The last time Loyola Chicago played Illinois in the NCAA Tournament, the Ramblers were doing more than winning a national title. They were fighting for racial and social justice.

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Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
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INDIANAPOLIS — As a student-athlete at Loyola Chicago in 1963, Jerry Harkness worked in a grocery store owned by former Ramblers star Nick Kladis to earn a little spending money.

Before Loyola played Illinois that March in the Mideast Regional final in East Lansing, Mich., Kladis told Harkness: “Jerry, believe me, you are going to have an awesome game against Illinois.”

Harkness shrugged.

“Oh, OK,” he replied.

On that March 16, 1963, night at Jenison Fieldhouse, Harkness scored 33 points for Loyola in a 79-64 win, sending the Ramblers to the Final Four in Louisville, Ky.

It was Harkness’ best game of the NCAA Tournament, which Loyola won to give the state of Illinois its only Division-I basketball championship.

It has been 58 years since that Illinois-Loyola matchup, the only time they’ve faced each other in tournament history. But Sunday afternoon at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the two meet again for a chance to go to the Sweet 16.

The Ramblers will face some significant obstacles in trying to stop Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cokburn and the top-seeded Illini, one of the best teams in the nation. But their ’63 predecessors had a more difficult challenge to overcome. They not only were representing their school and Chicago, but also fighting against racism and social injustice as an integrated team with four Black starters.

Before facing Illinois in the ’63 game, the Ramblers played Mississippi State in the so-called “Game of Change,” facing an all-white team that was banned by a state legislative order from playing integrated teams and had to sneak out of town to play Loyola.

Over the years, coach Porter Moser has had Harkness and other former Ramblers players speak to his teams.

“About social justice issues, about what they went through,” Moser said Saturday during a teleconference. “We’ve had these conversations with the ’63 team for years. I was fortunate enough to go with them to Washington on the 50-year anniversary in 2013, my second year on the job. President (Barack) Obama had us in his office, and there was a great picture of us in the Oval Office. I got to hang with those guys a couple days, and the stories they told me, the things they had to go through. It was crazy — they had to stay in two separate hotels.

“And that’s been a big part of our story. I’ll be honest with you, it was more of a story in 2018, maybe because there are so many different side stories with the pandemic going on right now. … I hope more stories come about in the next 24 hours. Jerry’s here — he’s from Indianapolis. With all the social justice issues going on in the world right now, the ’63 team was the game of change.

“Our guys are well aware that it was the only national championship from the state of Illinois. Those (’63 players) give us messages all the time, and they are 100 percent woven into the fabric of who our program is.”

After Loyola beat Mississippi State and lllinois edged a Nate Thurmond-led Bowling Green team to set up the in-state battle, a Chicago Tribune report stated “two championships will be at stake tomorrow night: That of the Mideast regional and that of the state of Illinois.”

But there really wasn’t much hype going into the ’63 meeting. College basketball wasn’t nearly as big as it is now, and the game that forever changed the sport — Indiana State’s Larry Bird versus Michigan State’s Magic Johnson in the 1979 national championship — still was years away.

“We just played one game after the other,” Harkness said via phone Saturday from his Indianapolis home. “And we didn’t look at the newspapers. I’m not sure basketball at the college level was big. We were sharing space in the paper with all the high schools.”

Even the Ramblers’ 1963 title game against Cincinnati was shown on tape delay in Chicago, and the next day Loyola shared the big headlines in the Tribune with Carver’s victory in the state high school basketball championship.

Harkness recalled the big news in Chicago that month was about marches to integrate the public schools. Friends and relatives were calling the Ramblers’ players and telling them to pour it on for the Black community. The Ramblers beat Tennessee Tech 111-42 in the opener, still the most lopsided game in tournament history, and received threatening letters from the Ku Klux Klan before the Mississippi State game.

By the time of the Illinois game, they already had been through it all.

“I didn’t feel the hype (for playing Illinois),” Harkness said. “There had to be some, but there was so much going on, taking attention away.”

Coach George Ireland wasn’t intimidated by playing Illinois, the Big Ten co-champions, and admitted beforehand he would rather have been playing Ohio State.

“I’ve seen the Illinois boys enough,” he said. “They’re the same ones I went after (during recruiting).”

Illinois featured a roster that included two players known as the “Twin Towers” — Bill Burwell and Skip Thoren. Both were all of 6-8 1/2 inches tall.

Burwell, who died last month, was the ’63 Illini equivalent of Cockburn, and Harkness played against him in high school in Madison Square Garden.

“My mind was on that coming up again, facing him again,” Harkness said.

Loyola went into the half with an eight-point lead, and led by only six early in the second half. But Harkness took over, and the Ramblers soon broke the game open, taking a 28-point lead with 4 1/2 minutes left remaining.

Ireland employed a man-to-man defense to combat the height disparity, and pressed the Illini relentlessly.

“It makes us more aggressive and is an equalizing factor,” he said. “We are not a tall team. We slowed down late because we were tiring and several of the boys have colds.”

Despite the lopsided score, Ireland kept his starting five in almost the entire game, making only one substitute with 70 seconds remaining.

“I don’t know what was with him,” Harkness recalled. “He was going up against the world a lot it seemed like. He was playing four African Americans, and a couple games early on with five. It seemed like he was always in trouble with the other coach. I don’t know if it was the unwritten rules he didn’t go by, putting in Black players at that time was not popular at all. He did play us all the way, but that was his style.”

Illinois coach Harry Combes started walking off the floor without shaking Ireland’s hand in what the Tribune called “a moment of bitterness,” saying Combes “apparently was miffed” that Ireland left his starters in during the blowout. But Ireland caught up with Combes before he left, and they shook.

After the game, Ireland lauded Harkness’ play, saying he was “great” all season long.

“To be an All-American at 6-foot-2, he had to be,” he said. “When we got into trouble in the first half, he took over scoring most of our points, and even taking the ball up the court.”

While Kladis died in 2009, Harkness planned to go out to dinner Saturday night in Indy with Nick’s brother, son and other members of the Kladis family, reminiscing about the old days and toasting the renaissance of the Ramblers program under Moser. And Harkness will be in the stands Sunday to rep the ’63 team, just as he did Friday.

Can the Ramblers do it again?

“Individually, they’re not as good (as Illinois), but as a team they are,” Harkness said. “They could do something. I really believe that they could beat them.”

Harkness stopped and laughed.

“I’m the only one, obviously,” he joked. “But the team believes that, too. That’s for sure.”