Monday, March 15, 2010

Iron Men

     When Loyola University basketball coach George Ireland came into work on Monday, February 4, 1963, he discovered that he had lost two key players. Guard Pablo Robertson and forward Billy Smith, both sophomores, had failed to pass their midterm exams and were therefore ineligible for the remainder of the season.
     It says something about the academic integrity of the university and its athletic department that Ireland’s top two reserves could be booted off a team that was undefeated, ranked No. 2 in the country, and taking aim at a possible national championship. Many other universities would have finagled a way to keep the two players on the team, but at Loyola the term “student-athlete” retained its intended meaning. Loyola’s players were students first and athletes second. As if to drive the point home, the Ramblers’ five starters went on to earn 11 college degrees among them.
     The five were forwards Jerry Harkness and Vic Rouse, center Les Hunter, and guards Ron Miller and John Egan. They were four African Americans and an Irish kid from the South Side, representing a Jesuit school that was virtually unknown outside of Chicago. Their climb to the top of the college basketball world was an inspiring story in itself, which also took on greater significance as a harbinger of changing times.
     Segregation was still a fact of life in 1963. In the South, African Americans were expected to pursue their higher education at traditionally black institutions such as Alabama A&M, Jackson State, Grambling, Southern, and Tennessee State, or not at all. The more prestigious universities, even state schools funded by taxpayers and theoretically open to any qualified resident, were off-limits. James Meredith’s attempt to enroll at the University of Mississippi in September 1962 had triggered rioting that left two people dead and 160 injured. It took the intervention of the federal government to get Meredith admitted, and he could not set foot on campus without an escort of U.S. marshals to ensure his safety.
     Even in the rest of the country, where the universities were integrated, most athletic teams featured no more than a few African Americans. Basketball coaches observed an unwritten rule limiting the number of black players on the court at any given time to three for home teams and two for road teams. Ireland defied the quota system with his four African-American starters, regardless of whether the Ramblers were at home or away.
     The absence of Robertson and Smith meant that Loyola’s five starters were going to be pretty much on their own for the rest of the season. The five “iron men,” as they soon came to be called, had been a cohesive and productive unit since the previous year, when they’d carried Loyola to a 23-4 record and a third-place finish in the National Invitational Tournament. Harkness, an All-American in 1962 and destined to repeat in 1963, was the only senior; the other four were juniors. “Harkness leads us,” said Ireland, “like the leader of a hungry pack of wolves.”
     Harkness was a native of the Bronx who had not played high-school basketball until his senior year, after baseball great Jackie Robinson saw him in a pickup game and encouraged him to give it a try. Miller was also from the Bronx. Hunter and Rouse were high-school teammates and best friends from Nashville. They had decided to stick together when it came time to go to college. “I had offers from Massachusetts, Notre Dame, and UCLA,” Hunter said, “but Rouse had a knee operation and they weren’t interested. Loyola was the only one that would take us both.” Egan was the lone Chicagoan, a product of St. Rita High School. As the only white player among Loyola’s starters, he’d inadvertently made history by fouling out against Wyoming on December 29, 1962. When Robertson replaced him, it marked the first time that an integrated university’s team had five black players on the floor at once.
     Ireland was an alumnus of Notre Dame, where he’d been a teammate of DePaul coach Ray Meyer on the 1936 national championship team. He had gone directly into coaching after college, spending 15 years at Marmion Academy in Aurora before coming to Loyola in 1951. Ireland’s philosophy was very simple: to run, run, run on offense and to press, press, press on defense. His current group of players was perfectly suited to this approach. “Our whole premise was to get out and run,” recalled Hunter. “We pressed regardless of how far we were ahead or behind. A lot of teams tried to freeze the ball and we stole it.” Assistant coach Jerry Lyne would file an extensive scouting report on each opponent, which Ireland and the players all but disregarded. “We’d go over everything,” said Harkness, “and then at the last minute Ireland would look at us, rip up the report and say, ‘They’ll never get into their offense. We’ll press ’em and throw everything off.’”
     Loyola was 20-0 and had throttled its opponents by an average margin of 29 points when Robertson and Smith departed. Ireland was optimistic that his team could overcome the setback. “We can keep going,” he said. “We have a group of kids who are thoroughbreds. They don’t fold up. They respond when they’re asked, just like thoroughbreds.”
     There were six games left on the schedule. On February 12, the Ramblers squeaked past Marquette 92-90 in overtime. On February 16, top-ranked Cincinnati lost 65-64 at Wichita State (the Bearcats’ first defeat after 37 straight wins), but status quo was maintained in the rankings when Loyola also lost that same night, 92-75 at Bowling Green. Two days later, after learning that they’d been invited to the NCAA tournament, the Ramblers routed St. John’s 70-47 in New York.
