September 19, 2021

Loyola basketball pioneer Jerry Harkness dies at 81

INDIANAPOLIS – Former Loyola player Jerry Harkness, one of the ABA’s early Indiana Pacers and a civil rights pioneer who played in college basketball’s 1963 Game of Change, has passed away. He was 81 years old.

Harkness embodied the history of America itself. It came from nothing. What he did meant everything.

He gave Jackie Robinson credit for changing the course of his life. He witnessed hatred and tragedy, and late in his life reveled in love and ecstasy for his Loyola Ramblers.

Harkness’s life was one of the first.

He played for Loyola, the first team to win the NCAA tournament with no less than four black starters. He was Quaker Oats ‘first black salesperson and Indianapolis’ first black sports reporter.

“We all have a heavy heart at Loyola today,” said Loyola men’s basketball coach Drew Valentine. “Jerry was a true trailblazer not only in basketball, but in so many different fields, and the impact he had was immeasurable.”

‘I think the Lord is in there’

The Ramblers’ surprise run to the 2018 Final Four gave it a platform to revisit the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

“And it’s not by chance. I think the Lord is in there, ”he once said in an interview with IndyStar. “You are getting older and see, at least in my case, how my life has been.”

Harkness was one of four black starters recruited from Loyola by George Ireland. The coach was not trying to save the company. He was trying to save his job.

Ireland broke the unwritten rule of not having more than three black players on the pitch at a time. Loyola’s roster included four black starters – Harkness and Ron Miller, both of New York, and Vic Rouse and Les Hunter, both of Nashville, Tennessee – as well as white guard John Egan of Chicago. Loyola moved up to second in the national polls in the 1962-63 season.

Loyola reached the Final Four by beating Big Ten champion Illinois 79-64, with Harkness scoring 33 points, then defeating Duke 94-75 in the national semifinals. In the Louisville championship game against No.1 Cincinnati, the Ramblers were trailing with 15 points with 14 minutes remaining.

An all-round press helped Loyola cut the deficit and Harkness’s late basket forced overtime. His layup on OT’s opening tip gave Loyola his first lead of the game. A tip-in from Rouse to the buzzer took the Ramblers to a 60-58 victory and the national title.

It was March basketball. Before, there was madness.

In a February 23 game in Houston, Loyola won 62-58. Fans there shouted racist epithets and threatened as the team left for the locker room.

“I was scared to death,” Harkness recalls.

It got worse.

Harkness said he received threat letters ahead of the NCAA tournament. He was shocked that the senders had his address on campus.

He said the Ramblers’ emotions manifested themselves in a first 111-42 rout of Tennessee Tech, the most lopsided score in tournament history. Next, Loyola was pitted against the State of Mississippi in the Mideast Regional in East Lansing, Michigan, in what became known as The Game of Change.

The governor tried to block the game

Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett has filed an injunction barring the team from leaving the state. Bulldogs coach Babe McCarthy had already crossed the border and could not be served. The players all wanted to go, and they left.

Harkness said everything he knew about Mississippi whites was negative. A 14-year-old Chicago boy, Emmitt Till, was lynched there in 1955. Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, is said to be murdered in Mississippi three months after the Loyola / Mississippi State game.

Yet when Harkness and Joe Dan Gold, the Mississippi state captain, met on center court, it was as if all the strife around them was gone. Their eyes met. They shook hands. There were so many photographers capturing the image, Harkness said, that he can still hear the “pop, pop, pop” of the flash bulbs.

More than a game

“I will never forget that feeling,” he said. “I knew at the time that it was more than a game.”

Loyola won 61-51. That it was more than a game became evident. Harkness’s son Jerald made a 2008 documentary telling the story of Loyola and the state of Mississippi.

Harkness and Gold have kept in touch over the years, and the two have found they have a lot in common. Education was important to Gold, a longtime school administrator in Kentucky, and to Harkness. Both have battled cancer. Gold died in 2011 at the age of 68.

Sixteen months after the game, the state of Mississippi enrolled its first black student. Harkness said he later learned that 70% of Mississippi residents supported the team playing Loyola.

He hadn’t planned on playing such a role in the civil rights movement, but fate intervened.

“We kind of came together, the sport and the movement,” Harkness said.

Difficult moments

He was born in Harlem before moving to the Bronx. After his father left, he said, times were so tough that he put cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes. He was more of a runner than a basketball player, winning the Bronx championships in track and field and cross country.

He’s played basketball on teams hosted by Holcombe Rucker, a New York City playground manager for whom Rucker Park is named, and intramural. Harkness didn’t think he was good enough to play for his DeWitt Clinton High School team. A spectator saw it at the YMCA in Harlem and thought otherwise. Harkness was stunned.

“You’re not that bad,” was all the man said. Except the man who said it was Robinson, who in 1947 became the first black player in Major League Baseball.

Harkness became the top scorer for a championship team. He said he was a bad student because he never considered going to college. He couldn’t accept scholarships at St. John’s for track and field or NYU for basketball because he had failed the entrance exams.

A local coach persuaded Loyola to accept him and Harkness’s career path was set. He was selected in the second round of the 1963 NBA Draft by his hometown of New York Knicks, but was released after five games.

He landed a sales position at Quaker Oats and was on his way to a managerial position when he tried his luck in a new professional league, the ABA. At 27, he was in the Pacers roster in 1967. He played 81 games in two seasons, long enough to make history.

On November 13, 1967, his 88-foot lift beat the Dallas Chaparrals 119-118 at the end of the time limit. It remains the longest winning shot in professional basketball.

‘It was beautiful’

Harkness is best known for his Loyola years – the team was honored to the White House by President Barack Obama and inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, in 2013 – and for their community service. When he got to Indianapolis, he said, he didn’t know where he might live.

He said Indianapolis, like the rest of the country, has changed. He would know. He played in the game of change.

“It was wonderful. Sport does that. Sport does that, ”Harkness said.

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