Twenty-five years have passed since Loyola of Chicago beat Mississippi State in the second round of the NCAA basketball tournament, in East Lansing, Mich., and Joe Dan Gold remains incredulous—not of the score, which was Ramblers 61, Maroons 51, but of the fact that his team played the game at all. Gold, who was the Maroons' captain, says, "It's just mind-boggling to think what we had to do just to play one little basketball game."
On March 2, Mississippi State president Dr. Dean W. Colvard announced that his school's SEC championship team would defy the unwritten code of bigotry that had prohibited Mississippi's segregated universities from competing against schools with integrated rosters—a policy that had cost the Maroons (as State's teams were then known; they're now the Bulldogs) berths in the NCAA tournaments of 1959, '61 and '62. Colvard's decision so enraged powerful segregationists in the state legislature that on March 13, the eve of the Maroons' departure for Michigan, state senator Billy Mitts, a former Mississippi State student body president and cheerleader, obtained a court injunction prohibiting the team from leaving Mississippi.
Wade Walker, then Mississippi State's athletic director, recalls that before school officials were formally served with the injunction, Colvard "called us and told us to get out of town." That night Colvard left Starkville, where the school is located, for a previously scheduled speaking engagement in Alabama, while Walker, basketball coach Babe McCarthy and assistant athletic director Ralph (Rabbit) Brown drove across the border to Tennessee.
The next morning a Mississippi State assistant coach, Jerry Simmons, drove to Bryan Field, a private airport in Starkville, and scouted the area for law-enforcement officials. Determining that the coast was clear, he phoned to summon the Maroons from the campus dorm where they were waiting. They flew to Nashville to get Walker, McCarthy and Brown, and then went on to Michigan.
"I felt a lot of remorse and animosity," says Walker, who now does promotional work for the Landmark Land Co. in La Quinta, Calif. "There I was, acting like a fugitive and running from the law because I was doing something I believed was right."
Guard Red Stroud, now the basketball coach at Morton High in Morton, Miss., recalls the loss to Loyola: "We were trying too hard to be too nice. We wanted to show people that we could get along [with the black players]." McCarthy—who died of cancer in 1977—was asked after the game what kind of homecoming he expected in Starkville: "I don't think they're going to shoot us down."
Indeed, the Maroons were welcomed home warmly and without incident, the shrill voices of segregation having been muted. Says guard Aubrey Nichols, now an attorney in Columbus, Miss., "Our game convinced a lot of people that we should have competed earlier."
The pregame handshake was as much a media event as the game itself.