Sunday, April 6, 2003

Loyola pioneered integrated basketball



By PAUL KUHARSKY
The Tennessean

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - They knew each other inside and out, forward and back. Two years of high school. Three years of college.

From Nashville's Pearl High School, Vic Rouse and Leslie Hunter accepted basketball scholarships from the same school, signing on to play and study at Loyola-Chicago. By their junior year - their fifth season together - they had become intertwined.

"They knew the moves of each other," said Red Rush, who broadcast Loyola's games. "And they had confidence in it."

They were able, also, to help each other through the ugliness of race relations in the early 1960s. The Ramblers, who started four black players with a white point guard in 1963, endured major abuse in places where integrated college basketball teams were not welcome.

Know each other like that, through that, and maybe one guy following another guy's miss with a buzzer-beating put-back isn't such a big deal.

Even if it wins a national championship in overtime.

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Forty years ago, at Louisville's Freedom Hall in the 1963 NCAA men's basketball championship game, Hunter missed a short shot at the end of overtime, after the Ramblers had milked 2:30 off the clock and prepared for the last shot. Well-positioned, Rouse rose off the floor and laid the ball in as time expired.

Loyola 60, two-time defending champ Cincinnati 58.

Their story is not nearly as popular as the one that unfolded three years later, when all-black Texas Western beat all-white Kentucky in the final. But Loyola was a pioneer in integrated basketball too, as well as a somewhat unlikely national champion.

"Just come out of nowhere and win a national championship, a little small Jesuit school, cramped in between Lake Michigan and Sheridan Road in Chicago," Hunter said recently from his Overland Park, Kan., home. "That's quite an accomplishment."

Still Rouse's shot goes largely unnoticed, buried deep beneath the more modern last-second title game heroics of Lorenzo Charles, Michael Jordan and Keith Smart.

George Andrews, a Chicagoan who rooted for that team as a 14-year-old, knows why: "They don't show anything that's not in color anymore. I guess that's the world. It's a different mentality. They just don't get it."

How ironic that the play of a team that started four black players and a white point guard is recorded only in black and white.

Pontiac's commercials during March Madness that conclude Monday night have featured a long list of famous tournament buzzer-beaters, sans Rouse's, whose bucket was broadcast on tape delay in Chicago, because the game was secondary to the state high school championship, also won by a Chicago school, Carver.

"They weren't disrespected, they were underrated," said Andrews, who grew up to become a sports attorney representing such players as Magic Johnson and Isaiah Thomas. "All the conventional wisdom went the other way.

"Put it in context: Cincinnati had won two years in a row and was the prohibitive favorite. It was not on the level of Villanova beating Georgetown or NC State beating Houston. But coming back from 15 down and winning the way they did at the buzzer ..."

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Rouse, who died in 1999, and Hunter first met in 1961, when Rouse came to Nashville from East St. Louis, Ill. As juniors, Rouse was the starter at center, and Hunter was his backup on a team that was in the middle of a three-year run of "national championships," titles won at Tennessee State in tournaments featuring mostly southern black schools.

Their senior year, Pearl Coach William Gupton moved Rouse to forward and he and the blossoming Hunter began to grow closer. According to Hunter, the two were still the fourth- and fifth-best players among the starting five, ranking behind Teddy Swanigan, Richard Bennett and Harry Gilmore, the only other member of the unit still alive.

Loyola-Chicago Coach George Ireland had visited Nashville a few years earlier to recruit Ronnie Lawson, who ended up going to UCLA and transferring to Fisk. Ireland returned to track Rouse and Hunter, and got a package deal when Hunter decided UCLA was too far from home.

In Ireland, the duo found a coach unafraid to play blacks, but hard to get along with. An All-American at Notre Dame and a friend of UCLA Coach John Wooden, Ireland had a good read on two things: basketball talent and his job security.

In nine seasons at the school through 1959-60, his record was 107-106.

