Jerry Harkness, a former United States forward who led the integrated basketball team at Loyola University in Chicago in 1963 NCAA Championship, en route beating a Mississippi state team that previously refused to play against black athletes, died Tuesday in Indianapolis. He was 81 years old.
The death, in a hospital, was confirmed by her son, Jerald. No cause was given.
The 1963 tournament, and in particular Loyola’s second-round game against Mississippi State on March 11, exemplified the racial tension that prevailed in the sport in the early 1960s. Mississippi State Bulldogs, all white, had chosen not to participate in three previous NCAA tournaments, to avoid facing black opponents.
George Ireland, the Loyola Ramblers coach, had angered rival coaches by throwing four black players, including Harkness, violating a practice at the time of not playing more than three.
“I don’t know if these were unwritten rules he didn’t follow, but putting four Blacks back then wasn’t popular at all,” Harkness told the Chicago Tribune in 2018.
The game, in East Lansing, Mich., Was covered by more than the usual number of reporters and photographers for a regional semi-final clash.
“You don’t realize that history is being made until I come out to shake hands with the captain in Mississippi State and see all those lights go out, clack, clack, clack, “Harkness said in a 2000 interview with Black Oral History. website The makers of history.
Although the Ramblers received hate messages early in the tournament, there were no incidents during the game. Loyola won easily, 61-51, and Harkness led all scorers with 20 points.
“They were perfect men, like every other team we’ve played against,” Bulldogs captain Joe Dan Gold said afterward. “They beat us on the offensive board.”
Loyola’s victory preceded by three years a more heralded game in sports civil rights history: the NCAA final between Texas Western, which pitched five black players, and the all-white Kentucky team. Texas Western won 72-65.
The Loyola-Mississippi State game almost didn’t happen, and it wouldn’t have happened if the segregationists, led by Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi, had succeeded.
The state of Mississippi wanted to participate in the tournament – the team had won the Southeastern Conference title – but a state senator persuaded a judge to issue a temporary injunction to prevent the team from going. in East Lansing.
“The most important thing back then was we didn’t know if they were coming,” Harkness told ESPN in 2012.
But Mississippi State President Dean Colvard concocted a plan to avoid being served with the injunction, according to an ESPN account. He told Babe McCarthy, the team’s coach, to travel to Memphis while he was on his way to Alabama for a speech.
An assistant coach then took the freshmen and a few reserves in a private plane. Once they appeared in the shelter of a process server, he summoned the rest of the team for the flight, from Starkville, Mississippi, to Nashville, where McCarthy met them. The team, once again united, flew to Michigan to face Loyola. At this point, the injunction had been suspended.
The Ramblers continued after beating Mississippi State. In the next two rounds, they beat the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Duke University.
In the final game, against the defending two-time champion, University of Cincinnati, Loyola trailed 15 points midway through the second half, but tied the score with six seconds left on a shot from Harkness. The Ramblers won in overtime, 60-58.
Jerald Harkness was born on May 7, 1940, in Harlem, to Lindsey and Lucille (Bailey) Harkness. Her father was a security guard. His parents divorced when he was young and his mother raised Jerry and his sister, Marlene, on her own.
Athletic but shy, Jerry didn’t feel confident enough to try his hand at the DeWitt Clinton High School basketball team in the Bronx. But one day, while playing basketball at the YMCA in Harlem, an observer told him he was talented.
“You know, you’re not that bad of an athlete,” he reminded the watcher, baseball great Jackie Robinson, telling him. “You might be able to get a scholarship for college.”
Harkness made the Clinton varsity team and scored 14 points to lead the Governors to the New York Public School Athletic League Championship in 1958.
He moved to Loyola, where Coach Ireland, needing to attract talent, recruited four black players: Harkness and Ron Miller from New York, Les Hunter and Vic Rouse from a high school in Nashville. The only white starter on the 1963 title team was Johnny Egan.
Harkness averaged 21.6 points per game over his three years at Loyola University, and the team’s record improved to 29-2 (including all five tournament wins) from 15- 8.
He was drafted by the Knicks but only played one season before going to work as a salesman for Quaker Oats. In 1967, the inaugural year of the American Basketball Association, he joined the Indiana Pacers of the new league. He played two seasons there, averaging 7.3 points per game.
He then spent approximately 25 years as the first black fundraiser for United Way of Indianapolis. During this period, he was also a sports presenter on television in Indianapolis; he would have been the first black in Indiana to hold this position. He also opened a sneakers store in 1993 and served as executive director of 100 Black Men of Indianapolis, a youth mentoring organization.
In addition to his son – who produced a documentary, “Game of Change” (2009), about the Loyola-Mississippi State game from the Bulldogs’ perspective – Harkness is survived by his wife, Sarah (Scuggs) Harkness; his daughter, Julie Harkness Arnold; and four grandchildren. Her first marriage ended in divorce.
Harkness developed a friendship with Joe Dan Gold, his rival from the state of Mississippi, and in 2011 attended his funeral. Beside Gold’s coffin was a vivid memory of their match: a black-and-white photograph of the two men shaking hands in the middle of the field. cried Harkness.
“It hurt me,” he said said to the Indianapolis star in 2018. “I lost it.”