As the Loyola University Ramblers roll into the NCAA Final Four (the first time since 1963), there aren’t many people who can say that they know how it feels to be in those Cinderella shoes.
And then there’s Jack Egan, the River Forest resident who was the starting point guard for the Ramblers when they won their first, and so far only, NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship — incidentally, the only team in Illinois that lays claim to one.
Back in 1963, the Ramblers upset two-time defending champion Cincinnati, 60-58 in overtime. That run 55 years ago was every bit as, if not more, intense than the current one. The social conditions were similarly intense.
In a 2008 interview with Wednesday Journal, Egan recalled the atmosphere at the time, when the country was in the throes of the Civil Rights Movement.
Loyola “started four black players, a banned practice at the time,” Wednesday Journal’s Marty Stempniak wrote, adding that the “unwritten rule was to start no more than two black players at home, three on the road.”
There were racist chants, hate mail courtesy of the Ku Klux Klan, and projectiles thrown angrily from the stands. As if the atmosphere wasn’t charged enough, Loyola’s nearly all-black starting lineup faced Mississippi State University in the second round.
Mississippi’s laws “forbid the school from playing integrated teams,” Stempniak writes. “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.”
The game ultimately “helped pave the way for an integrated league,” Stempniak pointed out, and Egan was at the center of the transformation.
Jerry Harkness, the captain of that historic team, told Wednesday Journal that Egan’s “drive was unbelievable. … His personality lent to that; he was just so determinedly aggressive” — all traits that the current crop of Ramblers overachievers might want to channel a few times more.
Loyola faces Michigan on March 31.