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The Game of Change

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Showing what extreme lengths a few guys went through just to play a basketball game.

Jenison Fieldhouse - East Lansing, Michigan
Patrick T. Power

This article doesn’t concern a Big 10 team or player; however, it’s a topic is something which seemed when I first heard of it to be quite remarkable, even for when it transpired back in March 1963. This event did take place on a Big 10 campus; specifically, Michigan State University in the old Jenison Fieldhouse. Additionally, it's very fitting with February being Black History Month; while not pertaining to a specific African-American athlete, it represents a significant step in our history.

In the 1962-63 NCAA basketball season the Mississippi State Bulldogs had a very good season; going 21-5 overall and 12-2 in SEC play. This earned head coach Babe McCarthy's Bulldogs an invitation into the 1963 NCAA Tournament. This was the third year in a row and fourth time in five years that Mississippi State won the SEC and garnered an invitation to the 'Big Dance'. However, due to segregation of the era the State of Mississippi had a rule that no public university team could play against another team which had African-American players on it. Thus, Mississippi State had declined the 1959, 1961 and 1962 NCAA Tournament invitations and shunned any post-season play. However, for 1963 the Mississippi State players decided that they wanted to participate in the NCAA Tournament.

Further complicating things for Mississippi State was that just 6 months earlier, President John F. Kennedy had to call in troops to the University of Mississippi so that James Meredith could enroll there as the first African-American student. Not only did riots break out on the University of Mississippi campus, but Mississippi Governor and noted segregationist Ross Barnett made a very inflammatory speech at halftime of the Mississippi versus Kentucky football game in Jackson (the Mississippi state capital) amid 41,000 fans waving Confederate Flags.

Pulling off the trip to East Lansing, Michigan to play in the 1963 NCAA Tournament's Mideast Region Sweet 16 (as Mississippi State had earned a first-round bye) would not be easy. Governor Barnett was drawing up papers to specifically prohibit the Bulldogs from making the trip to Michigan; and had found a friendly judge to issue a legal injunction. Thus, Mississippi State had to resort to drastic measures to make the trip to the NCAA Tournament. University President Dr. Dean W. Culvard (who received his PhD from Purdue University) and Head Coach Babe McCarthy came up with a plan to defy the unwritten rule and anticipated legal injunction from Governor Barnett. The team literally snuck off of campus and across state lines in the middle of the night to board a chartered flight to Lansing, Michigan: before Governor Barnett could serve the team with a legal injunction prohibiting them from making the trip.

Pregame Handshake Between Loyola-Chicago and Mississippi State Captains at the 1963 NCAA Tournament
Rich Clarkson - NCAA Photos

Mississippi State's opposition in the 1963 Mideast Sweet 16 was Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers came into the NCAA Tournament at 24-2. Loyola-Chicago even moved some of their games that season from their normal arena (5,200 seat Alumni Gym) to the Chicago Stadium (home back then to the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks). In an era prior to NCAA Tournament seeding the Ramblers played an opening-round game just miles from their campus in Evanston, blowing out Tennessee Tech 111-42. Thus on March 15, 1963 at Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers - featuring 4 African-American starters - faced off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.

Given the drama involving Mississippi State's participation in the NCAA Tournament, there was a media frenzy at Jenison Fieldhouse as the Bulldogs faced off against the Ramblers. Cameras were clicking as the Mississippi State and Loyola-Chicago team captains shook hands prior to the tipoff. The game itself was rather uneventful, with Loyola-Chicago getting a 61-51 victory on their way to the 1963 National Championship (which ironically was won at Louisville's Freedom Hall, an arena also located in the south). One of the most notable images though was a picture taken of the players leaving the court after the game, with a handshake being given between 2 players.

Post-Game Handshake Following the Mississippi State versus Loyola-Chicago Game in the 1963 Mideast Regional Sweet 16
Loyola University Chicago / AP

Upon their return to Starkville, one would think that the Mississippi State players would be shunned if not persecuted for defying the unwritten rule and society norms for the early 60s by sneaking out-of-state to travel to East Lansing to participate in the NCAA Tournament. Actually quite the opposite occurred. There was very vocal public support from the Mississippi State community for the basketball team taking the initiative to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Mississippi State University library has a digital collection of letters of support for the 1962-63 basketball team; including official statements from both the Mississippi State University President and Administrative Council.

More importantly, the game had an impact on society as a whole and the players themselves. In an interview with The Chicago Tribune Mississippi State center Bobby Shows said, “That (game) was 40 minutes that was part of my life, but the reaction of what happened after those 40 minutes is unbelievable, and it is still going on 50 years later. The change in philosophy and the ideas, particularly in the South but also in the athletic world, has been changed for the better.”

Loyola-Chicago and Mississippi State scheduled a home-and-home basketball match-up to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ‘Game of Change’. There’s been countless articles and at least one book written on the that March 15, 1963 game in East Lansing. The University of Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse has been recognized as a site of social change for the 1966 NCAA Tournament Finals between Kentucky and Texas Western. However, Michigan State’s Jenison Fieldhouse deserves similar recognition as a site of equal social significance; as a place where a group of guys from Starkville, Mississippi just wanted to play a game.