Documentary about Loyola’s 1963 NCAA title team well worth watching

Current Ramblers guard Lucas Williamson lends his voice and perspective to the historic, mesmerizing, complex film.

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In this March 23, 1963, file photo, Loyola coach George Ireland, right, bends over to issue orders to his team in the that was trailing Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament championship game.  Players, from left to right, are: John Egan, Vic Rouse, Jerry Harkness and Ron Miller. Loyola Chicago guard Lucas Williamson is lending his voice and perspective to a documentary about the Ramblers’ barrier-breaking team.

In this March 23, 1963, file photo, Loyola coach George Ireland, right, bends over to issue orders to his team in the that was trailing Cincinnati in the NCAA Tournament championship game. Players, from left to right, are: John Egan, Vic Rouse, Jerry Harkness and Ron Miller. Loyola Chicago guard Lucas Williamson is lending his voice and perspective to a documentary about the Ramblers’ barrier-breaking team.

AP

Loyola guard Lucas Williamson was far ahead in the three-point-shooting drill after practice Thursday. Then he stalled.

A teammate came alive and made 12 in a row around the horn, from baseline to baseline.

Williamson made his last three in a row, but it was too late. He hung his head in disgust. There’s some serious win-or-die in this guy, the 2021 Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year.

Then he popped up, full of energy and good cheer.

The defeat was behind him. The future was out there for the fifth-year graduate student working toward a master’s degree in digital marketing.

As an undergrad, Williamson majored in journalism with minors in Spanish and management. He’s ready for just about anything our new world has to offer.

And now there’s this film, ‘‘The Loyola Project,’’ that’s ready to screen on CBS Sports Network on Monday and later at the AMC River East 21 theater in Chicago. It’ll have a life beyond that, trust me.

The point here is that team leader Williamson is one of the writers, as well as the narrator, of the documentary about the nearly unbelievable journey of Loyola’s 1963 NCAA championship team. That team featured three — and then four — Black starters at a time when, well, you didn’t do that.

‘‘How could you have a better story?’’ Williamson says as he cools down, still in his maroon practice uniform with the No. 1 on the chest. ‘‘Not only did the ’63 team have to deal with all the off-the-court stuff — the death threats, all the race issues — they had to compete at the highest level. And then they came out on top, a national championship!

‘‘I mean, it almost wouldn’t work as fiction.’’

He’s right, but it was true. And real.

You likely have heard the story about coach George Ireland and his underdog team, about the overtime title victory against favored Cincinnati, coming from 15 down, the entire basketball world in disbelief.

Maybe you saw the sign at the Loyola L stop declaring the Ramblers the 1963 hoops champs.

The story makes for a quick, easy swallow. Then you move on, the way you do from a lightweight Disney feel-good movie.

But the thing about the real story is that it’s incredible and historic but also complex, scary, strange and filled with shades of gray.

The five starters — Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, Vic Rouse, Ron Miller and John Egan, all Black except for Egan — played so many minutes it was ridiculous. At times, they annihilated foes — they beat Tennessee Tech 111-42 — but Ireland kept the starters in. Why? Complicated.

Ireland had been hung in effigy before his team of mostly Black players walloped teams of mostly white players. But on the South Side, a racist banner on the side of a building said in large letters: ‘‘STOP THE . . . ’’

Let your imagination take you to the worst place.

In the film, a player tells us that playing in totally segregated Houston was ‘‘the worst,’’ that players ‘‘feared for our lives.’’ Someone popped a bag behind the bench, and the players ducked in terror.

There are 300 hate-mail letters addressed to the players that the Ireland family still won’t release to the actual addressees. Why? It’s complicated.

Then, too, there was the heroic, all-white Mississippi State team that literally risked its existence by sneaking out of the state to play Loyola. Remember, they killed Blacks and race-changers in Mississippi back then.

Some unlikely folks were heroes during Loyola’s journey. And some seemingly racial trailblazers were not really that at all.

Williamson got involved with director Patrick Creadon because he is smart and curious, the film needed a narrator and he can speak with the best. Plus, he had his story to add, the story of all Blacks in America. And that became part of the documentary, too.

On Sunday, Williamson locked down Missouri State star Isiaih Mosely, holding him to 12 points, while scoring 19 himself and leading Loyola to a 71-62 victory. The Ramblers are 18-4, in first place in the conference and ready, perhaps, to make an NCAA Tournament run like they did in Williamson’s freshman year.

But this film mesmerizes. It’s haunting, and that’s due in no small part to Williamson, in his youth, somehow being at its old-school core.

‘‘Blacks still need opportunities,’’ he says. ‘‘Racism now is less blatant, more subtle. Like, less access to resources, more incarceration, schools here in Chicago without heat. You don’t see anything really big.’’

He thinks again.

‘‘It’s almost like they’re killing us softly,’’ he says.

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