Hardwood hero

River Forest resident celebrates 45 years as NCAA champion

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By MARTY STEMPNIAK, Staff Writer

It's March Madness time. That means office pools, wild upsets and this painful reminder: Only one team in the state of Illinois's history has ever won an NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship.

And the starting point guard for that team lives right here in River Forest, just south of Augusta Boulevard and Bonnie Brae Place.

Last Sunday marked 45 years since John Egan helped take the 1963 Loyola University Chicago Ramblers to an eventual national championship. In the midst of the civil rights movement, the team started four black players, a banned practice at the time-the unwritten rule was to start no more than two black players at home, three on the road. The Ramblers overcame intense prejudice that ranged from racist chants, to hate mail from the Ku Klux Klan, to fans throwing things at the players.

In the 1963 tournament, Loyola was slated to play Mississippi State University in the second round. But state laws forbid the school from playing integrated teams. So, Mississippi had to defy the state's governor, duck around an order forbidding them to play, and take a secret flight to Michigan for the game.

This weekend in Detroit, as part of this year's Midwest Regional, players from both Loyola and Mississippi State will commemorate what many consider a groundbreaking basketball game, which broke boundaries and helped pave the way for an integrated league. Jerald Harkness, son of one of the players, will also screen Game of Change, a documentary about the historic game.

'Cagey' leader with a lot of moxie

Those involved in the '63 Loyola team say it comprised different personalities that meshed together perfectly. Opinions on the demeanor of the 5-foot-10, white, Irish-Catholic guy from the Southside of Chicago vary, but generally stick to the same themes.

"The drive Egan had was unbelievable," said Jerry Harkness, 68, captain and star of the team that year. "His personality lent to that; he was just so determinedly aggressive."

Harkness-who owns a shoe store and lives in Oaklandon, Ind.-spoke of a confidence and refusal to "back down" that emanated from Egan.

As an example, he recalled the first game of the 1963 tournament, for which Loyola was slated to play Tennessee Tech. Some were nervous, with it being the team's first game in the Big Dance. But Egan walked into the opposing team's locker room, up to a player he knew and said, "Don't worry, it's going to be over very quickly."

He was right, Harkness said, as Loyola went on to crush Tennessee Tech, 111-42. The 69 points still stand as the largest margin of victory in tournament history, and that was before the 3-point line was added to the game.

"Egan was one of my favorites," said Bill Jauss, 77, a retired Chicago Tribune reporter who covered the Ramblers for the Chicago Daily News and Tribune from 1958 to 2006. "He was a leader-certainly not the best player on the team-but he had a lot of moxie."

Egan did the little things, Jauss said, that went unnoticed but still helped push Loyola to a championship. He recalled a moment in the title game, in which the Ramblers beat the defending champ Cincinnati Bearcats 60-58 in overtime.

Loyola overcame a 15-point deficit with less than 14 minutes left in regulation. The clinching play was a last-second tip-in by forward Vic Rouse. But Jauss felt it was the play leading up to that buzzer-beater that was key.

It was a jump ball between Egan (the shortest guy on the team) and Cincinnati's much taller Larry Shingleton. When the referee threw the ball up, Egan gave an unnoticed bump to give that extra needed advantage, Jauss said.

"Physiologically, there's no way that Jack (Egan's nickname) could out-jump this guy, but he used his assets, literally, by giving this guy a bump when he was throwing up the ball."

Loyola gained possession, setting up the game-winner.

"Back then, he was pretty cagey," said starting center Les Hunter, 65, who now lives in Overland Park, Kan. "He had that lawyer mentality; he'd be able to talk you into doing stuff. He was kind of tricky, but always a good guy."

Egan was outgoing and had a "gift of gab," Jauss recalled. A curiosity, that made him look into the lives of teammates from New York or the South.

"They were almost like brothers," Jauss said, "and I really believe that Jack was the glue that helped these guys stick together."

'It absolutely blew my mind'

River Forest lawyer John Egan, 65, grew up on the Southside of Chicago, near 63rd Street and Western Avenue.

His dad was a Chicago police officer, and his mom was a homemaker. Egan was second-oldest of nine children, who were born over a span of 20 years. The family lived on a second floor, three-bedroom apartment.

The crowded living space never bothered him because he was always out and about. He started playing basketball in elementary school, around fourth grade. By seventh and eighth grade, Egan was playing around 60 basketball games a year.

"If we didn't have a game, there was always a place where guys would assemble," he said.

He played at St. Rita High School, on the Southside. The team was talented, but not great, making it to the south sectionals, but never winning a city championship.

It wasn't until after his senior year that Egan started considering Loyola. He was resolved to play at the University of Iowa, which plays in the Big Ten Conference. And the school showed interest in Egan since he was a junior.

On his last recruiting trip to Iowa, Egan played some of his best basketball during a scrimmage, and felt he had all but locked up a full-ride to the university. In conversation, he heard another player, which Egan felt he outplayed, had earned free tuition, books, room and board.

"There was no question in my mind, that I should be given a full scholarship," Egan said. But Iowa's coach said all he was offering was a one-year, renewable scholarship that Egan would receive if he played well and made the team.

"It absolutely blew my mind, that he thought the guys that I had just scrimmaged against were better than I," he said. "He was as nice as he could be, but for me it was a shock. I told him right then and there, that there was no way I'd come to Iowa on that basis."

It was at a Catholic League All-Star game that Loyola coach George Ireland noticed Egan and eventually offered him a full scholarship.

Years later, Egan recalled a friend telling him, "You sure made the right choice going to Loyola," he said. "And I feel that way. I've never, ever had any misgivings about where I went to school. I feel very fortunate to have backed into that situation."

Egan recalled his freshman team beating the varsity players "pretty good" in practices his first year. Sophomore year, the team went to the National Invitation Tournament, and his junior year was when they beat the favored Bearcats for the national title.

His senior year, four of five starters returned and the team finished 22-5. But the Ramblers were upset in the second round by Michigan. Egan felt the chemistry was off that last year, and something didn't feel right.

Life after Loyola

After graduating, Egan attended law school at Loyola and played three years in the North American Basketball League.

He worked for the Cook County State's Attorney's office in the late 1960s before starting his own practice in downtown Chicago, working in criminal defense.

Egan has five children, ages 18 to 34, two from his current marriage. His son, Ryan, graduated from OPRF in 2005 and is a junior at Loyola and the youngest, Shannon, is a senior at OPRF and plans to attend Loyola in the fall. Egan had lived in Riverside, but has lived in River Forest since 1980.

He doesn't have a ton of hobbies, joking that he does surgeries for fun, with him having a knee and a hip replaced in recent years. He still keeps in touch with teammates Harkness and Hunter, who live in the Midwest.

He met his wife, Mary, while they were both working at the same law office. They dated for seven years before marrying.

Mrs. Egan described her husband as having a "great heart," and being tenacious, motivated, and sometimes stubborn.

"He's just the go-to-guy for the Egan family," Mary Egan said. "My girlfriends always call him the Irish godfather of the Southside, because he takes care of everyone on the Southside."

"He's a rock. He's the rock."

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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