"The thing that I can say is he was a guy that chose to play and recruit blacks when others wouldn't," Hunter said. "That's got to be a plus any way you look at it. I think he did it more for selfish reasons than for any type of humanitarian efforts, and maybe I am totally wrong."

Hunter said he didn't get along with the coach and that Rouse's relationship with Ireland was even worse than his. He saw Ireland as a private man without a lot of friends who certainly wasn't looking for any on his team.

"He just wanted you to do a job for him, not that he was going to do anything for you," Hunter said. "He was selfish, but he knew the game, he was a good basketball coach. ... But we were able to coexist because we were working on something that was really good."

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To some degree, Ireland shielded his team from racial vitriol, serving as a first line of defense on hate mail, absorbing angry phone calls.

But he also used the climate to motivate his players.

Hunter recalled a tough game in Huntington, W. Va., against Marshall when the Ramblers had to sneak out of a locker room back door to avoid an angry mob.

"When you are 17, 18 years old, you're not afraid of anything," Hunter said. "Except for that time in Huntington, I didn't feel my safety was ever in doubt. I always thought it was worth it, because it was a means to an end for me."

The free college degree meant everything to Hunter.

In Houston, the team was spit on and targeted by penny-throwing spectators. In New Orleans, the black players stayed with black families while the white ones were at a hotel.

In a 1963 NCAA Tournament game against Mississippi State - a school which broke state laws and precedent by sneaking off to East Lansing, Mich., in order to play against an integrated team - Loyola saw confederate flags in the stands.

"It was taxing on our minds to go into a place like Houston and have them throwing stuff at you and cursing and spitting and all of that stuff," Hunter said. "I think Ireland shielded us from all that a lot ...

"That kind of fueled the black guys. I know it fueled me to play a little bit harder when we came up against an all-white team. I think Ireland used that to his advantage too: 'Let's show these guys down here.' He was talking as if he was a black guy, also."

John Egan, a Chicago lawyer who was the team's point guard and lone white starter, was frequently called an "albino," a jab he hardly felt.

All the while, the team knew it could be something special. Well before the season drew to a close, Hunter wrote his girlfriend a letter, predicting the Ramblers were on a collision course with Cincinnati.

As things unfolded, no one was monitoring the social impact connected to the team's success.

Before college, Hunter had limited contact with whites. On the North Side Chicago campus of Loyola, he made a wide range of friends, including Egan.

"These barriers we were breaking were sort of unwritten; it wasn't as if there was a lot of publicity," Egan said. "The old saying was something like, 'You play two blacks at home, three on the road and four when you're down.' It wasn't on their mind that they were part of a barrier-breaking team."

When people told Egan the team was successful only because a white player was quarterbacking it, Egan told a lie to help prompt them to believe otherwise, because he knew their assessment was wrong.

"I'd say, "You wouldn't believe this, but it's Hunter who calls all the plays,' " Egan said.

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Loyola played a furious brand of basketball, one Ireland referred to as "organized confusion."

While the Texas Western-Kentucky final in 1966 is widely regarded as THE game that assured the full integration of college basketball, the attention Loyola got was often more a result of its style of play.

"People tend to look at the real polar construct of Texas Western versus Kentucky, the five (black) starters against the storied legend of Adolph Rupp and the greatness of Kentucky," Hunter said. "I think they look at that as the turning point of college athletics.

"But I think people kind of look to us because we were exciting, we did a lot of running, and people like to see racehorse basketball."

Rouse and Hunter, at 6-foot-8 or 6-foot-9, were big men who could rebound and score. They could also run. Ireland expected them to crank out six-minute miles during training.

Intense practices ended with one-on-one games and competitiveness trumped everything else.

"Nobody would ever breeze through a practice," Hunter said. "Everything was like a grudge thing. It was like the games were easier than the practices."

