CHICAGO -- Saturday night's basketball game against Loyola University Chicago ended in a loss for Mississippi State University, but the game had historic significance unrelated to the score.
"We want to spread the word about what was going on back in 1963," Rick Ray, MSU men's head basketball coach, said after the game. "We would have liked the result to be a little different, but it was a great learning experience for our guys, and I'm happy to be a part of it."
Fifty years ago, the Bulldogs lost that hard-fought NCAA tournament game 61-51, but they won a major victory for civil rights. Ray said before coming to MSU, he knew nothing about the 1963 "game of change" and neither did the players on his squad.
"To be in a situation like that, especially in Mississippi where you already have negative connotations about race relations, to find out that we're on the positive side of those race relations really makes you feel proud of your university," Ray said.
The March 15, 1963, game almost did not happen. An unwritten understanding forbade white Mississippi teams from playing integrated opponents. MSU's all-white team was scheduled to play a Loyola team that started four African-American players.
Fifty years ago, the men's Bulldog basketball team won the Southeastern Conference championship and the right to play in the NCAA tournament. This was the third consecutive year MSU had received an invitation to play in the Big Dance.
Mississippi authorities told MSU's head basketball coach Babe McCarthy to turn down the tournament invitation. Had he followed orders, this would have been the third time the team had declined the tournament bid.
Risking arrest, the Bulldogs coach took his team to East Lansing, Mich., to play in the tournament.
Stan Brinker, MSU's forward on the 1963 basketball team, said he and his teammates had no idea how significant the game would be.
"The only thing I thought was, 'We're finally going to be able to play NCAA,' not that we'd go play Loyola Chicago or against an integrated team or anything like that. It was just, we're going to get to go play," Brinker said.
Getting to the game was the hard part. Then-MSU President Dean Colvard supported McCarthy's efforts to play this game, and he and McCarthy left town days in advance so they could not be prevented from going. The team went to the airport in two groups, a precaution taken so that if the first group was prevented from leaving, the second group could leave by another route.
"We were not sure if they were coming," Jerry Harkness, captain of the 1963 Loyola team, said before Saturday's game. "A little bit before the game, we heard they were in the air, and we were going to play them. That was a good feeling."
The Loyola center reminisced about the photo that was taken before the game of the handshake between him and Joe Dan Gold, MSU's team captain.
"When we put our hands together, all of the flash bulbs just popped up. I got startled a little bit, and then I got warm inside, and I realized this is more than a game," Harkness said. "At that time, I said this is history. I could feel it."
Harkness said the game was a key moment in race relations.
"A couple of years right after Mississippi State made the move, the Southern schools began to integrate. So they were the ones who took that step," he said. "They are the heroes. We just came and played the game."
Loyola went on to win the entire tournament, its first and only national championship.
Saturday's game at Loyola's Gentile Arena will be followed by another next year in Starkville as the teams continue to celebrate the historic game. In a special halftime ceremony, surviving members of both squads were recognized, and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn read a proclamation commemorating the event.
"The 'game of change' changed our country," Quinn said. "1963 was the year that Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.] gave his speech on the steps of Lincoln Memorial in August, but in March of that year, the game of change set the foundation for breaking down those walls of segregation and doing what was right."
Quinn said the courageous Mississippi State players and coaches who risked everything earned a special page in the history of the civil rights movement.
"They showed how one person -- or two teams -- can truly make a difference," Quinn said.
Porter Moser, Loyola's head basketball coach, said he was humbled and proud to be a part of Saturday's game.
"It is well deserved that Loyola and Mississippi State get the recognition, not only recognition, but the people take notice of the importance of that game," Moser said.
The Bulldogs hustled Saturday, holding Loyola scoreless for nearly the first six minutes of the game, but the Ramblers won the game 59-51.
In 2002, Broadcast Media Group Inc. of Starkville produced a documentary, One Night in March, telling the story of this historic event. The documentary is being updated in high definition for the 50th anniversary and will include footage of the rematch and interviews previously unavailable. The documentary is available online at www.onenightinmarch.com or (662) 324-2489.