     The Ramblers had slipped to No. 3 nationally, behind Cincinnati and Duke, when they visited Houston on February 23. Houston’s first black students were to be admitted in the fall; among them would be future NBA stars Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney. This was Houston’s last home game as an all-white university, and many in the crowd seemed sorry to see the old era pass into history. “They called us all the ‘n’ names,” Miller recalled. “They said everything.” Fans also pelted the Ramblers with coins and ice cubes. After Loyola escaped with a hard-earned 62-58 win, Houston coach Guy Lewis apologized for the fans’ behavior.
     On February 27, the Ramblers trailed Ohio 54-47 at halftime and were tied 78-78 midway through the second half, but their running and gunning finally wore the Bobcats down. Loyola pulled away in the stretch to win 114-94. Hunter scored 34 points and Harkness 32 in his final game at Loyola’s Alumni Gym. Harkness left the court on the shoulders of exultant Rambler fans.
     Loyola took on Wichita State in the regular-season finale before a full house at the Stadium. The Shockers were still basking in the notoriety of their upset over Cincinnati 10 days earlier and had climbed to No. 8 in the rankings. Against Loyola, they exploited foul trouble by Hunter and Rouse (both eventually fouled out) to achieve a 52-38 advantage in rebounds which proved decisive. Wichita State won 73-72. Of the three losses that Cincinnati and Loyola had suffered between them, two had come at the hands of the aptly named Shockers.

     There were serious questions confronting Ireland and the Ramblers as they entered the NCAA tournament. They had not looked like the same team without Robertson, a lightning-fast point guard, and Smith, a fierce rebounder and inside scoring threat. The previously unbeaten Ramblers had lost two of their last six games and just narrowly averted two more losses. The Wichita State game proved beyond a doubt that Loyola’s starters were working without a safety net. Ireland’s bench had produced a total of 15 points in the six games, all but two of them in the lopsided wins over St. John’s and Ohio. The five iron men had their work cut out for them.
     Loyola opened the tournament on March 11 against Tennessee Tech at McGaw Hall in Evanston. The Ramblers were ready. They scored 16 of the game’s first 18 points and surged to a 61-20 lead by halftime. Loyola shot 56 percent from the floor and presented an almost perfectly balanced attack—none of the five starters scored more than 21 points or fewer than 17. Ireland called off the dogs when Loyola went over the 100-point mark with five minutes left. He emptied the bench, and all four of his remaining reserves not only played but scored. (None of the backups scored another point in the tournament, and just one of them, Chuck Wood, saw further action.) The final score was 111-42.
     Among the awestruck spectators was Babe McCarthy, coach of the Mississippi State team that was due to face Loyola next. “I wish I’d stayed home,” McCarthy said. “Nobody can beat a team like that. They are the best fast-break team, the best ball hawks, I’ve ever seen.”
     McCarthy, his players, and the Mississippi State administration emerged as heroes of a sort in the following days. Not only was their university all-white, but its athletic teams were forbidden by tradition to even play against integrated teams. Nonetheless, the Maroons intended to keep their date with Loyola on March 15 in East Lansing, Michigan.
     The Maroons had accepted an automatic bid to the tournament as champions of the Southeast Conference on March 2, and the question of their participation might have ended there. However, when the brackets were published and the likelihood of a matchup with Loyola became apparent, newspapers and politicians in Mississippi saw a chance to make some hay. A paper in Jackson invited readers “to clip the photo of the Loyola team and mail it today to the board of trustees” of the university. An editor in Meridian was more explicit: “Especially in these times we should make no compromise regarding our Southern way of life; we cannot afford to give a single inch.”
     After Loyola dispatched Tennessee Tech (itself an all-white team), the issue came to a head. When asked about the controversy, Harkness showed that he was wise beyond his years. “I think that Mississippi State wants to play us,” he said. “If they don’t, they’ll never know how good they are.”
     Mississippi State did want to play Loyola—and went to great lengths to do so. The Maroons were scheduled to fly from Starkville, Mississippi, to East Lansing on Thursday morning, March 14. On Wednesday, a state legislator obtained an injunction prohibiting the team from leaving the state. That night, coach McCarthy and several other officials drove from Starkville to Memphis, then flew to Nashville. On Thursday morning, the Hinds County sheriff showed up at the Starkville airport to enforce the injunction. The injunction was duly served—to the Maroons’ freshman team, which had been sent to the airport as a decoy. The varsity team had already left from a small private airport. They met up with McCarthy and the others in Nashville, then continued on to East Lansing.
