Les Hunter, who played a key role on Loyola Chicago’s barrier-breaking 1963 NCAA championship team, died Friday at the age of 77.
The university announced the news on its website, and the Associated Press reports Hunter was battling cancer.
Hunter was one of the players in the iconic “Game of Change” that altered college basketball and racial relations, particularly in the deep south.
Hunter’s legendary position with Loyola
Hunter, a 6-foot -7 center, played for Loyola from 1961 through 1964 and is one of two players along with LaRue Martin to finish with more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career. It was during a time when freshmen did not play at the varsity level.
"We are heartbroken to learn of Les' passing," Loyola Director of Athletics Steve Watson said. "The Loyola family has lost a true legend, who was a major part our NCAA championship team in 1963. Les was an accomplished basketball player, but was even more valued for the person he was off the court. We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and former teammates."
Hunter had 1,472 points and 1,017 rebounds in three seasons. As a junior he averaged 17 points and 11.4 rebounds as Loyola went on to win the NCAA championship, beating two-time defending national champion Cincinnati. Loyola is the only Illinois school to win the title.
"If it wasn't for Les and the rest of my teammates, I never would have been able to have the success I had," said Jerry Harkness, who was a two-time All-American and was teammates with Hunter at Loyola. "Unfortunately, Les never really got the recognition he truly deserved. Everything in our offense went through him and we were all so disappointed when he wasn't named most valuable player in the NCAA tournament in 1963, because he should have been. Throughout his career Les kept getting better and better and that didn't stop once he reached the professional ranks. Off the court, Les was the life of the party. We will all miss him."
Loyola went 74-12 (.860) overall with three postseason appearances in Hunter’s career. He was nicknamed “Big Game” and inducted into the Loyola Athletics Hall of Fame with his No. 41 retired in 1991.
Hunter plays key role in ‘Game of Change’
The “Game of Change” was played between Loyola and Mississippi State in East Lansing, Michigan, during the 1963 Sweet Sixteen. It was viewed as a moment that helped dismantle racial barriers in collegiate athletics, years before the 1966 NCAA championship game that was popularized by the movie “Glory Road.”
The 1962-63 Loyola team faced discrimination and harassment by breaking the “unspoken rule” of having more than three black players on the court at once. The Ramblers had Ron Miller, Jerry Harkness, Vic Rouse and Hunter on the floor with John Egan, the only white player. Head coach George Ireland would sub him out and have five black players on the court.
Loyola played Mississippi State, an all-white team, in the NCAA Sweet Sixteen on March 15, 1963. The Bulldogs were banned from playing against an integrated team by state order, but coach James McCarthy and athletic director Dean Colvard made sure the game was played. Loyola won, 61-51, after the Bulldogs snuck out of town to avoid being served an injunction against them. It was a pivotal moment in sports history.
The Detroit Pistons drafted Hunter, a Nashville native, in the second round of the 1964 NBA draft. He played for five teams over six seasons in the ABA.
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