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Racial barriers, basketball and faith: The legacy of the 1963 Loyola Ramblers

In 2018, the Loyola University Chicago men’s basketball team, the Loyola Ramblers, made an unforgettable run to the Final Four. In what many described as a Cinderella story for the incredible string of buzzer-beater, game-winning shots against powerhouse opponents, the team’s success marked only the fourth time in history that an 11-seed team had progressed that far in March Madness.

The last time the Ramblers had made the Final Four was in 1963, the university’s first time in the national tournament. Despite it being Loyola’s one and only national championship win to date, the ’63 team’s legacy used to be largely unknown, forgotten after a decades-long slump. The renewed attention to the Ramblers brought by their Final Four run and their beloved Sister Jean, now 102 years old, finally brought the story of the ’63 team back to light.

The result is “The Loyola Project,” a two-hour documentary on the 1963 championship team and its role in breaking racial barriers in basketball. Directed by Patrick Creadon, the documentary explores Loyola’s championship game as well as the famed “Game of Change,” in which Mississippi State defied a state government order prohibiting them from playing racially integrated teams to face off against Loyola in the national tournament. In that same game, Coach Ireland broke the unwritten rule of college basketball that no more than two Black players could start at a time, sending four Black players—Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, Ron Miller and Vic Rouse—to the court to open the racial barrier-breaking game.

The documentary is an interesting window into the complicated racial history of basketball. The 1963 season was a time when Jim Crow ruled. Basketball could offer Black athletes opportunities like never before, but also commodified their bodies and exposed them to life-threatening racist vitriol. At the center of it all was Coach Ireland, a man with a complicated racial legacy of his own. Despite breaking barriers in the Game of Change, he also willingly chose to segregate his team’s accommodations when they played in New Orleans and brought the team to a game in Houston where the Black players feared for their lives.

The documentary is an interesting window into the complicated racial history of basketball. Basketball could offer Black athletes opportunities like never before, but also exposed them to life-threatening racist vitriol.

Throughout the documentary, current team captain Lucas Williamson narrates and reflects on the struggles of the 1963 Ramblers. Now a fifth-year senior due to an extra year of eligibility granted by the N.C.A.A. because of Covid-19, Williamson was an important part of the 2018 Final Four run and co-captain for the Ramblers’ 2021 Sweet Sixteen run. Known around campus for being humble, hardworking and dedicated to social justice, he has received numerous awards, most recently Missouri Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row.

As a long-time follower of the basketball team and fellow Loyola Chicago Class of ’21 alum, I spoke with Williamson about his experience with “The Loyola Project,” the 1963 team and his faith.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SV: I just wanted to say before we start, I’m also Class of ’21. It’s been really cool watching you play for five years and seeing you represent our class, so I just wanted to say thank you for all that you do.

LW: Thank you. Appreciate it. Go ‘Blers, Class of ’21!

SV: Class of ’21 represent! So to get started, I was wondering how you got involved with “The Loyola Project.”

LW: I first met Patrick [Creadon] at the premiere for one of his other films two and a half years ago. I was there as a representative of the team. It wasn’t until he took on the project and got more familiar with the story that he realized, “Hey, Lucas, you have a lot to do with the story.”

For example, Jerry Harkness grew up playing in the YMCA; I also grew up playing in the YMCA. Jack Egan is from Chicago; I’m from Chicago. I’m a current player of the Loyola Ramblers; the story is about the Loyola Ramblers.

He always says that if the narrator has something to do with the story itself, it sounds a little bit more authentic. And so he just asked me if I wanted to try this whole narrator thing. I said, “Sure, why not?” I’m always down to try new things. I just hope I just don’t mess it up. So that’s how I got involved.

SV: It sounds like you saw a lot of parallels between yourselves and the players. Is that something that you were feeling strongly while you were working on the project?

LW:Yeah, naturally you just feel connected to the story. It’s the same jersey, they just wore it a couple years before you. The 2018 team kind of just brought that story back to life, back to light; as we were making our run, people started to talk about the ’63 team, and then that ultimately springboarded into all of what we see right now. So yeah, there were definitely some parallels, just naturally.

“The jersey means a little more when you wear it, like it holds a little bit more weight. Representing the university means a little bit more after learning the story.”

SV: What did it mean for you as a Black player, seeing these people who paved the way for all the successes that you’ve been able to have on and off the court?

LW: It means the world to me. This story means a lot to me. That’s why I was kind of wary about being a part of it. I couldn’t even imagine going through what [the 1963 team] went through off the court, like not being able to stay in the same hotel rooms, fearing for their actual safety while playing basketball—like not just playing against a hostile crowd, [but] not knowing if they were gonna leave that gym with their lives. Just not feeling appreciated on campus.

And then going through all those things, and having come together to lock in to win a national championship. That, to me, is the ultimate sign of a winner, the ultimate sign of a champion, the ultimate sign of a team that wants to win. And we’re a direct result of that.

SV: You touched a little bit on how Coach Ireland has a very complicated legacy. How do you feel about that legacy? And how do you feel about Ireland’s Pub on campus being named after him, knowing what we know now?

LW: That’s an interesting question. Nobody’s asked me that yet. Ireland, he’s a complicated man. But we’re all complicated, right? Life is complicated. There’s so many ways in which I look at Ireland and I want to cheer for him, like breaking the unwritten rule; winning a national championship with his guys; stopping the hate mail; things like that. And then there’s other things that he does, like bringing the team to [dangerous games in] Houston, or the New Orleans trip.