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In Louisville, Hunter had 29 points and 18 rebounds in the semifinal win over Duke. The Blue Devils' Art Heyman scored 29 (on 11-of-30 shooting) to go with 12 rebounds.

The one game got Heyman, a white player from New York, the Most Outstanding Player Award. Three players from Cincinnati also made the All-Tournament Team, with Hunter (who put up 45 points and 29 rebounds in two games) the only representative of the winner.

The semifinals and the championship game were played on consecutive nights, and the Ramblers got no rest between them, gathering in the room Hunter and Rouse shared.

"Rouse was the son of a preacher man, he was preaching about how we were going to win," Hunter said. "He was going through all the motions of his dad, a Baptist minister. We were just doing the 'Amens' and everything, just really psyching ourselves up for the game. We didn't get any sleep that night, that may have thrown our timing off."

Cincinnati looked to be in good shape in the big game, building a lead of 15 points with 12 minutes to go.

Jerry Harkness, Loyola's senior and star, has said he was hoping the Ramblers could make it respectable for all the people watching on televisioin.

But Hunter reflected on a three-minute, 24-point spurt the previous night, and believed something big would still happen. Loyola had shot poorly, and a good stretch was bound to arrive.

"Every game there was a point, about three or four minutes, where we just took over, stole passes, blocked shots, got easy baskets," Hunter said. "In my mind I kept saying, 'When is that spurt going to come?' Then boom."

The Ramblers' five starters played all of regulation plus overtime. They turned the ball over only three times, forcing Cincinnati into 16. Both Rouse and Hunter shot just 6 of 22, with Rouse scoring 15 and pulling in a game-high 12 rebounds. Hunter led the scoring with 16 points and also had 11 rebounds.

Harkness, who hit the shot that forced OT, surprised Hunter, passing out of the last shot in overtime. Rouse did not surprise Hunter by putting his miss back in for the win at the buzzer.

"Vic was in perfect position," Hunter said, in a well-rehearsed line that almost surely came with his eyes closed, as he watched it unfold again.

Then came the suffocating celebration.

"You just grab," Hunter said. "I started feeling sorry for Rouse, an assistant coach had him in such a bear hug, it looked like Rouse was losing air. You're trying to pull people off him and still celebrate."

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Radio man Rush, who also has broadcast games for the Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and DePaul in a career that spanned more than 30 years, said he "never has seen a more unselfish team.

"... I think it definitely helped build some bridges."

Chicago embraced the Ramblers, saluting the only men's college champions Illinois has ever produced. Hunter said the city was simply starved for a winner.

"As long as they knew they could look at you and you were going to the South Side after you win this game, then you're all right," he said, referring to the black section of town, which was not where the campus was. "It just felt like everybody there was pulling for us. ...We still had our problems when people didn't know who we were.

"They didn't want us to come to the beaches, the North Side beaches, they would quite frankly tell us, 'You've got your own beaches down on the South Side.' I said, 'I don't live on the South Side, I live on (campus on) the North Side.' That happened at a lot of different places. Segregation was still alive, but the white Loyola kids were spectacular."

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The following season, with Harkness gone, the Ramblers were still sometimes four-fifths black. Seniors Rouse, Hunter, Ron Miller and Egan remained, with Jim Coleman, who was black, and Chuck Wood and Eddie Manzke, who were white, getting time in the other spot.

Loyola was rated the top team in the nation, but Hunter said the Jesuit campus just about ground to a halt after the assassination of President Kennedy.

"It seemed like things just weren't as important anymore," he said.

That team went 22-6, beating Murray State in the first round of the NCAAs before losing to Michigan in the Mideast regional semifinals. The Ramblers capped the season with a consolation win over Kentucky.

Egan said that final season was not as good as it could have been. A pioneering team that made great strides in mixing blacks and whites struggled on a smaller level with the very issue its lineup addressed so directly.

"I think it was the fault of the four of us," he said. "For not properly integrating the fifth."




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