They are the champions you might not remember, who lived the extraordinary season you might not have known. But to begin to understand the special journey of the 1963 Loyola of Chicago Ramblers, all that is needed is one picture.
The photo, taken before an NCAA tournament game 50 years ago, shows a black player from Loyola and a white player from Mississippi State shaking hands.
The Loyola player is Jerry Harkness, captain for an upstart team that not only had stormed up the rankings but also flouted the unwritten rules of 1963 by starting four African Americans.
The Mississippi State player is Joe Dan Gold, captain for a team that rushed out of Starkville to get to the tournament in East Lansing, Mich., defying a state injunction designed to stop the game. In 1963, teams from Mississippi did not play integrated opponents, even in the Mideast Regional.
But the Bulldogs did. The Game of Change, it goes by now. Loyola won it 61-51 and three more games after that on the way to a storybook finish -- still the only school from Illinois, 50 years later, to earn a Division I national basketball championship. Loyola has not even made the NCAA tournament since 1985.
Gold died in 2011. Who should show up at his funeral? Harkness.
"I went up to the front, and the whole family embraced me," Harkness said in a phone interview from Indianapolis. "Then I went over to the casket, and to the left was the picture of me and Dan Gold shaking hands. I just lost it right there at the head of his casket. I went back to the family, and we all cried.
"I wouldn't have missed it. He would have made it to my funeral."
Time has not the dulled the power of the message from March23, 1963, in Louisville.
Those Ramblers know all they stood for and how they represented the dreams of underdogs.
They stood for the will to win. The night they took down mighty top-ranked Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime for the national championship -- denying the Bearcats a then-unprecedented third consecutive title -- all five Loyola players went the distance. So, for that matter, did four Cincinnati players.
The Ramblers stood for dramatic fate. Vic Rouse's put-back of a Les Hunter miss as time expired in overtime gave Loyola the title, one of the few true buzzer-beaters in championship game history.
They stood for the value of opportunity. Guard John Egan was the only starter from Chicago, the lone white starter. Rouse and Hunter came from a segregated high school in Nashville, Harkness and Ron Miller from the Bronx, N.Y. All nine players on the team went on to graduate, accumulating nearly two dozen degrees.
Harkness, the team's leading scorer, did not even play high school basketball until his senior year, wary of failing. "I was poor, and I was on welfare. I just didn't want any more negatives," he said.
But he was inspired when a visitor to the Harlem YMCA watched a pickup game and told him he should play.
"The guy's name," Harkness said, "was Jackie Robinson."
And they stood as a social statement, at a time when no progress came without pain.
Texas Western would win the national title three years later with five black starters and be famous enough to inspire the feature film Glory Road. But Loyola, the team from a predominantly white campus, did a lot of the advance work in the face of seething hostility.
"It was a little bit tougher then," Harkness said. "It was starting to break when (Texas Western) played."
And the fallout for Cincinnati? "Don't bring it up to them," Harkness said of the Bearcats. "They can't get over it."
Indeed, questions to Tom Thacker, one of the Cincinnati stars, find that 50 years have not healed that Saturday evening in Louisville.
"We should have won the championship three times, but we got sidetracked by a couple of Chicago officials and some bad breaks," Thacker said. "I'm a great student of motivation and positive thinking. You only look back on bright things. I try not to conjure up dark moments in my life."
Coach on a mission
The Ramblers were led by a stern loner of a coach, George Ireland, who wanted to win and didn't much care about the racial makeup of his team in doing it. By 1963, he had lost most of his stomach to an operation because of a bleeding ulcer and by all accounts made for a grim ground-breaker.
"We became great friends later. But during college, I couldn't stand him," Hunter said.
Egan said of Ireland, who died in 2001 at 88: "He sat us all down in the stands and said, 'I'm not looking for friends here. I have enough friends. I have four friends, and they're all related to me.'"
But to a man, the 1963 Ramblers appreciate the necessary lessons Ireland taught them and how he really felt about them.
"He was a demanding coach, but he cared," said Judy Van Dyck, Ireland's daughter. "He saw an issue that he was going to rectify. One time he came home and we were having dinner, and he said, 'If I could just teach so and so to elbow a white kid, we could even this out.'
