(Special to The Root) — Fifty years ago, when viewers across the country tuned in to watch the Loyola Ramblers play the Cincinnati Bearcats in the 1963 NCAA men's basketball championship, they saw for the first time a sight that's familiar to us today: Most of the players on the court, seven of 10, were black. At that time many college coaches were reluctant to put too many black players on the floor. They joked among themselves that they could play one on the road, two at home and three if they were way behind.
Michael Lenehan's book, Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball, traces the integration of college basketball through the stories of three teams that played in that landmark tournament: Loyola, one of the first major college teams to regularly start four black players; Cincinnati, another team in the forefront of racial change; and Mississippi State, an all-white team that defied their governor by sneaking out of state to play Loyola in the tournament.
More than a sports book, Ramblers reaches deep into the civil rights movement and the Great Migration to tell the stories of the players and the journeys that brought them to their historic moment. The following excerpt is about the childhood of George Wilson, one of the stars of the Cincinnati team. After college Wilson won a gold medal in the 1964 Olympics. He was drafted by the Cincinnati Royals and played seven years in the NBA.
Shortly after George was born — in 1942, in Meridian, Mississippi — his father went to war. When the war ended his parents went separate ways. George and his father went to California, along with his father's parents and numerous aunts and uncles who found work in the defense plants there. Young George wound up living in L.A. with his grandparents. Meanwhile his mother moved to Chicago and remarried.
When George got to be six years old and too much for his grandparents to handle, a family friend who worked as a Pullman porter brought him to Chicago on the Super Chief. It was an adventure for the boy. He enjoyed being on his own in a cozy sleeping compartment. Then "I got to Chicago and saw my mom for the first time in a long time. I could tell it was my mom because she had the same green eyes."
Wilson's new family lived on the west side of Chicago in the Francisco Terrace Apartments, an 1895 building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Originally meant as one of the first "projects" for low-income families, it had been converted to co-op apartments in the '30s. George's stepfather, "Mr. Henry," worked in the parking lot of the Conrad Hilton Hotel downtown. "He was from Alabama, so he had that — he had that segregation in him. He just thought white folks ruled and he couldn't say nothing or do nothing. He was the greatest guy. He always had wisdom for you. He always used to tell me be ten minutes early. You look at my watch, my watch is always early. My clocks are always ten to fifteen minutes early. I got that from Mr. Henry."
"I was always a young man that listened to my elders and did what they told me," Wilson said. He never missed a day of school. He always had a job. He remembered the name of every boss, every coach, every person who ever gave him a tip or a break. At age 69 he still remembered how the white workers at the downtown Walgreens treated him when he was 12 or 13.
"My buddy Phillip Stone, he was an only child and I'm an only child, so we were running buddies. When we were in the eighth grade we used to go downtown to State and Lake. Go to downtown Chicago, 1954, '55, '56 — you see what I mean?" What he meant was that downtown Chicago was still pretty white.
"And we would see the movies before they came to the inner city. So we could tell our friends, Oh yeah, man, you're gonna like Davy Crockett when it gets out here, you're gonna like The Ten Commandments, you know. This was our thing once a month. Phillip and I would go downtown, we'd come out of the movie, we'd walk down the street and go to Walgreens and we'd sit at the counter. What did I do? Did I integrate Walgreens on State and Lake? We didn't see any other black people there except us.
"I'll never forget, to this day, I always had ham salad on toast. I had a strawberry shake and Phillip had a chocolate shake. And we'd share one piece of apple pie. We were gentlemen. We were just as neat as could be. We'd finish our shakes and put 'em there, put our forks and our spoons together and count our little money. So guess what happened? After a while, all the waitresses and the managers at that Walgreens, who were all white, they would look forward to us coming in, sitting there, and they would ask us questions. How did it go this month? How are your classes? How are your grades? And that one piece of apple pie kept getting bigger and bigger.
"I don't know what went on in those people's minds, but I guess they figured if these two little brothers come in here and know what they're doing, let's see what happens. Instead of prejudging us as two little black fellas who are gonna come in here and steal everything, or throw everything around, just let us prove how we're gonna be. You know, they treated us like their sons. That's why I love Walgreens to this day."
Excerpted with permission from Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball, published by Agate Midway. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Lenehan. For more information about the book and author, visit michaellenehan.com.