregation was an ingrained, deep-seated way of southern life. Separation of the races was mandated by law in many southern states. But the civil rights movement was also growing and it became a tempestuous time for both sides, Black and White, during this social upheaval. The governor of Mississippi – Ross Barnett – had, even, campaigned as a strict segregationist— and had won.

Ross Barnett, Former Governor of Mississippi, said “I think the people of Mississippi all know that I am a strong believer and advocate of segregation in every phase of life in all of our schools.”

But the Mississippi State team was outstanding having had two previous winning, tournament eligible seasons — but had not participated, letting the separatist policy keep the team at home. But, during the 1963 season the players, coach and school president had vowed that if the team, again, became eligible, it would go to the tournament: And compete for a national championship. That meant Mississippi State could face top seeded Loyola University which had 4-Black players on the starting five.

MSU center Bobby Shows said “It was really more than 10-guys running up and down the floor. It was the beginning of a beginning from a racial standpoint. I`m so glad we were a part of it.”

But, they almost never made it to the game. When Gov. Ross Barnett found out about the plans for the team to play schools with black players, Barnett sought an injunction to force Mississippi State to stay at home. But their coach had already left town so he could not be served. Then, the Mississippi State players made plans to, also – under the cover of darkness – slip out of town.

Doug Hutton, MSU, “We have our bags packed and we`re ready to go the next morning. So we send the trainer and 6 or 7 guys who don`t play a whole lot to the airport to see if there law enforcement people out there to keep us from getting on the plane.”

Stan Brinker said “there was no one out there. So they called back and said, come on. So we went on out to catch an airplane. And we really didn`t know that we were going to get out and go play. And we still didn`t know if we were going to make it — but we did.’

So, on March 15, 1963, in Lansing, Michigan, The Ramblers of Loyola met the Bulldogs of Mississippi State. In a tough but clean game both teams fought hard with Loyola winning the historic contest 61 – 51 behind 20-points from 2-time All-American Jerry Harkness.

Jerry Harkness said “The greatest game I ever played in was the Loyola – Mississippi State game. Because it was not only basketball – it was history.”

In fact the game of change is such a significant story that it was made into a documentary with the screening held at Loyola this weekend.”

Saturday night there was another meeting of the two teams. This time Mississippi State had its own Black players and no one thought very much about the racial make-up of basketball teams anymore.  And at halftime players from the original game of change were honored at mid-court. Now, a little grayer, a little heavier and not quite as nimble, they received the applause of the fans who acknowledged that these athletes were instrumental in changing the face of college basketball forever. Today, 60% of all the players on collegiate teams are black and few people remember the segregated teams of the 50s and 60s.

Bobby Shows said “There`s some things that we don`t need to remember but there`s some things that we should. And I think y`all carrying this through the media is a fantastic thing. Thank y`all, Bob, for doing this. Hopefully some people will see this and understand that, hay – there`s no difference between us. We`re creatures of god — and god created us — and thank goodness for that.”

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