     The game attracted an overflow crowd of 12,143 at Michigan State’s Jenison Fieldhouse. Flashbulbs popped all over the arena when Loyola captain Harkness shook hands with his counterpart, Leland Mitchell, before the game. Mississippi State came in with a record of 21-5. The Maroons were a methodical, disciplined team whose tallest starter was only six-foot-five. The Ramblers also were under-sized (the lithe, six-foot-seven Hunter was their tallest starter), but their athleticism made up for what they lacked in height and heft.
     From the opening tip, Mississippi State did everything but deflate the basketball in order to slow the pace. The Maroons held Loyola off the scoreboard for almost six minutes as they crept out to a 7-0 lead. A pair of three-point plays by Harkness jump-started the Ramblers, and strong rebounding by Hunter and Rouse carried them to a 26-19 edge at halftime. In the second half, the Maroons patiently stuck to their plan on offense, allowing 90 seconds or so to elapse in each possession before taking a shot (there was no shot clock in those days) and not attempting any shot that was closely contested. Mississippi State was poised and determined throughout, but ultimately Loyola’s superiority on the boards proved too much to overcome. Loyola won 61-51. Harkness tallied 20 points, Rouse 16 points and 19 rebounds, and Hunter 12 points and 10 rebounds.

     Less than 24 hours after their physically and emotionally draining victory over Mississippi State, the Ramblers were back on the court facing Illinois in the regional championship game. Far from being exhausted, the Ramblers seemed to be gathering strength as the tournament progressed.
     The Illini had arrived by defeating Bowling Green, thus denying Loyola a chance to avenge one of its two losses. They were 20-5 and had shared the Big Ten championship. But they were no match for the Ramblers, whose swarming full-court press forced a succession of Illini turnovers and turned the game into a blowout shortly after halftime. Loyola led 40-34 two minutes into the second half. Three minutes later, the score was 53-34, and the rout was on. Loyola piled up a 28-point lead late in the second half and coasted to the finish. The final score was 79-64. In a sensational performance, Harkness scored 33 points. Rouse grabbed 19 rebounds and Hunter 15. “Loyola is the greatest offensive rebounding team I’ve ever seen,” said Illini coach Harry Combes.
     Cincinnati, Duke, and Oregon State joined Loyola in the Final Four at Freedom Hall in Louisville. Cincinnati, ranked No. 1 since the first preseason poll, was appearing in its fifth consecutive Final Four and was seeking its third straight national championship. Before worrying about the Bearcats, however, the Ramblers had to contend with Duke, which was riding a 20-game winning streak and sported a record of 27-2 (identical to Loyola’s).
     Duke came out in a zone defense which caused no trouble for Loyola. Time and again in the early going, Duke defenders strayed too far from the basket chasing Harkness and Miller, leaving the lane wide open for Hunter, who had a field day inside. Loyola’s offensive rebounding was devastating as well. “We just went out and jumped higher,” Ireland explained succinctly. The Ramblers built a 13-point lead by halftime. Led by their All-American forward Art Heyman, Duke played better in the second half and closed the gap to just 74-71 with 4:19 remaining. “Then,” Roy Damer wrote in the Tribune, “the Ramblers took off in their usual breathtaking manner, pouring in 20 points in four minutes and leaving the Atlantic Coast Conference champions crushed.” Loyola won 94-75, with Hunter matching Heyman’s game-high 29 points and also snatching 18 rebounds. Again the Ramblers spread the scoring around, with Harkness contributing 20 points, Miller 18, Egan 14, and Rouse 13.
     So it was that the iron men took the floor for the national championship game on Saturday, March 23. The standing-room only crowd was announced at 19,153—the same as the night before and the maximum allowed per fire regulations. The contest was televised nationally and carried in Chicago by WGN Channel 9; it was the very first Loyola game to be televised all season, which would have been inconceivable in later years when college basketball in general and the NCAA tournament in particular generated far more hoopla (not to mention revenue).
     Not surprisingly, the Cincinnati Bearcats also were there, having drubbed Oregon State 80-46. The Bearcats were now 29-1 for the season and 11-0 in the tournament since 1961. There was no question by this time that Loyola was for real, but many wondered whether any team could stand up to the Cincinnati juggernaut. The game presented two extremes in style and approach: Loyola was the top scoring team in the nation, at 93 points per game, while Cincinnati was the stingiest defensive team, with 53 points per game allowed. Something had to give.
