Mid-Major Monday: The Importance of Loyola Chicago Basketball

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Loyola Chicago sealed the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship over the weekend, a program first, while also reaching a milestone for wins 55 years in the making.

Loyola’s moment in the spotlight in 2018 ushers the 1963 Ramblers back into the contemporary conversation. It’s a team worthy of more attention, particularly with where we are in American society.

The Ramblers beat a veritable dynasty in Cincinnati, which won the previous two national championships. The 60-58 Loyola win went to overtime, putting it in rare company among NCAA title tilts.

And Loyola claimed its only national championship with head coach George Ireland starting four black players, three years prior to Texas Western’s landmark lineup knocking off Kentucky in the title round of Glory Road fame. Despite predating Don Haskins’ deservedly praised squad, the cultural significance of the 1963 Ramblers seemingly garners less renown. Loyola basketball exists in a capsule more comparable to San Francisco Dons football than Texas Western, or the 1970 USC-Alabama football game.

On the 50th anniversary of Loyola’s championship five years ago, Chicago native Pres. Obama honored the team at the White House. Even at the time, the ceremony lacked national exposure.

But that was before the sports once again became a vehicle driving the national conversation on race. In the years since Loyola’s White House visit, Colin Kaepernick became either an important, public voice bringing attention to brutality targeting the black community, or a rabble-rousing pariah, depending on who’s discussing him. LeBron James has used his platform to call attention to a variety of social issues, and told to “shut up and dribble” in response.

The world’s much different than it was just five years ago, but bares striking similarities to a half-century ago. There’s renewed significance to the role sports played in ushering society out of Jim Crow in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Over the weekend, I watched David Letterman’s My Next Guest Needs No Introduction. The debut episode featuring Pres. Obama includes interspersed segments with John Lewis, the Congressional representative from Georgia who played an integral role in the Civil Rights Movement. Watching Lewis walk next to Letterman on the Edmund Pettis Bridge and recount his memories, his perspective on the Selma-to-Montgomery marches some 50 years later, was both harrowing and inspiring.

Such an otherwise small thing — two men, who just happen to be white and black, having a conversation on a leisurely stroll — would have been inconceivably in 1965.

Likewise, the 1963 Loyola Ramblers’ road to the national championship featured a matchup with a representative out of the SEC; nothing out of the ordinary in modern context, but before they played that March in East Lansing, a prospect completely foreign at the time.

In fact, Mississippi State had to defy a state-mandated injunction in order to play Loyola.

The Loyola-Mississippi State game was played just a few months after the violent Ole Miss Riot of 1962, depicted in the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary, Ghosts of Ole Miss. Just weeks following the Ramblers’ 61-51 win over the Bulldogs, students were blasted with fire hoses and attacked by police dogs during the Birmingham Campaign.

Current-day athletic activism and defiance of racist conventions has turned the spotlight back on the important teams and athletes of yesteryear, from the Wyoming 14 to the North Carolina Central-Duke “Secret Game.” With Loyola Chicago enjoying its best season since ’63, there’s no better time to spread the importance of that Ramblers team. 

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