Basketball, Race, and the Road to Acceptance

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On March 23, 1963 Loyola University Chicago's men's basketball team defeated the University of Cincinnati 60-58 to win the program's first national championship title. The game not only marked an institutional milestone, but it also signified a huge step toward integration on the basketball court. Loyola started four black players, an unprecedented move in collegiate basketball. Cincinnati started three, which meant that this national championship game would be the first ever where the majority of starters were black. However, in the scope of civil rights history another game trumps the Loyola-Cincinatti match-up in importance.

Just eight days before the national championship game, Loyola had faced a team with a much different background and look. It was the first time that team had competed in the NCAA post-season tournament, but not because they had never been qualified. It was a team bound by an “unwritten law” that prevented them from playing integrated teams. It was a team that had broken all of the rules to enter that NCAA tournament.

That team was the Mississippi State University Maroons.

Defying state authorities, the MSU coaches and players slipped out of the state in an elaborate plan to avoid a state injunction that would have prevent them from leaving Mississippi for the game. At the time, the Maroons were ranked sixth in the nation and had been forced to sit out the playoffs three times before. However, in 1963 MSU Coach James “Babe” McCarthy and school President Dean Colvard decided they would enter the tournament regardless of the racial make-up of opposing teams.

The decision that MSU made to play Loyola set a new precedent for previously segregated and racist basketball programs. In 1966, Texas Western started five black players in a national championship game against the University of Kentucky. It was the first time a national champion team had five black starters. Without the courage of the MSU basketball program and the success of Loyola in 1963 it may not have been acceptable, or even possible, in public view.