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Segregated Basketball

How Mississippi State Coach Babe McCarthy and President Dean Colvard Defied the Mississippi Legislature to Play Loyola in the 1963 NCAA Tournament

The success of Loyola-Chicago in this year’s NCAA basketball tournament prompts us to remember two of the great, unsung heroes of the Civil Rights Movement – former Mississippi State Coach Babe McCarthy and MSU President Dean Colvard. Loyola won the championship in 1963 with four black starters, defeating McCarthy’s Bulldogs along the way.

For the game to be played McCarthy had to defy the racist Mississippi State Legislature, and send his team to the Memphis Airport in the middle of the night to avoid being stopped by state troopers. They had been instructed to serve an injunction, preventing the team from leaving the state, because they didn't want a state school playing an integrated team. MSU had declined invitations as SEC Champions in 1959, 1961 and 1962 because of this. (As a result, the Boston Celtic great Bailey Howell never got to play in the NCAA Tournament.) So McCarthy sent his freshman squad to stand in for the varsity on one bus headed to the Starkville Airfield, while he sent the varsity team to Memphis to fly to Detroit for the game vs. Loyola in East Lansing. The team flew to Nashville where they picked up McCarthy, who had literally snuck out of Mississippi the night before to avoid being served with the injunction.

The troopers intercepted the freshman team, while the varsity flew to Detroit for the game. MSU President Dean Colvard is also a hero in this story as the facilitator, and he had replaced Ben Hilburn in 1960. He had to build his base before taking this risk.

That this intrigue was necessary for a college basketball team to play in the NCAA Tournament illustrates the drama of that time. Only six months earlier, James Meredith had enrolled at Ole Miss as a graduate student, leading to riots that killed two U.S. Marshalls. The two weeks between the last game against Ole Miss and the NCAA were very dramatic, as some students and alumni urged Colvard to let the team play, while the usual threats were loudly issued by segregationists. Colvard issued a statement before the last game saying the team would play “unless hindered by a competent authority.” That was taken as a political “dare” and his bluff was called. So he and McCarthy hatched a Spy vs. Spy plan to pull it off.

segregated basketball

Babe McCarthy

The Mississippi Legislature had issued a law barring state school from playing integrated sports teams in 1956, after Jones County Junior College had played Compton Junior College in the Junior Rose Bowl that year. Playing that game was clearly an act of defiance that the Big Daddies of Mississippi didn’t appreciate. So the legislature acted out to prevent it from happening again. As a result the 1959, 1961 and 1962 teams were denied the chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, coached by McCarthy.

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The players URGENTLY wanted to play – they wanted to see how good they really were. My experience relates to that. As a kid in Memphis in the 1960’s, I realized it was fine to be the stud at your neighborhood YMCA or local JCC. But until you played against the black kids in the city leagues, you couldn’t really know how good you were. If you try to tell me this is a racist comment, I’ll ask when’s the last time you watched a game.

Babe literally stuck his neck out to make the case, appearing on radio shows, TV interviews and pep rallies, saying that he’d be “heartsick” if his guys were AGAIN denied a chance to compete. He also prompted a columnist with the Jackson Clarion-Ledger to write a story saying that Babe might quit if his team was denied again. So rather than do this in a quiet, back-channel method, Babe made a public issue over the matter, which cost him considerable social capital in 1963 Mississippi. But Colvard made the ultimate decision defy the state government and play the game, amid loud objections from bloviating politicians, silly state proclamations, superfluous legal filings and even pastors and church officials.

Sports in general and basketball in particular did more for integration that any other social forces. Sam Cunningham, the great USC running back embarrassed the great Bear Bryant so badly, he KNEW he had to recruit black players to compete. So Wilbur Jackson became the first black player at Alabama. In Memphis, the great ‘rassler Sputnik Monroe WAS the force behind integration more than any political act. He was so popular in the black community that officials HAD to let more black folks in after they filled the balcony of the old Auditorium to avoid riots.

Another great thing about McCarthy was that he was the antithesis of the notoriously arrogant and racist Adolph Rupp of Kentucky. So the team from Cow College got the better of the Baron of the Bluegrass. He did this with what became a foreshadowing of the “Four Corners” offense popularized by Dean Smith of North Carolina.

I got to meet Babe in 1972 when he was coaching the Memphis Pros of the ABA. They had just endured a tough 2-point loss to the Kentucky Colonels and I ran into him at Pete & Sam’s, a popular restaurant. I introduced myself, told him how much I loved the team, talked about the game that ended two hours before. He indulged me with some patient and gracious conversation that left me swooning for days. (“Hey guys, I talked to the Babe the other night!”) An amazing thing is that he only coached at the junior high level in Tupelo before taking the MSU job. When challenged about the hiring, Dudy Noble, the MSU AD quipped, “Well these guys play like a junior high team, so they should have a junior high coach.”

As the plane took off from Memphis, the players whooped and hollered in celebration. One of them said “Now I know how those East Berliners feel when they make it past that wall.”

Sources: “Ghosts of Mississippi: Forty Years Ago a Courageous College Basketball President Defied a Court Order Barring Mississippi State From Integrated Competition and Sent His Team to Face Black Players in the NCAA tournament,” Alexander Wolff, Sports Illustrated, March 10, 2003. . . . and my reverie.

scott prosterman

Scott Prosterman