"We went to a game, and fans for the other team were cheering, 'Our team is red-hot, and your team is all black. So get out of here with your albino coach.'"
Van Dyck has the hate mail her father received stored in her closet. And his championship ring.
"Dad never got the credit for what he did, and I don't know why," she said. "When they came out with Glory Road, they took credit for five (African-American starters), but he never got credit for four. As long as I'm alive, I'm going to keep my father's legacy alive."
The players remember how hard it was. They remember being hit by coins and popcorn in Houston and being segregated by race in New Orleans to different hotels.
"We were spit on in Houston," Miller said. "I remember that the ball went out of bounds. I go to pick it up, and I see this lady sitting there, dressed really nice, and she looks at me." And then she uttered a racial slur.
They remember Ireland's response was to run up the score against every Southern school, without apology. He later was quoted as saying, "I poured it to them. I was 20 years ahead of my time, and I wanted them to wake up and smell the coffee."
Hence, scores such as 88-53 against Loyola of New Orleans and 111-42 in the first round against Tennessee Tech, an NCAA tournament record for winning margin that still stands. That evokes mixed feelings from the Ramblers.
"There was nothing wrong with that team," Egan said. "There was a perfect opportunity to use some of our other players. I just didn't see burying those guys."
And they remember the landmarks their journey produced.
"It was the first opportunity for America to see what the face of basketball was becoming," Hunter said. "To know that you had a little part of shaping the future of the game back then is pretty special. To me, at least."
Added Miller, "Fifty years later to hear other people talk about it tells me it was a pretty important thing I was involved in. I think we were a small part of a bigger movement within the country."
And Harkness said, "For most of 50 years, the biggest thing that ever happened to me was winning the NCAA championship. I couldn't even think of anything else but that. But in later years it came to be that the biggest game in my life was the Mississippi State-Loyola game, bar none."
'Life is just a dash'
There was one last testament to Loyola's unheralded stature, even with its 29-2 record. Three Cincinnati players were named to the five-man all-tournament team. The Final Four MVP was Duke's Art Heyman, whose team didn't even make the final game. Hunter was the lone Ramblers player recognized.
"I was the leading scorer and leading rebounder for my team, and we won the championship," Hunter said. "So how do you figure it, Art Heyman was going to get the MVP?"
They did not really comprehend what they had done in the immediate aftermath.
But as the years went by, they grew to understand, not only because of the memories but how they all took victory in basketball and turned it into success in life.
Rouse, the last-shot hero, earned three master's degrees, got a doctorate in business administration and started a consulting firm. He died in 1999. Hunter can hear the eulogy at the funeral, how Rouse had hit the winning shot in life, just as he had done at Loyola.
Hunter started a restaurant in the Kansas City area. Miller did well in the corporate world and lives in Berkeley, Calif. Harkness went into broadcasting and was an executive for United Way after a brief fling in pro basketball. Egan is a practicing attorney in Chicago at 70.
"It's opened countless doors for me," Egan said. "Maybe I didn't know the real difference then between winning the championship and finishing second. None of this stuff would be happening if they had scored one more point than we."
Added Miller, "I've often said the one thing I learned from that is you don't give up. You have life cycles where you're up and you're down. And there were times when I would be down, but I would always figure I could make it better if I just kept focus. I know that came from the group of guys I was with for four years of my life."
Ireland's postscript was less bright. He resigned because of health reasons during the 1974-75 season, with losing records for his previous four teams. "It was devastating for him," his daughter said.
For the Cincinnati players, time has not lessened the blow.
"I have never watched that game," said Thacker, now retired. "As far as I'm concerned we did everything right. It wasn't anything we did wrong."
Perhaps that is the Ramblers' legacy, from their nights spent amid bigotry, to the hard practices from an exacting coach, to the odds they weren't supposed to beat.
"At Vic's funeral, it was said that in time, life is just a dash," Miller said. "I can honestly say from 1963 to now, 50 years later, to me, that's just a dash. There's been so much that's happened, but then it seems like it was yesterday."
Same for Harkness, who need only look at an aging photo of a handshake.