By Matt Charboneau / The Detroit News
For nearly 50 years, Jenison Field House was the site of hundreds of basketball games.
It was home to some of Michigan State’s greats, including Magic Johnson, Johnny Green, Scott Skiles and Steve Smith.
But on one March night in 1963, it was the site of a game that turned out to be so much more.
The date was March 15.
The game — an NCAA Tournament game, no less — matched Loyola-Chicago and Mississippi State.
“That one game was more than just 40 minutes of play,” said Bobby Shows, a member of that Mississippi State team. “It had a bearing that will carry on in history for the rest of time.”
Quite a statement for a game.
But it was no ordinary game.
For Loyola, it was a chance to prove it was the best team in the country.
For Mississippi State, it was a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, something it had been forbidden to do despite winning four Southeastern Conference titles in five seasons.
It was 1963, and many schools in the South were all-white, including Mississippi State.
Loyola, on the other hand, started four black players.
And therein stood the problem: Mississippi State officials did not allow their teams to play against schools with black players on their roster.
That was 50 years ago, and times have changed.
And on Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, the historic moment will be celebrated, when Michigan State returns to Jenison Field House for the first time since 1989 to play Tuskegee, a historically black college. Loyola and Mississippi State also will honor the game when they meet in Chicago.
Fifty years ago, the Bulldogs wondered if they would get their shot at playing for an NCAA title.
Instead of waiting around to see if they would be granted permission to play in the Tournament, they snuck out of town.
“Until the last few weeks of the season, we didn’t even think we would play in the NCAA Tournament,” said Doug Hutton, a member of the team. “Until the president came back and said if we ended up winning the conference, he was going to do everything he could do to see that we got to go.”
The Bulldogs were good, and they wanted to prove it on the floor.
Entering the Tournament, they were 21-5 and ranked No. 6 in the nation.
But with Gov. Ross Barnett’s decision banning teams from the state playing against teams with black players, Mississippi State’s chances were slim.
Still, Mississippi State president Dean Colvard fully intended to defy the order, and along with coach Babe McCarthy, set about getting the team to East Lansing.
Initially, Colvard and McCarthy left the state to avoid being served with an injunction prohibiting them from leaving.
In the meantime, the players waited.
A plane was ready to carry them to Michigan, but there was fear of being stopped by police.
So the team managers and bench players were sent to check things out.
When all was clear, the rest of the team made a break for it.
“We took off as fast as we could,” Hutton said.
The story goes that the sheriff was on his way to the airport with an injunction to stop the flight, but he never made it.
“As we were taxiing out, the deputy sheriff came driving through, that’s how close it was,” Shows said. “From what I understand, he had done it intentionally because he wanted us to go. The story is he had to have his coffee break.”
The Loyola players certainly didn’t have to sneak out of town, but it was hardly a simple choice to keep playing.
The Ramblers were one of the top teams in the nation, but many people had no desire to see a predominantly black squad play for a national championship.
“A couple of days before the game, we were in the dormitory and we started getting letters from the Klu Klux Klan telling us not to play in that game and calling us names,” said Jerry Harkness, a former All-American and Loyola captain. “That was on our minds. We weren’t sure if (Mississippi State) was gonna come, so we didn’t know who we were gonna play.”
It was standard procedure for the Ramblers.
They had played in the deep South that season, in Houston and New Orleans, and understood the prejudices. In fact, Harkness said when coach George Ireland told his players what to expect — separate hotels, angry crowds — he and his teammates didn’t want to play.
“He commenced to talk us out of it,” Harkness said.
So, both teams were headed to East Lansing.
The Mississippi State players recall it was new territory for them, not to mention the fact they had few supporters in the arena.
“Michigan was a long way off,” Shows said. “It was like another world.”
When they arrived, reporters took pictures and asked questions. Some heard the team plane had been forced to return to Mississippi.
“I think they were surprised we landed, to be honest,” Hutton said.
But finally, there was a game to be played.
No politics. No race.
And, Harkness recalls the feeling when he shook hands with Mississippi State captain Joe Dan Gold before tip-off.
“He looked me in the face and I saw warmth in that smile,” Harkness said. “We shook hands and the flashbulbs went off and I said, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is more than a game.’
“I was just shocked and it all hit me.”
But once the game started, the significance of the moment disappeared and the game took over.
Loyola won 61-51, and eventually won the national title.
Mississippi State returned home to a changed climate.
“There were cars lined up from the airport all the way out to the highway,” Hutton said. “Most of our students and true fans wanted us to go; it was the political leaders of our state that didn’t.”
Said Shows: “We just happened to be pawns on the board. It was our coach and Dr. Colvard. Those two men had enough guts to stand up to the KKK, the Brotherhood, all that bunch of folks that were anti-black in every degree. … That takes strong character and those two men need to be praised for it.”
Harkness felt the same way about Ireland, the man who convinced his team it was right to play when so many didn’t want them to.
“Ireland was different,” Harkness said. “He didn’t get along with a lot of people and wasn’t a personable guy. He was almost an ‘I’ll-show-you’ type of guy. He said he was gonna break the rules and he did it.”
Change, however, didn’t come right away everywhere else in the South.
No school in the SEC admitted a black athlete until 1967, when Perry Wallace played basketball at Vanderbilt.
But in time, the significance of what happened in East Lansing became more significant.
“I think it helped set a standard for what the game of college basketball is,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s bigger than we think.”
Loyola played Michigan State last weekend, and the coaches and players made a point of visiting Jenison.
“They know that game was snuck out and played in East Lansing and it’s part of history,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “The thing that team had was they had great culture. We had that team come back and talk to our guys. There’s 16 academic degrees from that team.
“They did it the right way, they persevered and there are a lot of little things that have gone into this 50th anniversary season. One was playing here in East Lansing. Last week, we played Tennessee Tech; that was the first round of the NCAA Tournament that year that they played. Next week, we play Mississippi State.
“It’s all about tradition. I want the tradition to live on, to remember the tradition, but we have to get the culture back.”
The game’s significance might not have the notoriety the championship run Texas Western (now UTEP) had in 1966 — that team was the first with an all-black starting lineup playing an all-white Kentucky in the NCAA final.
But for those involved, the Loyola-Mississippi State game was just as significant.
“That’s the excitement of it,” Shows said. “Realizing what it did for us, the state of Mississippi and for athletics in general. It was more than a ballgame.”