Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball
Award-winning journalist Michael Lenehan has turned in a solid debut title with what is billed as “America’s Next Great Sports Story.” Ramblers is a meticulously researched history of Loyola University Chicago’s 1963 basketball team, the first to put on the court more black players than white, at a time when the very notion of integration sparked brutal race riots. Lenehan’s riveting story combines elements of Chicago, university politics, basketball, class, and race relations, intertwining each aspect to detail the 1963 men’s NCAA basketball championship—and all the social, political, and cultural upheaval that surrounded it.
Ramblers is more than a sports story. It’s more than a chronicle of one winning season. Basketball fans may be familiar with the team’s fast-break game, then a new style of play that led to upset after upset, stunning players, fans, and pundits alike. But chances are that many readers are likely unfamiliar with the groundbreaking 1963 season the Ramblers saw, both on the court and off.
Published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the Ramblers’ landmark season, the book hit bookstore shelves in the midst of this year’s March Madness and is sure to delight fans who can’t get enough of anything related even remotely to brackets. Lenehan weaves a rich tapestry to tell this story, focusing on the coaches, players, and colleges that set the stage not only for a thrilling NCAA tournament but for a season of social change that upended college sports. Sports fans will be fully absorbed by Lenehan’s electrifying play-by-play prose, following along breathlessly as he describes game after game of that stunning season.
But there is more in Ramblers than just a good sports story. Even readers with only a passing interest in basketball or college sports will find something of value here. Lenehan deftly covers the struggle that universities dealt with in the 1950s and ’60s when it came to integration. Of particular interest is Lenehan’s look at the evolution undergone by the Mississippi State Bulldogs, the winning SEC team that, year after year, was unable to participate in the NCAA tournament due to policies against playing integrated teams. Only by breaking with tradition, evading the law, and sneaking out of the state were the 1963 Bulldogs able to travel north to put their all-white team on the tourney court—in a game they ultimately lost but in a bigger contest they won.
Riveting, electrifying, fast-paced: Lenehan’s new book is all that. At times, however, the text gets bogged down in too many anecdotes, long-winded stories that could have been struck from the book without damage. Readers more interested in the social, political, and cultural aspects of the story may find the play-by-play descriptions a bit too much. And, those readers may be further turned off by the author’s apparent swipe at his publisher’s subtitle for the book: In the foreword, Lenehan all but fully disavows the notion that the Loyola Ramblers actually changed the color of college basketball. Lenehan argues that no single team, nor no single game, did so. And, in fact, one really could argue that it wasn’t the Ramblers who forced that change; perhaps it was, in fact, the bravery displayed by the state-skipping Bulldogs that really made the difference and helped tear down color barriers.
Regardless, Lenehan shows in Ramblers what college basketball did for integration. Unlike “Hoosiers” or “Hoop Dreams” or “Glory Road,” Loyola Chicago and the 1963 NCAA tournament never generated a flashy Hollywood movie to tell the story. Lenehan has done the players a great service here, uncovering an important story long overdue in its telling.
$16, trade paper, 297 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen