INDIANAPOLIS — Former Loyola player Jerry Harkness, one of the ABA’s original Indiana Pacers and a civil rights pioneer who played in college basketball’s 1963 Game of Change, has died. He was 81.
Harkness embodied the story of America itself. He came from nothing. What he did meant everything.
He credited Jackie Robinson for changing the course of his life. He witnessed hate and tragedy, and late in life he reveled in love and ecstasy for his Loyola Ramblers.
Harkness’ life was one of firsts.
He played for Loyola, the first team to win the NCAA Tournament with as many as four Black starters. He was Quaker Oats’ first Black salesman and Indianapolis’ first Black sportscaster.
“All of us at Loyola have heavy hearts today,” Loyola men’s basketball coach Drew Valentine said. “Jerry was a true trail blazer not only in basketball, but in so many different walks of life, and the impact he made was immeasurable.”
‘I think the Lord is in this’
The Ramblers’ surprise run to the 2018 Final Four gave him a platform to revisit the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
“And it’s not by chance. I think the Lord is in this,” he once said in an IndyStar interview. “You get older and see, at least in my case, how my life came together.”
The entire #Loyola community mourns the passing of 1963 team captain Jerry Harkness. The impact he had on the #Rambler program, the game of basketball and the world is immeasurable and won't be forgotten. RIP, Jerry. 💔🙏— Loyola Men's Basketball (@RamblersMBB) August 24, 2021
🗞️➡️ https://t.co/iilj929CQC#OnwardLU #MVCHoops pic.twitter.com/cRUrYHupij
Harkness was one of four Black starters recruited to Loyola by George Ireland. The coach was not trying to save society. He was trying to save his job.
Ireland broke the unwritten rule of having no more than three Black players on the floor at one time. Loyola’s lineup featured four Black starters — Harkness and Ron Miller, both of New York, and Vic Rouse and Les Hunter, both of Nashville, Tennessee — along with white guard John Egan of Chicago. Loyola rose as high as No. 2 in the national polls in the 1962-63 season.
Loyola reached the Final Four by beating Big Ten champion Illinois 79-64, with Harkness scoring 33 points, and then defeated Duke 94-75 in the national semifinal. In the championship game at Louisville against No. 1 Cincinnati, the Ramblers trailed by 15 points with 14 minutes left.
A full-court press allowed Loyola to trim the deficit, and Harkness’ late basket forced overtime. His layup off the opening tip of OT gave Loyola its first lead of the game. A tip-in by Rouse at the buzzer lifted the Ramblers to a 60-58 victory and the national title.
That was March basketball. Beforehand, there was madness.
In a Feb. 23 game at Houston, Loyola won 62-58. Fans there shouted racist epithets and were menacing as the team left for the locker room.
“I was scared to death,” Harkness recalled.
It got worse.
Harkness said he received threatening letters ahead of the NCAA Tournament. He was shocked senders would have his campus address.
He said the Ramblers’ emotions were manifested in an opening 111-42 rout of Tennessee Tech, the most lopsided score in tournament history. Then Loyola was pitted against Mississippi State in the Mideast Regional at East Lansing, Michigan, in what became known as The Game of Change.
Governor tried to block game
Mississippi’s governor, Ross Barnett, filed an injunction to prohibit the team from leaving the state. Bulldogs coach Babe McCarthy had already crossed the border and could not be served. The players all wanted to go, and off they went.
Harkness said everything he knew about white people in Mississippi was negative. A Chicago 14-year-old, Emmitt Till, was lynched there in 1955. Medgar Evers, a civil rights activist, would be murdered in Mississippi three months after the Loyola/Mississippi State game.
Yet when Harkness and Joe Dan Gold, the Mississippi State captain, met at center court, it was as if all strife around them vanished. Their eyes met. They shook hands. There were so many photographers capturing the image, Harkness said, he can still hear the “pop, pop, pop” of flash bulbs.
More than a game
“I’ll never forget that feeling,” he said. “I knew at that point this was more than a game.”
Loyola won 61-51. That it was more than a game became obvious. Harkness’ son, Jerald, directed a 2008 documentary telling the story of Loyola and Mississippi State.
Harkness and Gold stayed in touch over the years, and the two found they had much in common. Education was important to Gold, a longtime school administrator in Kentucky, and Harkness. Both battled cancer. Gold died in 2011 at age 68.
Sixteen months after the game, Mississippi State enrolled its first Black student. Harkness said he learned later than 70 percent of Mississippi residents favored the team playing Loyola.
He had not planned to play such a role in the civil rights movement, but fate intervened.
“We kind of came together, sports and the movement,” Harkness said.
He was born in Harlem before moving to the Bronx. After his father left, he said, times were so tough he placed cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes. He was more runner than basketball player, winning Bronx championships in track and cross-country.
He played basketball on teams organized by Holcombe Rucker, a New York playground director for whom Rucker Park is named, and in intramurals. Harkness did not think he was good enough to play for his DeWitt Clinton High School team. An onlooker saw him at the Harlem YMCA and thought otherwise. Harkness was star-struck.
“You’re not that bad,” was all the man said. Except the man who said it was Robinson, who in 1947 became the first black player in Major League Baseball.
Harkness became the top scorer for a championship team. He said he was a poor student because he never contemplated going to college. He could not accept scholarships to St. John’s for track or NYU for basketball because he failed entrance exams.
A local coach persuaded Loyola to accept him, and Harkness’ career path was set. He was selected in the second round of the 1963 NBA draft by his hometown New York Knicks but was released after five games.
He landed a sales job with Quaker Oats and was on track toward a management position when he took a chance on a new pro league, the ABA. At 27, he made the Pacers’ roster in 1967. He played 81 games in two seasons, long enough to make history.
On Nov. 13, 1967, his heave of 88 feet beat the Dallas Chaparrals 119-118 as time expired. It remains the longest game-winning shot in pro basketball.
‘It’s been beautiful’
Harkness is better known for his Loyola days — the team was honored at the White House by President Barack Obama and inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame, both in 2013 — and community service. When he first arrived in Indianapolis, he said, he did not know where he could live.
He said Indianapolis, like the rest of the country, changed. He would know. He played in the Game of Change.
“It’s been beautiful. Sports does that. Sports does that,” Harkness said.
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