Jerry Harkness was inspired by Jackie Robinson to get into basketball. He ended up becoming a full-fledged civil rights pioneer.
Following a path forged by the first black player in Major League Baseball, Harkness led Loyola Chicago to a groundbreaking national basketball championship in 1963 and was a trailblazer long after his playing career.
The school announced that Harkness passed away Tuesday morning at age 81 after a long life of pushing boundaries and playing the game for change.
“We all have a heavy heart at Loyola today,” Loyola coach Drew Valentine said in a statement. “Jerry was a true trailblazer not only in basketball, but in so many different areas, and the impact he had was immeasurable.”
A two-time All-American at Loyola, Harkness was part of the 1963 squad that won a national championship with four black starters and starred in what became the Game of Change.
State laws prohibited the state of Mississippi from playing as an integrated team, but the Maroons – now the Bulldogs – slipped out of town under cover of darkness to play against Loyola in East Lansing, Michigan. , during the first round of regional Middle East. Harkness shook hands with Mississippi State captain Joe Dan Gold ahead of the game in an iconic moment.
“My boy, the flashes. I couldn’t believe, “Harkness recalls in 2018.” I just couldn’t understand. … I was shocked. I looked him in his eyes. He wasn’t smiling; I tried to smile at him. I could tell he was there, he was happy to play us and he was happy to be there. He had on his playing face. I was shocked at the blisters and walked back to the group a little dizzy, a little.
“I thought, boy, this was more than a game. It’s history.
Loyola got to work, winning by 10. Afterwards, the Maroons talked about basketball, not when.
“They were perfect gentlemen – just like any other team we’ve played with,” said Gold, the Mississippi state captain who died in 2011. “They beat us on the offensive boards. They just had too many points. big men for us and they won it by taking all those bounces.
The Ramblers beat defending champion Cincinnati in overtime for the school’s only national championship.
Harkness, Ron Miller, Vic Rouse and Les Hunter – White Guard John Egan was the other starter – received death threats mailed to their dorm and suffered taunts from fans in Houston during their title race. Texas Western won a national championship with five black starters three years later, beating an all-white Kentucky team coached by Adolph Rupp.
The death threats, Harkness recalls, came after Loyola opened the NCAA tournament by beating Tennessee Tech by 69 miles from its Chicago campus. This put the Ramblers in the game against Mississippi State and it led to ugly letters from members of the Ku Klux Klan calling them by names and saying they were not allowed to play, arriving at their dorm on Sheridan Road.
Harkness received two of these letters, some of which were sent to other teammates. Coach George Ireland ended up picking them up, dismissing the threats as junk.
“I was okay after we got over that,” Harkness said. “In a few days we were on our way to Michigan so I was feeling good then. “
Harkness played one season with the New York Knicks in the NBA after being drafted in the second round and two more with the Indiana Pacers in the ABA. He pursued a distinguished career in business and broadcasting, becoming the first black spokesperson for Quaker Oats.
“We are deeply saddened to have lost not only one of Loyola’s all-time great players, but also one of his all-time great human beings,” said Loyola sporting director Steve Watson. . “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, former teammates and countless friends.”
Harkness was Indianapolis’ first black sports reporter, worked with the United Way of Greater Indianapolis, and ran a sports shoe franchise.
“As soon as I learned the history of the 1963 Ramblers basketball team, Jerry became one of my role models,” said Lucas Williamson, the current Loyola goaltender. “He will be sorely missed and will be forever remembered as one of the best to wear a Loyola jersey.”
Originally from the Bronx, he is a member of several halls of fame, including the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Harkness is survived by his wife Sarah and two children.