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FIRST PLACE: COLUMN
CHICAGO – People stopped counting long ago. Somewhere over the passage of the last 45 years, it no longer mattered anymore how many black faces were in the same college-basketball lineup at once.
It never should have mattered, but it once mattered very much to the heedless and the bigoted. And it once mattered significantly if you were one of a handful of black faces who took the court simultaneously.
"Oh, coach Ireland always kept track," said 1960s Loyola player Ron Miller recently. "He told us which games he could only start three black players and which games he could start four."
Sports should never be about race, but always about ability. But sport has never been segregated from society. That is why there was a color barrier for Jackie Robinson to break in major league baseball. We were always taught that the playing fields were egalitarian, and mostly that was true – provided your skin color didn't exclude you from the field in the first place.
Those who hated possessed creative genius in keeping those of another color from playing on the playground, from using the gym, in preventing them from being recruited or making sure they got cut from the team.
The late George Ireland had to keep track, as Miller said, not because he wanted to, but because the world was a different place in 1962 and the hate letters piled up in his Loyola University office when he started four black players at once and he knew he might be courting a riot if he played too many black players at once in too Southern a location. After all, no team in the Southeastern Conference had yet suited up its first black player.
Much attention rightfully has been paid to Texas Western's barrier-breaking triumph in the 1966 NCAA Tournament. The first all-black starting lineup beat the all-white Kentucky lineup for the championship. Books and movies have been produced about the meeting.
Overlooked are black players who came before the Miners, who blazed their own perilous trail. Under Ireland, the Ramblers won the 1963 crown using just five players, four of them black. Seemingly forgotten was one occasion when the Ramblers put five black players on the floor at once that season.
It happened on Dec. 29, 1962. Loyola was competing in the venerable All-City Tournament in Oklahoma City, in the process of beating Wyoming, 93-82. There were an estimated 3,000 fans in the stands.
Ireland started his usual lineup. It included Miller, All-American Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter (who scored 34 points that day) and the late Vic Rouse, all black, and guard John Egan, the only white starter. Ireland was never liberal with his substitutes. The box score shows that only two other Ramblers played. Billy Smith, who soon would be ruled academically ineligible, and the late Pablo Robertson, who later had an esteemed career with the Harlem Globetrotters, both of them black, were the only subs.
Late in the second half, Egan became embroiled in a jump-ball battle with a Wyoming player on the floor. Egan, who still lives near Chicago, said he grabbed the ball while kneeling on the player, and elbows were exchanged. Egan said the referee lectured him about his aggressiveness, and he mouthed off, telling him to just put the ball in play for the jump. Tweet!
"He said, 'You're out of the game!'" Egan recalled.
When Egan was ejected, Robertson replaced him. That moment – the exact time of the action appears to be lost – meant that Loyola had five black players on the court simultaneously. That represents the first time in Division I basketball history that a team used five black players together in a game.
According to NCAA historian Gary Johnson, there has never been a counterclaim in his 23 years of research, and he considers that occasion a college basketball "first" for Division I. Of course, traditionally black schools such as Grambling and Florida A&M regularly fielded teams with five black starters, but they competed in the college division, or small-college ranks.
There was no fanfare at the time, as far as anyone from Loyola can recall. In fact, Egan said, the players probably didn't even know about the milestone. Harkness said he has never heard of the credit of being first to use five black players attributed to Loyola.
Miller said he was aware.
"We knew everything that was going on," he said of black players. "We knew about it."
Much more attention was paid to Loyola's NCAA tournament match-up against all-white Mississippi State. Gov. Ross Barnett and other state officials forbade the Bulldogs from playing Loyola because of its number of black players. Appalled by the decree, coach Babe McCarthy's squad was broken into small groups and spirited out of the state under cover of darkness to meet its appointment with Loyola in East Lansing, Mich.
When Harkness, a black man from a Chicago college, shook hands with Joe Dan Gold, the captain of a Southern college, before the game, flashbulbs nearly blinded the players. A simple handshake in public between men of different races was that big a deal. The Ramblers won the game, 61-51.
That game, with the drama of Mississippi State's flight from its home state, is the subject of a forthcoming documentary being made by Harkness' son Gerald. At this year's Final Four, the NCAA is scheduled to bestow recognition on the two schools for their courage in playing the game.
With hindsight, Harkness said it might be that the Loyola-Mississippi State game was more important than the Ramblers' title victory.
"Maybe the best thing was Mississippi State – thinking back, how the country was," Harkness said. "Three civil rights workers got killed there a little bit later (1964). It took a lot for them to play us."
It is thankfully unfathomable to us in 2008 – especially to those of a younger generation that grew up in a fairer America in more recent years – to imagine the viciousness of comments made because white men and black men sweated on the same basketball court.
Sport is supposed to be amusement, but sometimes sport is more than a game.
• Second place: John Feinstein, Washington Post
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