“You always have respect for [Coach Ireland’s] legacy. But, and I think the movie makes a good point of this, he’s not this social civil rights leader we thought he was. So finding that distinction is complicated.”

It’s easy for me to sit here and look back with a 2022 lens on some history in the ‘60s, and feel some type of way about it right now. But I have to realize, and I think we all have to realize, that Ireland was a man of his time. He was a white male in the ‘60s. And he viewed a lot of these issues a lot differently from how we view them now.

I think that I will always have some respect for Ireland, because he did give these guys, mainly the Black players, an opportunity of a lifetime, meaning going to college, being able to graduate, changing their family’s lives and their lives and bringing them to a national championship. You always have respect for his legacy. And he definitely does deserve some of that legacy to be enshrined at Loyola.

But, and I think the movie makes a good point of this, he’s not this social civil rights leader we thought he was. So finding that distinction is complicated.

SV: Another Loyola alum question for you: At all the basketball games in Gentile Arena, if we hit 63 points, everyone in the student section chants “63.” Has working so closely with the ‘63 team and on this project given that a new meaning for you?

LW: Honestly, I’m always so locked into the game that I only really think about [playing] it. But the jersey means a little more when you wear it, like it holds a little bit more weight. You have a little bit more pride representing Loyola on the court. So the chant is nice, but normally I’m in the game and in the moment when that’s happening. But the jersey and representing the university means a little bit more after learning the story.

SV: What has been the reception for the film at Loyola from the student body?

LW: It’s been great. Honestly, I didn’t know what to think, what to feel. I didn’t know if people were going to like my voice or my perspective on things.

I kind of was sticking my neck out there. Because in some points of the film, I don’t really hold back. I really tell how I actually feel, and you never know how people are going to take that. I didn’t know if the ‘63 guys would like it. And that’s what was really important.

The feedback has been nothing but positive, nothing but great. And to see that just makes me feel good. It makes me feel like we did something right. Especially [coming] from the Loyola community.

SV: You were a co-writer as well as the narrator, right? So those were your real feelings, it wasn’t just a script somebody handed you.

LW: Yeah, in the beginning, I was kind of just coming on as a narrator. And then as time went on, I think Patrick realized that he liked my perspective because I naturally have a different viewpoint. You know, me being an athlete, being a young Black man in society, in America. We just have different perspectives.

For example, Patrick likes to tell this story about how after they had just advanced to the Final Four, Jack Egan and Chuck Wood were “relocating,” as they like to say, some bicycles. And the police showed up and took them down to the precinct. Coach Ireland came down and he shook a few hands, signed a few autographs, and you know, those two, they were released. And it was kind of this funny story to break up the action at the end of the movie. When Jack Egan tells the story, he’s laughing about it.

But when I heard the story, I was like, thank God that wasn’t one of the Black players on the team, because that’s an entirely different scenario.

“I kind of was sticking my neck out there. Because in some points of the film, I don’t really hold back. I really tell how I actually feel, and you never know how people are going to take that.”

I think it was in that moment that Patrick realized that he wanted to get me more involved in the writing and tell more of my perspective. So it got to the point where they would make scenes and then they would send it to me and say, “Okay, what do you think about this?” Then they would send me questions and we would come up with narration based off of my responses. Especially towards the end of the film, that’s really a lot of me in there.

SV: I remember when you were out with a hand injury a couple of years ago, you talked about how your faith helped get you through it. Can you talk a bit about what your faith means to you and how that has helped you?

LW: That was definitely a low point in my life. When you’re an athlete, this is your life. People only get to see me competing for 40 minutes on the court. But we’re not actors, that’s actually me on the court, that is actually my life. You take that away from me and, man, it’s almost like taking away a part of who you are.

I was going to be out for six to eight weeks. So I was just working my way back, staying in shape, and every single day was a grind. I hated those workouts, I hated it. I used to dread coming to practice.

[Pre-injury,] I was playing some of the best basketball that I’ve ever played. Then I get injured. Then I get back. The third game, I started feeling like myself again. I split a trap, come down the court, hit a layup and somebody hits my hand [re-injuring it]. And I was like, “Are you kidding me? Like, again?”

I’m not there and available for my teammates every single day without the faith aspect of it, without saying okay, everything happens for a reason. God is with me. He hasn’t forgotten about me. He’s testing me right now. He’s testing me. And I just need to trust Him and trust his process and trust that He has the ultimate blueprint for my life.

I don’t really pray for much. I feel like I don’t really pray for anything specific. But I do pray that God continues to guide me, and I pray that he continues to let me meet great people. That’s what I was just praying for throughout that whole time, just praying for guidance, praying for the strength to carry on for the next day.

“God is with me. He hasn’t forgotten about me. He’s testing me right now. He’s testing me. And I just need to trust Him and trust his process and trust that He has the ultimate blueprint for my life.”

I don’t make it through that, and I don’t think I have the rest of the career that I’ve had, if it weren’t for my faith, and that was instilled in me at a young age by my mother.

SV: What do you think are the keys to wrapping up the season?

LW: Finish strong. Don’t look too far ahead. Just focus and take one game at a time. Our job is to focus on every single day, continue to make progress and strides towards becoming that championship team so that we’re playing our best basketball at the end of the season. It starts every day in practice, and then we’ll take it from there.

SV: Sounds good. I’m excited for the conference tournament. Good luck, play hard. Go ’Blers!

LW: Go ‘Blers!

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