     For most of the game, it looked as though the Ramblers were finally giving out. Cincinnati’s vaunted defense was airtight early on, forcing Loyola to miss 13 of its first 14 shots. As the Ramblers grew increasingly frustrated on offense, they began to let down at the defensive end. Cincinnati ran its plodding half-court offense nearly to perfection, setting screens, cutting to the basket, getting rebounds and tip-ins, and making numerous trips to the foul line. The Bearcats led 29-21 at the intermission, and it could have been worse. Most of Loyola’s field-goal attempts had been launched from the outskirts, and on the rare occasions when they’d gotten the ball down low, the Ramblers found a wall of defenders waiting. Harkness had been shut out entirely; he had not made a single field goal.
     The Ramblers were down by six points early in the second half when Hunter missed a bank shot that would have trimmed the deficit to four. Then Cincinnati tallied three times in short order to extend its lead to 37-25. A few minutes later it was 45-30. “We knew we didn’t have a chance to catch up,” Ireland said later, “unless we put the press on.”
     Less than 12 minutes remained on the clock. Loyola’s full-court press caused a turnover that resulted in a three-point play and gave Cincinnati center George Wilson his fourth foul. Wilson went to the bench for four minutes, and in the meantime forward Tom Thacker and guard Tony Yates each committed his fourth foul. The foul trouble forced the Bearcats to play even more conservatively than they always did. Loyola still trailed 48-37 with 7:38 left, but a jumper by Rouse and two free throws by Hunter made it 48-41 with just over six minutes to go. After Yates missed a free throw, Hunter secured the rebound and Harkness bagged a turnaround jumper from the foul line.
     Harkness’s first basket had come more than 35 minutes into the game. His second came a mere six seconds later, as he picked off an errant pass and glided in for an easy lay-up. Now it was 48-45 with 4:24 remaining, and the Bearcats were clearly rattled. They continued trying to stall, but the Ramblers fouled them each time to stop the clock. With the score 50-45, Harkness made one free throw and missed the second. Luckily, Cincinnati tipped the ball out of bounds under the basket. Loyola’s in-bounds pass went to Harkness, whose jumper made it 50-48 with 2:42 left.
     Hunter’s clutch tip-in of a missed jumper by Harkness kept Loyola’s hopes alive as the end of regulation play loomed. The Ramblers now trailed 53-52 with just 15 seconds left. As soon as Cincinnati inbounded the ball, Harkness fouled guard Larry Shingleton. Shingleton made his first free throw and could have all but clinched the game by making the second. But the ball bounced off the rim into the eager hands of Hunter, who hurled an outlet pass to Miller, who in turn fired the ball along to Harkness. Harkness unleashed a 12-foot jumper with five seconds left. It was good. The stunned Bearcats neglected to call timeout, so the horn sounded with the game tied at 54 (it was the first time Loyola had drawn even since the score was 4-4).
     When Harkness notched the first two points of overtime, the Ramblers had their first lead of the game. Wilson tallied on a layup for Cincinnati, then Miller canned a high-arcing 20-footer for Loyola. Shingleton got behind the Ramblers for a layup that tied the score at 58 with 2:15 remaining. Now, strangely, the Ramblers decided to hold onto the ball and go for the final shot. Almost a minute had elapsed when Miller tossed a bounce pass that hit Egan in the foot and rolled away. Shingleton dove after the ball for Cincinnati, followed closely by Egan, resulting in a jump ball between the two shortest men on the court. “Shingleton wasn’t much taller than me,” said Egan, “only about six feet. But I didn’t really question whether or not I could get the jump ball. The idea was to tip the ball between two of our guys to control it.”
     Egan did tip the ball first, and Miller caught it. There was just about a minute left to play. Miller got the ball to Harkness, who dribbled up court. Harkness, Egan, and Miller played keep-away from the Bearcats while Harkness looked for an opening. Finally, inside the final 10 seconds, Harkness made a move along the left side. Finding his path to the basket blocked by Ron Bonham, Harkness slid the ball across to Hunter. Hunter’s short jumper rolled around the rim and fell out. Rouse, slicing in from the right side, got both hands around the ball and guided it into the basket as time expired.
     The Ramblers were national champions.
     The five iron men had played the entire game, including overtime, without relief. They had shot just 27 percent and scored their lowest total of the season but had prevailed nonetheless. “I never thought we’d lose it,” said Rouse. “We came too far to lose it.” Ireland, among others, admitted that he hadn’t been quite so sure. “Man,” Miller said, “that must be the greatest comeback in the history of the tournament.”
     In later years, as the Ramblers looked back from across the decades to their miracle season, their stirring and unlikely victory over Cincinnati was a fond memory, of course. But the earlier game against Mississippi State was perhaps even more meaningful in the final analysis. “In a game like that you have two winners,” Harkness said. “Mississippi State made a statement to the community that broke down some of the barriers, and we played a part in it.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c)2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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