Harkness Back in the Spotlight with Loyola
Jerry Harkness has made his share of history in basketball. He was the captain and a consensus first-team All-American for the Loyola-Chicago team that won the NCAA championship in 1963. Four years later, as a member of the original Pacers team, he hit what was then the longest shot in the history of professional basketball to win a game in Dallas.
He's never received more national exposure than what he got just for attending Loyola's NCAA tournament victories last Thursday and Saturday. Harkness was shown frequently on the national television broadcasts from his seat behind the team bench in Atlanta, watching intently with his wife, Sarah.
Harkness wasn't entirely pleased with being the center of attention, however. He had teammates there, too, and he didn't believe they were getting their due.
"They showed me on TV and didn't show the other guys," Harkness said. "I want to make sure everybody gets shown. We need to get seats together."
Once a captain, always a captain.
Harkness hopes they'll all be together in San Antonio this weekend, when Loyola continues its improbable run through the tournament. The 11th-seeded Ramblers will play third-seeded Michigan on Saturday. If they win, they'll play the winner of Saturday's game between two No. 1 seeds, Villanova and Kansas, for the national title. They are already one of the tournament's all-time great stories, a classic underdog team from a smaller school clearing a path with hustle and precision.
Kind of a collegiate version of Milan's run to the 1954 state high school championship.
The team Harkness led to the 1963 championship provided an inspiring story, too, but for entirely different reasons. It was ranked second in the country behind Cincinnati entering the tournament, then came from 15 points down in the second half to pull out an overtime victory over the Bearcats in the championship game.
Pictured: Jerry Harkness is recognized at halftime of the 1960s Decade Game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Nov. 12, 2016. (Credit: Frank McGrath)
That game was thrilling enough to remain memorable in passing years, but the drama for the '63 Ramblers was greater off the court. They started four black players, a major breakthrough in an era when unwritten codes of college basketball dictated teams start no more than two black players. None of the teams of the Southeastern Conference at the time had a black player on their roster — that wouldn't come until 1967 — and some refused to even play against integrated teams.
Mississippi State, for example. It had passed up opportunities to play in the NCAA tournament in previous seasons despite winning the Southeastern Conference championship because of its segregation policies. Change was in the wind, however, and the university president decided to rebel against the state's governor and sneak the team out of the state under the cover of darkness to avoid a restraining order.
Loyola set a tournament record by defeating Tennessee Tech by 69 points in its opening game, then met Mississippi State, which had received a bye, in the second round.
Flashbulbs were popping inside Jenison Fieldhouse on the Michigan State University campus as photographers captured the history-making moment when Harkness shook hands with Mississippi State captain Joe Don Gold at midcourt before the game. Fifty-five years later, that game — which Loyola won by 10 points — is better remembered than the Ramblers' championship victory because of its historical context.
The intersecting moment of social progress was featured in a documentary, Game of Change, produced by Harkness' son, Jerald. It also will be one of the primary emphases of Harkness' autobiography, which is scheduled to be published in a couple of months, called "Connections."
Harkness made history with the Pacers, too, giving up a stable sales and marketing job with Quaker Oats to participate in an open tryout for the first team in June of '67. He barely made the roster and wound up playing 81 games over two seasons before back and knee injuries forced him into retirement.
His highlight came in the 15th game in franchise history, in Dallas, when he banked in an 88-foot shot at the final buzzer to give the Pacers a 119-118 victory. It was the longest shot in the history of professional basketball, and remains the longest game-winning shot.
At 77 years old, Harkness is the oldest former Pacers player. This week, he's the most famous, too. He's not comfortable being the center of attention and doesn't want to distract from the accomplishment of the current Loyola players, but also looks forward to more people learning of the '63 team's story. And plenty of media outlets will be telling it. Harkness has received interview requests from several local reporters, as well as the likes of an ESPN affiliate in Chicago and a radio station in Toronto.
"I can't believe it," he says. "I didn't know it would be like this. No way possible did I know."
He appreciates the interest but looks forward to escaping the spotlight and going to the Final Four games in San Antonio this weekend, where he'll be joined by five of the six living members of the '63 team — all there watching the current collection of unlikely Ramblers take their shot at history.
"It's amazing," Harkness said.
It is, then and now.
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Mark Montieth's book, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," covers the formation and early seasons of the franchise. It is available at retail outlets throughout Indiana and online at sources such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
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