Jerry Harkness plays game-changing role in basketball history (Part 1)

by Mark Montieth Writer

Part 1 of a 2-part series on former Pacers player Jerry Harkness' game-changing contributions to the sport.

Click to read Part 2 »

Jerry Harkness isn't the greatest player to have worn the Pacers uniform. Not by a long shot, pun intended.

He is, however, the Pacers player with the greatest historical relevance in basketball and owner of one of the most dramatic personal histories. While he played in just 81 games and averaged just 7.3 points in the dawning days of the franchise, he has been a game-changer whose contributions have transcended sports – all thanks to one of the sporting world's ultimate game-changers.

It's a big week for Harkness, as recognition for his lifetime of risk, reward and redemption reaches a crescendo. In June, he was presented with the Muhammad Ali Athlete Award at the 39th Annual Giants Awards dinner in Chicago. In July, he and his teammates from Loyola's 1963 NCAA championship team visited the White House to meet with President Obama. On Tuesday, he traveled to Chicago to be inducted into the Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame with the rest of his Loyola teammates. From there it was off to New York to be inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame on Thursday, followed by a trip to Florida to participate in the National Basketball Retired Players Association's annual Legends World Sports Conference at the Club Med Sandpiper Resort in Port St. Lucie, Fla. There, former players from the NBA, ABA and Harlem Globetrotters gather to hear lectures, plan community service events and network.

Harkness is 73 years old. Before leaving on his week-long memory spree, he had an appointment at St. Vincent's on Monday for some tests on his heart, which has troubled him a bit lately. He isn't about to miss what likely are some of his final opportunities to bask in the limelight, though. This is the 50th anniversary of Loyola's title, which could reasonably be regarded as the most significant of all in the NCAA tournament's history, and as the captain of that team he never passes on a chance to spend time with his teammates. They had chemistry then, and the living members still have it now. If he gets an individual crumb thrown his way now and then, all the better.

“It's been really, really, really neat,” he said.

That's Harkness for you. A product of Harlem who has known genuine hardship, he's nevertheless retained an aura of childlike innocence and optimism. He's soft-spoken, upbeat and polite. Grown men tend to use words such as “wonderful” and “sweetheart” to describe him, but his demeanor masks a bold determination that blazed trails. He has been a local version of Jackie Robinson, helping to break down color barriers at various stops along the way. The Loyola team was the first to start four black players, in an era when many teams had none and nobody started more than three no matter how desperate they were for a victory. He then became the first black salesman for Quaker Oats. Later, after his career with the Pacers was aborted by injuries, he became the first black fundraiser for United Way, the state's first black sportscaster and one of the founders of the 100 Black Men mentoring organization.

It's only appropriate then that if not for Robinson, and a simple statement or two the baseball legend uttered in passing one day, we likely never would have heard of Jerry Harkness. It was the first of a series of fateful occurrences that leads Harkness to believe his life has been guided by an invisible hand, a moment so seemingly trivial that a screenwriter would rewrite it in favor of something more dramatic.

But it changed a life.

Harkness' childhood in Harlem was difficult, and shadowed by disappointment. His father, a window washer, had left the household, leaving his mother to raise him and his sister alone. There were days he had nothing to eat, and other days he subsisted on bread and syrup. He put cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes, but when it rained the water soaked through to his feet. He tried to conceal that from his classmates to avoid their taunts, but a kid can only hide from the truth for so long. Frustrated and bitter, he occasionally engaged in minor mischief – stealing a piece of fruit off a cart, perhaps, or hopping over a subway turnstile to get a free ride.

Sports helped keep him grounded, though, and he had natural athleticism. He ran cross country and was a distance runner for the track team, but he couldn't bring himself to go out for the basketball team at DeWitt Clinton High School. He had played a season on his junior high team, although “played” isn't the most accurate verb for a kid who barely got off the bench, and he had led his intramural team to a championship the previous season. He wanted nothing more than to play for the school's varsity team, but the guys on the DeWitt Clinton's varsity team were from another part of town, which only amplified Harkness' shaky self-confidence. What if he went out for the team and got cut? Why add another disappointment to a life that had accumulated several? Better to avoid that possibility altogether.

And then came a life's turning point. One day, either late in the summer or in the fall of 1958, before his senior year in high school, Harkness was shooting around at the YMCA in Harlem, just messing around on his own. It wasn't something he did very often, because it cost a quarter to use the facilities and quarters weren't exactly growing on lampposts in his neighborhood, which by then had become a housing project in the Bronx. But he happened to be there at the moment Jackie Robinson of all people passed through the gymnasium. It wasn't that unusual of an occurrence, because black leaders of that time lived in same neighborhoods as poor people. Consider it the upside of segregation. A black person, no matter how successful, had to live with other black people, so black kids got to see, touch and sometimes interact with the doctors, lawyers and sports stars in their midst. And there were no bigger stars than Robinson, who at the time was two years retired from a Major League baseball career that he had begun by breaking the sport's color barrier and inspiring a major social advancement.

Robinson, a close friend of the Y's general manager, took notice of the left-handed kid and threw out an off-hand compliment as he passed by.

“Hey, kid, you're not bad!” he said. “Maybe you could get a scholarship someday.” Or words to that effect.

The comment was so casual that Harkness doesn't remember it exactly, but he recalls the encouraging nature of it. It was all he needed to hear to decide to go out for the high school team. If Jackie Robinson believed in him, how could he not believe in himself?

