Game of Change

March 15, 1963

In the early years of basketball, segregation ruled the game. The early YMCA teams were all white, and the number of black players did not increase when basketball became a college sport. Basketball was a white game, with only a handful of black players on college rosters.

This was certainly the case in the Southeastern Conference (SEC). The basketball powerhouse in the early 1960s was the all-white Mississippi State Maroons (now the Bulldogs), representing an all-white student body and alumni. SEC champions were not allowed to participate in the NCAA championship tournament because, if they did, they might have to face a team with black players.

So, when Mississippi State won the SEC championship in 1963, the basketball world expected the school to decline participation in the NCAA tournament. Instead the school’s administration led by President Dean Colvard, the basketball team, led by Coach Babe McCarthy, and those Mississippians tired of missing out on championship play, decided to ignore the unwritten rules of segregation. They determined to play even though their opponent would be Loyola of Chicago with four
African Americans in its starting lineup.

The Mississippi governor Ross Barnett and numerous other state leaders, were diametrically opposed to the Maroons playing a team with black players. In protest, the school’s academic vice-president drove the president and coach to neighboring Alabama, while the team’s bench players were sent to the local airport, all to avoid any state injunctions against the team playing. Since no one in legal authority was in the state to receive an injunction, the starters were then able to board the
plane to Lansing Michigan. It would be a better story if Mississippi State won the game, but they lost 61-51.

Still, the very act of playing a team with non-white players had a major impact on the state of Mississippi and on college basketball. Two years later, in 1965, Mississippi State peacefully integrated its student body. The state went through horrible times in the 1960s, but it fully integrated, and college basketball saw a greater participation of black players every year.

The March 1963 basketball game between Loyola and Mississippi State was indeed a game of change — – for the sport as well as for Mississippi and the South. Today’s Mississippi State University Basketball Bulldogs are a predominantly black team, and its student body has the highest percentage of black students of any land grant school in the nation.

Kyle Veazey. Champions for Change: How the Mississippi State Bulldogs and Their Bold Coach Defied Segregation. Mt.Pleasant, SC: The History Press, 2012.