"Game of Change" resonates 50 years later

Jerry Harkness shakes hands with Mississippi State's Joe Dan Gold in 1963.
Published: .
Updated: .

As tournament time begins, the nation looks back 50 years to the "Game of Change."

It was March 15, 1963 when Indiana native Jerry Harkness shook hands with a white player from Mississippi State in a game that made civil rights history.

It was only a handshake - two captains shaking hands before an NCAA tournament game 50 years ago Friday - but it became symbolic of so much more.

"This is more than a game. This is history. I could feel it," said Harkness.

Harkness, captain of Loyola of Chicago, shook hands with Mississippi State's Joe Dan Gold at mid-court. The all-white Mississippi State team had to sneak out of their own state to play against Loyola, who started four black players, including Harkness.

"We were just so proud of them to come out and play against black ballplayers for the first time in their history," Harkness said.

Even the governor of Mississippi, Ross Barnett, an avowed segregationist, said the Maroons were not to play in the game. A temporary injunction was issued to prevent the team from leaving the state.

"I was really worried about them and their families, but they took a major step for civil rights," Harkness said.

Loyola went on to win the game 61-51. They would win the national title that year.

The game against Mississippi State would go down as one of the most important games in NCAA history, but at the time, Harkness says, "They told me they were worried. They went back and they had more people there for them than we did when we won."

"That is what sports can do. It brought us together," Harkness said.

The handshake between two captains, one white and one black, would forge a lifelong friendship until Gold passed away two years ago. Harkness had to say goodbye.

"To go to an all-white church and the warmth and love I felt from their family," Harkness said. "Then I went over to the casket to show my respect for the captain Joe Dan and to the left of the casket is the picture of he and I shaking hands. I lost it. I just lost it."

It's the stuff of legend and yet, on the 50th anniversary, the 72-year-old Harkness was found mentoring at IPS School 68.

"You're my captain in basketball and in the classroom. You keep it up," he said.

The 1963 national champion Loyola team will be honored during this year's Final Four in Atlanta.