By STEVEN NALLEY
Don Posey wasn't playing to change the course of history — only to win.
In 1963, Mississippi State University received its fourth consecutive invitation to the NCAA tournament, with its first game set against Loyola University of Chicago. It would be two more years before MSU would admit its first black student, Richard Holmes, but Loyola was already integrated, with four black starters. Segregationist forces within Mississippi's state government had prohibited MSU from playing in the NCAA tournament three times before 1963 to prevent them from playing an integrated team, but that year, head coach Babe McCarthy and MSU President Dean W. Colvard defied the state and accepted the championship bid.
"We were 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds. We had no idea about the impact it was going to have," Posey, an alumnus of the 1963 MSU team, said. "We had one thought on our mind, and that was to compete in a basketball game. The three teams before us had been denied that right.
Segregationists and civil rights had no part in it, and I think that's the answer you would get from most of the players. We didn't know much about what was going on back in those days."
The MSU and Loyola basketball teams will compete Saturday at Joseph J. Gentile Arena in Chicago, Ill., commemorating the 1963 showdown's 50th anniversary with the two programs' first meeting since that historic night.
Loyola won the 1963 game 61-51 and ultimately won the national title, but MSU President Mark Keenum said the match was MSU's finest hour in the civil rights era. He said it took courage for Colvard and McCarthy to defy the state's political power structure, and the result became a lasting symbol of the better angels of Mississippi's nature.
"When State's (team captain) Joe Dan Gold stepped to center court for the tipoff and shook the hand of Loyola's Jerry Harkness, it was a poignant moment, seen all across America. I think a lot of Mississippians, not just MSU fans, were proud of that day, because it reflected the true beliefs of the vast majority of our state's citizens," Keenum said. "That spirit has remained a part of everything we do here, and it remains, for many, a defining moment in Mississippi State University's history. I am proud of that history, particularly as we continue to work to enhance our university's values of diversity and inclusion."
Frank Davis, a retired MSU researcher who was a student there in 1963, said he could attest that most of MSU's students supported Colvard, supported the basketball team playing against Loyola and, ultimately, supported integration when Holmes joined the student body.
"Everybody might not have been overjoyed to welcome him, but there (weren't) any riots; there was nothing like that," Davis said. "We were all very thankful that MSU students accepted integration and its first black students the way it did. We were also pleased Dr. Colvard wasn't fired by (Governor Ross Barnett when MSU played Loyola). The governor could have fired him, but the reaction, I think, by whites in the state (was largely) supportive of our president and coaches, applauding them for having the courage to pull off this caper."
The 1963 game against Loyola was actually not the first time MSU played an integrated team, according to Marion Ellis's biography of Colvard, "Quiet Leader." MSU played an integrated team in the first round of an invitational tournament in Evansville, Indiana in 1956, but then-athletic director C.R. "Dudy" Noble set a precedent when he ordered the MSU team to withdraw before it could play the second game against another integrated team.
Ellis's book also says the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled on March 14 to invalidate the injunction state Sen. Billy Mitts sought to prevent MSU from competing in the NCAA tournament, but by then it was a moot point. The team had already flown out of the state and landed in East Lansing, Mich. to play. Posey said the team traveled in two cars to fly out of George M. Bryan Airport, with one car containing starters and a second car ahead of it containing non-starters, including him.
"We were the bait," Posey said. "If we didn't (see anyone trying to stop us), we would signal the second car with the starters to come on. We were supposed to get the word back to them that the coast was clear."
Posey said both cars made it into the airport and left on the plane with no problems, but he and other players still feared being arrested and jailed, and that fear affected their performance in the Loyola game. The fear intensified when the team's plane touched down in Columbus en route home from the tournament.
"There was a pretty sizable crowd,” Posey said. “The thought that went through my mind (was), were they there to greet us, or were they there to harm us? Fortunately, they were there to greet us. They were yelling and screaming and hugging our necks."
Posey said his teammates and their Loyola opponents reunited three years ago for the first time, and they plan to reunite again at an MSU alumni social Friday from 7-9 p.m. at Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse and Bar in Chicago. MSU and Loyola will also play in 2013 at Humphrey Coliseum at a date to be determined.
MSU Athletic Director Scott Stricklin said plans for the first of two anniversary games were not finalized until Rick Ray arrived as MSU's new head basketball coach. Stricklin said a part of him wanted MSU to play the first game at home.
"Rick was the one that said, 'Hey, Scott. They won a national title. This is the 50th anniversary of their national title team.' He felt it was the right thing to do, since they won the game, (to) let them host the first game," Stricklin said. "In hindsight, I think that was the right thing to do. (Ray) was very active (in) getting the game on the schedule."
Ray said he has been working to educate his players on the significance of the 1963 game through documentary viewing, handouts, and discussions after practice. Guest speakers who were involved in the game will also talk to players once they arrive in Chicago, he said.
"It's a significant game in the history of Mississippi State basketball and also in the NCAA," Ray said. "The one thing that is so significant about that game is the fact that everybody looks at segregation as taking away opportunities for African-Americans to advance. (The 1963 game) really kind of turned the tables ... (with a) situation where our basketball team back then didn't have the opportunity to advance and go play because of segregation."
Ray is MSU's first African-American head basketball coach, and Stricklin said both Ray's hiring and the 1963 MSU-Loyola game are part of a continuum that illustrates the way athletics can change society and culture.
"The remarkable thing now (is that) when a person of color is hired in that kind of position, it's not really thought about," Stricklin said. "When Rick Ray was hired, we didn't really think about him being a black coach. That was never a reason to hire a person. You hire a person based on their ability."
Posey said he and his teammates had strong respect for their African-American counterparts. They may not have grown up going to school with African-Americans, he said, but many of them grew up playing basketball with them. As a result, he said, the team saw no colors — only competition.
"I don't think there was ever any discussion among us players about playing against black (players)," Posey said. "They were good basketball players. It didn't have anything to do with color. You measured the opponent by his abilities."
MSU sports beat reporter Ben Wait contributed to this article.