March 23, 2013 at 1:00 am

Jerry Green

Before the Madness, an NCAA Tournament game that truly mattered

In this photo taken March 15, 1963, Mississippi State's Joe Dan Gold (33) and Loyola's Jerry Harkness (15) walk side-by-side during an NCAA Mideast Regional game in East Lansing. (Loyola University Chicago)

Long before March Madness became a dreary clichι; long before some wizard discovered bracketology and attracted a nation of hypnotized drones; long before the drifter Dick Vitale became the famous Dick Vitale; long before Bob Knight found a niche in television; before John Wooden's dynasty of champions; before Earvin Johnson turned Magic and beat Larry Bird; before Jim Valvano's triumphant hysterics; before the Fab Five, a half century before Harvard vanquished New Mexico…

There was a basketball game that actually mattered.

The brackets — I might be the only individual in America who doesn't have one — have become a nasty addiction that softens brain tissue this time every year.

But if I did have a bracket, Mississippi State and Loyola of Chicago would be in it. And those two rivals from an historical night 50 years ago were not even among the 66 college teams listed in this year's version of bracketology, the NCAA Tournament.

Back then, one college basketball game changed America sports culture.

Forever!

Pivotal moment

Lots of folks have the opinion that when you are a witness to history you don't realize it.

That's not true.

On that night, Joe Dan Gold, captain of the Mississippi State basketball team, looked down on a crewcut sports journalist decked out in a tweed jacket and horn-rimmed glasses and scoffed at the question.

"Just a basketball game," he told me then — words to that effect.

Just a game. But so much more than that.

Mississippi State started five young men, all of them Caucasian, all of them college kids who had escaped from a posse of lawmen so they could play in a basketball game.

Loyola started five young men, four of them black, who pretty much wondered what the commotion was about.

The commotion was segregation was still the rule in solidly southern America. And white, young southern men did not play basketball games — or any other sport — against kids who happened to have brown-hued skins.

It was the night of March 15, 1963, in Michigan State's Jenison Fieldhouse. The second round of the NCAA Tournament. The tournament had started with 25 teams.

Loyola was a national powerhouse, led by All-America Jerry Harkness.

Mississippi State was the basketball champion of the Southeastern Conference — a lilywhite collection of universities stretching then from Florida through Alabama and Mississippi into Louisiana.

The two previous seasons Mississippi State won SEC championships — and was forced to reject the invitations to the NCAA Tournament. Mississippi State was forbidden to play in the tournament because an opposing team might have a black guy or two on it.

This time, Babe McCarthy, the coach, and Dean Colvard, the university president, determined Mississippi State would accept the bid.

So they did in defiance of Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, in defiance of an injunction from a Chancery Court; and in defiance of state troopers ordered to prevent the escape of the athletes. And indeed, in defiance of the Ku Klux Klan.

All this was rediscovered in an ancient Associated Press story out of East Lansing. At the time I was Michigan AP sports editor, duty-bound to be in the middle of it.

The plan

Mississippi State's escape required a secret plan and a cloak-and-dagger operation to get Joe Dan Gold and his teammates off the campus in Starkville, Miss.

The team's starters were hidden in a campus dormitory by assistant coach Jerry Simmons.

Meanwhile, a diversionary tactic was used — the second-stringers with the team trainer went to the Starkville airport to board the team charter. It was suspected they would have the court order delivered to them there and they would be detained by the state troopers and the sheriff's posse.

Thus, Gold and his four starting teammates could vanish.

McCarthy and Colvard already had slipped out of town, foiling the process servers trying to find them with the court order.

Alas, the court order was never delivered. And the troopers never did show up at the airport.

The regulars went to the airport. The plane took off for Michigan — a northern state that in those days was considered a place of damnation by segregationists in Mississippi. The plane made one stop in Nashville to pick up McCarthy. Then it flew onward to Lansing and the tournament — and a huge mob of expectant journalists.

Plus cops and assorted other security.

At game time, Joe Dan Gold shook hands with Jerry Harkness. The other Mississippi State players shook hands with their counterparts from Loyola.

And they played a game of basketball.

The game was part of history — deep-rooted history. The story has been captured in a film, "Game of Change."

Loyola won it, 61-51, and continued on to defeat Cincinnati for the NCAA championship.

And the Mississippi State players returned to Starkville to what was reported as a warm, friendly welcome.

Joe Dan Gold and Jerry Harkness would develop a long friendship, until Gold died.

Fifty seasons later, last December, the Mississippi State basketball team journeyed north to play Loyola again. A commemoration game.

Loyola won that game, too, 59-51.

Several of the Mississippi State players were black.

Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter.