Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self employed a variety of strategies while securing the Jayhawks ’fourth national title earlier this month. Suffice it to say, how many Black players he chose was not a talking point.
But six decades ago the composition of the team was a significant milestone for George Ireland of Loyola. His decision to start four Black players not only proved the difference in the Ramblers ’NCAA title race in 1963; it became a similar moment to Jackie Robinson who signed with the Dodgers 75 years ago – one of those decisions that led to a sport that became more inclusive, and also helped fuel the civil rights movement in the United States. And yet, for a pivotal event like the Ramblers’ ’63 title, he stopped for a long time in the shadow of a West Texas team that won the 1966 NCAA title with five Black Starters – A matchup of David and Goliath commemorated on the classic Jerry Bruckheimer Glory Road. Even recent members of the Ramblers basketball team didn’t know much more than the principles of the ’63 team’s research – even when the story first returned during the Ramblers ’recent history book to the 2018 Final Four “And we have relationships with those guys,” says Lucas Williamson, a co-captain on the Ramblers 2021-22 team. “Especially pre-Covid, they were always around – at practice, at games. We know them. But we never really talked about the racial issues that had really happened.
The CBS / Paramount + documentary, The Loyola Project, tells the hidden story of the ’63 team. It mixes archive footage, graphic novel-style reconstructions, and interviews with members of the 63rd team (also: Sister Jean appears!) For most of an hour, the document depicts the Ramblers’ journey to the top from the mountain of college basketball – a road done. especially fraught by the unwritten rule against playing more than two Black players at a time. Three was really pushing.
Ireland’s decision to play four seems to make him a true White Shadow, a true ally in wrestling, while pioneering the high-pressure style that has become the standard in basketball. But the truth, director Patrick Creadon found it, was much more complex. In retrospect, Ireland’s choice to recruit black players from the city center seems less motivated by altruism than the desperation of being a coach in the hot seat. Despite the physical demands of his fast-paced style of play, Ireland brought the Ramblers to the ground, their habit of rarely replacing beginners who nicknamed him “The Iron Five”. Even more troubling was Ireland’s apathy for the welfare of its Black players outside the court. They were used as props in the dances of Loyola’s all-white school, were boarded on the black side of New Orleans segregated by a big street game, and were forced to suffer from abusive racial slurs. Overall, Ireland have just raised a finger to defend or protect the Black Ramblers against the prevalent ugliness of the day.
And in the rare cases that Ireland has interfered with, it has been heavy. After Jerry Harkness, the team’s best player in the NCAA Finals, signaled a pair of threatening letters, Ireland began intercepting all hate mail addressed to Black Ramblers players – a noble act , notionally. But when the threats became too real, Ireland sent a security detail to its daughters, not its Black players. He never returned any of that mail to the players, leading some to think that Ireland had made the threat in a wrong attempt to motivate their team.
But letters really do exist. Ireland’s daughter, Judy, keeps them under lock and key. “He had three full envelopes,” says Creadon. “I saw probably 125 letters, but I had reason to believe that there were probably 400 or 500, which included everything from the hidden death threats to the things KKK signed to the word n being constantly thrown. It was terrible.
“But what happened next was weird. I told the players I saw the mail, and they said, ‘We want it.’ It’s our mail. We are no longer children. We want to see it for ourselves.
That started a year of back-and-forth conversation between the production company and the Irish family to release the mail, and ended with the family business, even when Harkness died last year during the creation of The Loyola Project. “It was always‘ Well, with all this George Floyd stuff going on and these crazy BLMers, if we release this mail, who knows what might happen? ”And I just remember thinking, who are you defending here?” Creadon says.
Unfortunately, relatively little of this drama plays out in the camera. But this is not necessarily to the detriment of the Loyola Project. The doc does a good job of demonstrating the current allies the Ramblers have on their side – not least the all-white Mississippi State basketball team, which has ignored its governor’s ban on playing integrated opponents and lost to Loyola in the second round of the NCAA Tournament (aka The Game of Change). And Creadon cleverly abandons his aesthetic pride and includes snippets of a Zoom call between members of the ’63 team and the recent team, which was revealing on both sides. “It was the smallest things that really bothered us,” says Williamson, who specializes in journalism. “Like Ireland [displaying] the national championship trophy at a barber shop they were unable to enter. Or we are absolutely celebrated on campus for making the Final Four and being treated like a real reality – but they feel like invisible, even after we have win. Jerry couldn’t even afford an apartment in Rogers Park.
But the real mastermind of Creadon and his team was to return his film to Williamson to provide the narration and contribute a little writing. “We realized that the more Lucas weighed on the story, the more valuable his perspective was,” Creadon says. “Just walk in the same shoes as Jerry Harkness.”
“I was hesitant at first,” Williamson says of joining the Loyola Project. “I knew the story – not as well as I used to, but I knew how serious it was. It meant a lot to me, and I didn’t want to be the one to learn it.”
What Williamson ended up doing was bringing a fair degree of skepticism to a strenuous chapter of history that could easily have been transformed into another whitewashed civil rights tale. How cleverly it took us so long for Jackie Robinson’s story of the moment “63 Ramblers” to be told in full, The Loyola Project can at least say that she said it the right way – with equal insight and empathy depth.