“Just for him to give me those words of encouragement …” Harkness recalls all these years later, still shaking his head at the memory of it. “I had so many disappointments in my life. He was the one who pushed it over the top.”

Harkness went out for the varsity team at Clinton, made it, moved into the starting lineup early in the season, and led it to the city championship, playing a starring role in the title game at Madison Square Garden. He played against the likes of Roger Brown, who would become a Pacers teammate and Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, and in the summers Larry Brown, who would become an ABA opponent and Pacers coach. He and future Pacers president Donnie Walsh might or might not have met up at a playground or two in the summers, but at the very least were aware of one another.

Harkness didn't follow a straight line to Loyola, however, another reason for his belief in fate's role in his life. He could have gone to St. John's on a track scholarship, but his grades weren't sufficient. NYU later offered a basketball scholarship, but he failed the entrance exam. Walter November, a local AAU coach and mentor for players in the area, then lined up a scholarship for him at Texas Southern, but the dormitory in which he was to live burned to the ground, canceling that opportunity.

Finally, with the next school year about to begin, November convinced Loyola of Chicago coach George Ireland to give Harkness a chance. Ireland was about to revolutionize college basketball by ignoring the traditions of the day and recruiting black players. It was the only way for a small Jesuit school to compete with the major powers. By the time Harkness was a senior at Loyola, four black players were in the starting lineup.

Loyola won the NCAA title that year with an overtime win over Cincinnati, which had won the two previous championships. But to get there, it had to clear more rubbish from an uphill path. Southern teams in the early 1960s were heavily segregated, and southern cities were inhospitable to blacks. In Houston, the fans taunted Loyola's black players during the game, and they were not allowed to eat at the same restaurant as the whites afterward. In New Orleans, the black players had to stay with local families in black neighborhoods rather than at a downtown hotel with the rest of the team – an experience that turned out to be a good one because they were received as conquering heroes.

Loyola finished the season ranked second in the country, behind Cincinnati. It easily dispensed of Tennessee Tech in the opening round of the tournament, 111-42, setting up a showdown with Mississippi State. Problem was, Mississippi State, which was ranked sixth in the country, had never played against teams with black players. It had passed on competing in the tournament in 1959, '61 and '62 for that reason, despite having won the SEC title. Segregation was so ingrained in the conference that it would be four more years before a black player would be admitted to one of its teams.

No longer able to ignore the pleas of State's players and many of the students, school president Dean Colvard announced the team would play in the tournament in '63. Mississippi governor Ross Barnett, who had campaigned as a segregationist, filed an injunction to prohibit the team from leaving the state, but coach Babe McCarthy had left the area so that he could not be served. Colvard helped organize a plan in which the players were driven across the state line to Tennessee and flown out of Nashville to the game on Michigan State's campus in East Lansing, escaping authorities.

State's participation made for such a historic moment that when its captain, Joe Dan Gold, shook hands with Harkness at center court before the opening tip, the sound of popping flash bulbs from the cameras of newspaper photographers echoed throughout the fieldhouse. Loyola's players at that time weren't aware of all that State's team had gone through to get to the game, but neither was the significance of the moment lost on them. “Deep down, we knew this was something special,” Harkness said.

Loyola won the game, 61-51, with Harkness scoring 20. State's coach, Babe McCarthy, said afterward his team might as well have stayed home, it had no chance to win against Loyola. The Ramblers went on to beat Big Ten champion Illinois by 15 points, with Harkness scoring 33 points, and then Duke by 19, setting up the championship game with Cincinnati.

Cincinnati, led by two more future Pacers players, Tom Thacker and Muncie's Ron Bonham, led by 15 points with 14 minutes to go, but Loyola's desperate fullcourt press began taking its toll. Harkness hit a 12-footer to force overtime, and then scored a layup off the opening tip of the extra session to give Loyola its first lead of the game. Harkness had a chance to win the game for Loyola in overtime, but Bonham had him defended as he went up for the shot. Harkness instead passed to Les Hunter, whose missed shot was tipped in by Vic Rouse at the buzzer.

Loyola remains the only Jesuit school and the only college from the state of Illinois to win the NCAA tournament. Its role in mixing college basketball's color palette remains its greatest distinction, however. Texas Western would win the NCAA title three years later with an all-black starting lineup, beating an all-white Kentucky team for the championship. That game inspired a movie, Glory Road. Loyola's story, however, celebrates integration, and was more of a factor in inspiring change within basketball and society. It wasn't black vs. white, it was blacks and whites crashing through barriers and coming together like never before. Harkness' son, Jerald, directed a documentary, Game of Change, about the game in 2008.

Harkness would later learn that Mississippi State's players, and most of the student body, wanted to play in that game in East Lansing. He recalls the respect he saw in the eyes of State's players before the game began. And in recent years, as the historical significance of the game has been more recognized and celebrated, he has become friends with some of them.

“That's the story,” Harkness said. “That's a good human story. You could not have told me that the majority of students at Mississippi State wanted (the team) to play against us. Sports brought that out. You realize that, My goodness, these guys are all right. I would have thought that 90 to 95 percent of those students were racists. It takes basketball sometimes …”

Had the story ended there for Harkness, his life would be full, and the invitations to banquets, Halls of Fame and the White House would still be pouring in. He was a two-time All-American and captain of a national championship team, enough to assure him of at least a footnote in the history of college basketball. But that was just a beginning for him.

Part 1 of a 2-part series on former Pacers player Jerry Harkness' game-changing contributions to the sport.

Click to read Part 2 »

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