Book Review by Kam Williams
“Was there a time when civil rights protesters could be attacked by a club-wielding mob while police officers stood by? When the president of the United States had to mobilize 30,000 federal troops to put down an armed insurrection prompted by the enrollment of a single black man at a state university?
There was… Here’s a story about the integration and evolution of college basketball, set against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, one of the most convulsive periods of our nation’s history… My aim here is to persuade you that a pivotal moment in that transition was the improbable championship of the Loyola Ramblers, a black-and-white team that opened a lot of eyes and stirred a lot of hearts.”
— Excerpted from Introduction (pages 14-15)
Founded by Jesuit priests in 1870, Loyola Chicago is a prestigious, Catholic college located on the Windy City’s west side. Between its academic orientation and modest student size, the institution is not one would normally associate with athletics.
However, in 1963, the school garnered some unexpected headlines when its men’s basketball team, the Ramblers, earned a berth in the Final Four of the NCAA tournament alongside perennial powerhouses Duke, Oregon State and Cincinnati. Not content just to make it to the big dance, upstart Loyola went on to defeat the two-time defending champion, Cincinnati.
En route to the title game, the Ramblers also beat Mississippi State, an all- white team that had never faced any African-American opponents before because of a strict school policy forbidding competing against any African- Americans. So, giving Mississippi State a butt-kicking in front of their racist fans during the Sweet Sixteen round was likely fulfilling enough for Loyola.
Note that just before the season had started, James Meredith had made history as the first black student ever to enroll at Ole Miss. That triggered an armed white insurrection which was only quelled after President Kennedy sent down thousands of federal troops.
Meredith went on to graduate but was shot in the head a few years later while leading a voter registration march in rural Mississippi. Fortunately, he would recover from his wounds and eventually earn a law degree from Columbia University.
The civil rights movement is indirectly the focus of Ramblers, a fascinating opus about an integrated team of talented and dignified young men who not only ascended to the top of their sport but simultaneously helped change the color of college basketball once and for all. The book recounts in riveting detail how the Loyola players maintained their composure despite being spat on, cursed at and showered with garbage during NCAA Tournament contests hosted across the South including the Final Four on the floor of the ironically-named Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky.
Written by veteran journalist Michael Lenehan, an award-winning editor at the Atlantic and the Chicago Reader, Ramblers is a worthwhile read chronicling a memorable upset and, perhaps more importantly, a triumph of character over cowardice that had repercussions way beyond the basketball court.