It’s hard to imagine, but once upon a time basketball was dominated by white people. They didn’t believe in jump shots or dunking, and played a slow style committed to strategically running the clock down. The story of how that staid game became the fast-breaking, high-flying sport we know today has a lot to do with racial progress in America.
How that progress occurred on college courts is the subject of Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—the Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball. It’s Chicago journalist Michael Lenehan’s engrossing account of how the Jesuit university won its first—and only—NCAA Division I championship. The final game pitting Loyola against the University of Cincinnati featured an unprecedented seven African-American starters at a time when many all-white teams weren’t allowed to play integrated games. One of those teams was the Mississippi State Bulldogs, which defied a court injunction and a racist governor by heading north to play the Loyola Ramblers.
Published on the 50th anniversary of the historic tournament, Ramblers vividly places the on-court action into the full context of the civil rights era and makes a convincing argument that college basketball helped to integrate the country.
We met at a coffee shop in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, where Lenehan lives, just a few hours before the NCAA selection committee revealed the 2013 men’s tournament brackets and officially kicked off America’s annual bout of March Madness.
You haven’t previously written about sports much. How did you get interested in this story?
I was dimly aware of the team and the championship. What got me interested in it was a [Chicago public television] flashback show that made the racial dimension very clear. After seeing that, I went looking for the book I figured it was based on. And there was no book.
Mostly it was my interest in the civil rights angle of the story, not the basketball. I figured I knew enough about basketball to use it as my framing device. But it was the integration story that piqued my interest.
Do you think people tend to overlook the role that college sports played in racial progress during the civil rights era?
Anybody who thinks about it for a minute can see it. But I don’t think people think about it a lot. What are the key things that caused all the changes we’ve had over the last 50 years? Not a lot of people would say this game, or college sports.
Sports and entertainment—particularly music—were very influential to an extent that people don’t consciously realize . . . You might read in the paper about Loyola in Chicago. But there are few photos, and you’re not seeing them play on TV, they’re just a bunch of names to you. And then one day you turn on the TV for the final, and there they are—they’re black. Those things were really important, often times in subconscious ways. A lot of times it was probably conscious, too . . .
I was most shocked by the 1962 riot at the University of Mississippi that followed James Meredith’s registration as the school’s first African-American student. What were you most surprised by while researching the book?
The scope and extent of the riot. Actually, I think “riot” is a misnomer—I called it an armed insurrection. But a couple of weeks ago, the New York Times changed my description to “riot” [in an op-ed written for the newspaper]. They are a little more conservative in their interpretation of the event than I am.
I remembered vaguely that there had been some trouble. I was 13 or 14 at the time. But I had no idea how bad it was . . . I had always thought that the thing at Ole Miss was like a campus riot, but it was all these yahoos coming down to make the last stand of the Confederacy. Another thing that really surprised me was that Meredith had it all planned out. He wasn’t just a guy trying to go to school. He was trying to provoke the situation.
You note in the book how the Loyola players were not fully aware of their role in history while it was happening.
It’s hard to have a historical perspective. I’m sure that’s true of anyone who’s participating in anything that comes to be seen as history. The main thing was: they were kids. They had succeeded at basketball by focusing on basketball . . . And I also think that being in Chicago, where the site of a black basketball player was pretty common, they probably didn’t understand what was going on in the rest of country . . .
So all those things insulated them from the importance of it all. But like I said, it doesn’t seem like history when you’re in the middle of it. It’s just your life.
The book offers a great window into the history of the basketball. Was that history new to you?
It was mostly new to me. I was surprised to see how short the history was. One of the guys in the book played in John McLendon’s gym [at Tennessee State University], and McLendon [considered “the father of black basketball”] played with James Naismith, the inventor of the game. It just kept getting better and better.
Any final thoughts?
Well, this is kind of sappy, but here’s the thing I came away from the book with, and I hope some people will come away with. I noticed that almost every player I talked to could point to one person, and sometimes more, who had given him a hand, a word of encouragement, a break, some help when he needed it. I came to think of the book as being the story of a lot of different people who did the right thing.
And that led me to the thought that maybe social change and big historical phenomena are just the accumulated weight of a lot of people doing the right thing.