March Madness, Agate-style--here in the midst of the 2013 NCAA tournament, we've just published Ramblers, the first book by Chicago author Michael Lenehan. Ramblers is a sweeping, meticulously researched, beautifully told account of the 1963 NCAA tournament championship, won by the Ramblers of the university now known as Loyola Chicago. In the course of the book, Lenehan delves deeply not only into the backgrounds of the Loyola players and coach, but also the stories behind the Cincinnati Bearcats, Loyola's opponent in the championship game, and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team Loyola defeated in an earlier round. This fiftieth anniversary of Loyola's championship is an opportune time to revisit that particular tournament, and how it illustrated the ways that sports were reshaping people's thoughts and opinions about race at the height of the civil rights era.

Michael Lenehan photo by Rose Lenehan

What first prompted your interest in this story?

I have a memory of watching the 1963 championship game with my dad. Maybe not an accurate memory, but one of the things I’ve learned doing this book is that memory is a tricky thing. And then some years later I wound up living in Chicago, where Loyola’s ’63 season is part of the civic lore. It’s the only time a team from Illinois ever won the national championship. Chicagoans, or at least those who pay attention to sports, remember it decades later as a great Cinderella story. 

            But like a lot of Chicagoans, I’ve learned, I was not aware of the racial dimension of the story: Loyola was one of the first major college teams to have four black starters; it was the first to put five black players on the floor at the same time. In those days it was considered unusual, even daring, to have that many black faces in the team picture. Coaches would crack that you could play one on the road, two at home, and three if you were way behind. A few years ago I saw a flashback feature on the local public TV station, and it made the racial angle quite explicit. The next day I went looking for a book on the subject. I figured if I found one, which is what I expected, I would enjoy reading it. And if I didn’t find one, maybe I would enjoy writing it. 

So it was the racial angle, and not the basketball, that drew you in?

It was the combination. What I like about the story is the idea that it’s hard to be a prejudiced basketball player. You can’t afford racial attitudes or prejudgments. You have to see what’s right in front of you. And if a guy fakes you out and blows past you for an easy layup, makes you look like a fool, it’s hard to hold on to the idea that you are better than he is. It’s a common observation that sport is often in the vanguard of social change. It’s an unambiguous meritocracy. I tend to see it in terms of expertise. Basketball players share a special knowledge, the knowledge of the game, and they have to see each other in those terms first. They have to see through their prejudices and the destructive things they may have been taught growing up.

            This may seem like something of a stretch, but to my mind the same thing happens with musicians. One of my favorite nonfiction books is Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music. Among many other things, it tells the stories of the legendary rhythm sections of Muscle Shoals and Memphis, the studio musicians you hear behind the great black singers of the early 60s—same era, of course—Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Percy Sledge. These studio guys literally created the sound that we think of as “soul music.” And a lot of them were white guys who felt the groove the same way the black guys did. The black guys and the white guys played side by side, worked with each other every day—in places where that was sometimes frowned upon. But if you’re a musician, or a basketball player, you don’t care about the other guy’s color, or family, or ancestors, or socioeconomic status. Only one thing counts: Can he play?

            To me, Loyola’s championship season was a vivid embodiment of this idea. Especially in the second round of the tournament, when they play an all-white team from Mississippi State. This team literally had to sneak out of Mississippi to compete in the tournament, because of an unwritten rule that forbade them from playing against blacks. The players grew up in this really prejudiced environment, they were taught all kinds of crazy things about the mixing of the races, but they wanted to play the best basketball players they could find.

            I start the book with a quote from a Georgia state legislator. It was 1957 and he was proposing a law that would ban integrated sports events. He said, “When Negroes and whites meet on the athletic fields on a basis of complete equality, it is only natural that this sense of equality carries into the daily living of these people.” He meant it as a warning, of course, a doomsday scenario, but to me it’s the moral of the story. 

What went into the writing of this book?

A lot more than I anticipated. When I started I thought I was doing a book about one team—six or eight guys, ten at the most. But as I got deeper into it I realized that the story I wanted to tell, a story about how the game was integrated, involved three teams. Not only the Ramblers, but also Mississippi State and the team Loyola beat in the final, Cincinnati, because they too led the way in recruiting and starting black players. And they had a great story in their own right. They had to learn a new system after losing Oscar Robertson, who was arguably the best player in the world, and they learned it so well that they had more success without him.

            And then I found the story taking me back in time, to the playgrounds of New York, and to Nashville and Tennessee State University and John McLendon, the Tennessee State coach, a really remarkable character who in some ways is the hero of the whole story. So I wound up interviewing 50 or 60 people and going all over the country. Fortunately, most of the players from 1963 are still healthy and doing well. We’ve lost a couple, and we lost one, Joe Dan Gold from Mississippi State, while I was working on the book. That was in the back of my mind. Get this thing done before we lose any more.

What was so important about this particular moment?

The whole country was in an uproar. One reason why the Mississippi State situation was so tricky was that just before the beginning of the season, James Meredith had enrolled as the first black student at Ole Miss, which provoked an armed insurrection. President Kennedy sent 30,000 federal troops to Oxford. When I did the research I was just flabbergasted at the enormity and seriousness of it. It was an honest-to-God constitutional crisis. Two people were killed and hundreds were wounded and arrested.

            Meanwhile in the game of basketball, another transition was taking place. I like the way it was put by one coach I interviewed: he said the game was changing from horizontal to vertical. Before black players were accepted, basketball was usually about patterns and passing, Xs and Os. When black players began to get their chance, they brought a different game, a flashier and more exciting game, that involved speed and jumping and athletic ability.

            When Loyola played in the south, they were spat on, cursed, showered with garbage. Today, basketball arenas are filled with one-percenters who pay hundreds of bucks a pop to watch the high-flying “above the rim” acrobatics that inner-city players brought to the game. The 1963 championship was a tipping point.

Most fans see 1966 as the tipping point—when Texas El Paso played Kentucky.

Sure, the “Glory Road” game. I try to make the point in Ramblers that of course there are many key moments. The Glory Road game was certainly an important one, and it was perfect for the movies. One team was all black, and their coach was a young iconoclast, and the other team was all white, and their coach was Adolph Rupp, a crusty old coot who resisted integration for years. But it’s not like all of a sudden we had a black team playing a white team. The integration of the game starts right at the end of World War II. I try to show it developing slowly over the years. 

What surprised you most in researching the stories of these teams and players?

Memory. Like I said before, it’s a tricky thing. If you want to get a rude education in the human mind’s ability to store and retrieve information, try asking seven or eight people to tell you about the same event.