Michael Lenehan: Champion Loyola

January 24th, 2013

The Third City’s proud to publish excerpts from Michael Lenehan’s forthcoming book, Ramblers — the story of the 1963 championship Loyola University team “that changed the color of college basketball”….

Jerry Harkness thought it was ordained somehow. It had to be. Too much luck and coincidence were involved, too many dramatic twists. Like it all pointed to this moment. A poor kid raised in a fatherless home in Harlem starts playing high school basketball in his senior year. A struggling coach who has seen him play just once—on a bad day—offers him a scholarship to a college he knows nothing about in a place he’s never been, a Jesuit commuter school in Chicago. Four years later he’s an All American on national TV, the captain and leading scorer of the third-ranked college basketball team in the country—the Loyola Ramblers, underdogs but contenders in the 1963 NCAA championship.

It couldn’t have happened if the dorm at Texas Southern hadn’t burned down just before Harkness was to enroll.

It couldn’t have happened if his teammate Jack Egan hadn’t been snubbed by the University of Iowa.

Or if forward Vic Rouse hadn’t overcome his childhood polio, defying doctors who said he’d probably be gimpy for life.

It couldn’t have happened if coach George Ireland hadn’t flouted the conventions of the day by starting four black players night in and night out.

Harkness would tell these stories for years, refining them till he learned to hold the punchlines for dramatic effect. For example, he played playground basketball but didn’t think he was good enough to make his high school team. And then one day a guy walked up to him at the Harlem Y and told him, you know, you’re pretty good. You could get a scholarship for that, go to college. And that guy was…

Jackie Robinson.

Here’s another one: Loyola center Leslie Hunter wanted to go to college with his high school friend and teammate Vic Rouse. Hunter, 6-4 in high school, had ability but little polish. He was shorter than Rouse by a couple of inches and not as mature emotionally or athletically; in their junior year of high school he was Rouse’s backup. But George Ireland was willing to take them as a twosome. And in the fall of 1960, when they arrived on the Loyola campus, Hunter was…

6-7.

So as Jerry Harkness stood at center court in Louisville’s Freedom Hall, awaiting the opening tip of the NCAA final, he figured he’d been led there by fate. He knew how this story was supposed to end.

And then he ran into Tom Thacker.

Thacker too was an All American, and unlike Harkness he had been here before. His team, the University of Cincinnati Bearcats, was playing for a place in history, to become the first team ever to win three NCAA titles in a row. They were the Goliaths of college basketball, with three starters who would later play in the NBA. They were ranked first in defense among major college teams, allowing their opponents an average of only 52.6 points per game. They played a patient, deliberate game, moving and passing as long as it took to produce close-in, easy shots. If they didn’t score much they didn’t care, as long as their opponents scored less.

 

Jerry Harkness (# 15) and teammates listen to the coach….

 

Loyola was almost the exact opposite. Competing in the tournament for the first time ever, the Ramblers were the highest-scoring team in the country, with an average of 92.9 points per game. They scored many of their points on the fast break. Their big men could run and Harkness, a cross-country star in high school, could run for hours. They were quick with their hands and feet. They played a harassing full-court defense and turned it into transition offense, stealing the ball and intercepting passes, scoring easy baskets on the turnovers. If their opponents scored a lot of points they didn’t care; Loyola’s aim was to score more.

Thacker introduced himself to Harkness about 30 seconds after the tip, on Loyola’s first possession. Harkness took a pass on the right side of the court about 18 feet from the basket. Immediately he turned to drive around Thacker.

“I knew he was guarding me way to my left,” Harkness recalled many years later. “I’m left-handed, and I go to my left a lot. I was gonna fool him and start off going to my right.” Dribbling with his right hand he quickly gained a step on Thacker—or so he thought. “When I took that first couple of dribbles, I felt, ooh, I’m on my way in, I fooled him. I got him. I’m in front. And I’m getting ready to go up…”

As Harkness drove toward the basket, Thacker was behind him off his left shoulder. Yet somehow Thacker managed to reach his right hand all the way around Harkness’s back and smack the ball away before Harkness could put it up.

“I was shocked,” Harkness said. “That never happened. I had him.”

Thacker had learned the move on the playground. A kid named Les Scott used it on him repeatedly. “He was a white boy. One hell of a ballplayer. He taught me that trick, and ever since I did it on my opponents. I let him think he’s past me, but I stay close to him, because I know my arms are long enough to reach around him. As he gets past me, boom, I’m around him like this and the ball’s gone.”

“That really got me,” Harkness said. “He’s right in my head, right away. Early in the game, he was letting me know: It ain’t gonna be easy.”

And it wasn’t. With Thacker on his every move, Harkness could do nothing right. He rushed shots, changed the angle of his arm, pushed off the wrong foot—anything to keep the ball away from Thacker or get off a shot before Thacker could close in. The leading scorer on the highest-scoring team in the country did not get a point in the first half. When he made his first field goal there would be fewer than five minutes left in the game.

As Harkness went, so went Loyola. They missed 13 of their first 14 shots from the field. In the first eight minutes they scored four points. At halftime they had a mere 21. They had made only 8 baskets in 34 attempts.

Their defense wasn’t bad, and Cincinnati wasn’t playing all that well either. They had only 29 at the half. But the Bearcats were getting the rebounds and Loyola’s fast break was stymied. Cincinnati’s big man, 6-8 George Wilson, was killing them. “This was shocking,” Harkness remembered. “I’ve never seen a guy out-jump Hunter and Rouse like that.”

 

Cincinnati was a two-time champion!

 

In the second half Cincinnati built their lead. In one stretch they sank five shots out of six; in another, their sharpshooter Ron Bonham hit three in a row. With 12:29 to go in the game, they led by 15 points, 45–30.

Harkness thought of his mother watching at home in the Bronx. He thought of his high school teammates and his playground buddies, most of whom were watching him on TV for the first time. The neighborhood celebrity, “stinking up the joint.”

He thought about the night before: Having slaughtered Duke in the semi on Friday night, he and his teammates had celebrated past 2:00 AM, running up and down the hall in their hotel, pounding each other on the chest and smacking each other with pillows, psyching each other up for the final game, telling themselves over and over “We’re playing for the national title! We gotta win! We gotta win!” Had they blown it by staying up too late? Or had they simply met their match? Either way, Harkness found himself in a different story from the one he’d imagined. He was embarrassed. He saw it slipping away. All he wanted now was to make it respectable, get the lead down to single digits. “Oh, gosh, let’s just make it close.”

His teammate Jack Egan was also embarrassed. And afraid. In 1963, 15 points was a big hole to climb out of. There was no three-point shot in college basketball then; worse, there was no shot clock. A team with a lead could pass and dribble and play keepaway as long as their skills allowed, and at Cincinnati the skills were practiced diligently. The Bearcats had perfected the stall.

Egan, a cocky kid from the Southwest Side of Chicago, was not the type to get discouraged, but he did not see a way Loyola could win. “It’s a shock for us to have 30 points at this point in the game. You know, we’re used to scoring 90-some points a game. And then there’s the fear, at least in the back of my mind, that all of a sudden, in another couple of minutes, they’re just gonna take the air out of the ball and we’re gonna be playing the cat-and-mouse game. We’ve only scored 30 in all this time, and they’re gonna hold the ball now. Can you get 15 more points with them getting zero? That’s what the fear is in my mind: we can’t catch up if they hold the ball—and they do it every game.”

Time out Loyola.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about Michael’s book, go to his website, michaellenehan.com.

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