BENNER: Remembering one of the most significant handshakes in sports

December 8, 2012

It was the flashbulbs. That’s what he remembers. That’s what everyone remembers who witnessed the moment nearly 50 years ago in East Lansing, Mich.

Until the flashbulbs popped and illuminated Michigan State University’s Jenison Fieldhouse in a surreal aura, Jerry Harkness, captain of the Loyola University Ramblers basketball team, had considered it nothing more than just another handshake with the opposing team’s captain, a pregame ritual he had performed dozens of times in his basketball career.

But when Harkness’ black hand grasped the white hand of Mississippi State University basketball captain Joe Dan Gold, basketball—specifically, college basketball—took a decided step forward.

“The flashbulbs lit up the fieldhouse,” Harkness recalls. “And at that moment, I thought, ‘Wow, this must be history.’”

It was, and that history will be revisited and remembered in Chicago on Dec. 15, when Mississippi State visits Loyola. Players from both teams will be in attendance at Loyola’s Gentile Center. It’s part of a season-long celebration of Loyola’s 1963 national championship, in which Harkness played an all-American role.

The former Indiana Pacer and pioneering Indianapolis sportscaster—he was the first African-American in Indianapolis to take on that role when WLWI (now WTHR-TV Channel 13) hired him at the conclusion of his Pacers career—Harkness and his Ramblers were in Jenison to play a regional game en route to that ’63 NCAA tournament title.

“At the time,” Harkness says, “I thought capturing the national championship was the greatest thing that could ever happen to our team. But over time, as I got older and my priorities changed, I realized that the biggest game I ever played in was that one against Mississippi State.”

Which is why the photographers were there … to capture a more significant social moment. Mississippi State, representing the Southeastern Conference, had qualified for three previous NCAA tournaments, but had to decline invitations to each.

The reason? An unwritten state mandate prohibiting all-white Mississippi State teams from playing integrated teams. The majority of Loyola’s roster—and four of its five starters, including Harkness—was black.

The Mississippi governor at the time, Ross Barnett, and a state senator and former MSU student body president, Billy Mitts, were adamant that teams representing their state would not play integrated teams. The state senator even went so far as to file for an injunction prohibiting Mississippi State from leaving the state to play an integrated opponent.

The MSU coach, Babe McCarthy; the president, Dean Colvard; and the athletic director, Wade Walker, had other ideas.

Before the injunction could be served, the three surreptitiously drove across the state line into Tennessee. Meanwhile, the team and trainer secretly assembled at a private airport near campus, boarded a plane, and flew to meet McCarthy in Nashville. The MSU entourage then flew on to Michigan for their appointed date with Loyola.

Then came the handshake. And the flashbulbs. The courage of the MSU team to defy its governor became a national story. Not coincidentally, the following fall, Mississippi State admitted its first black students.

Beyond that, a friendship developed and endured between Harkness and Mississippi State’s Gold.

They kept in touch over the years and their relationship strengthened after Harkness’ son, Jerald, a filmmaker in Indianapolis, produced a documentary about the Loyola-MSU contest.

Titled, “Game of Change,” it was picked up by ESPN and earned overwhelmingly positive reviews.

That led to a number of joint speaking engagements for Harkness and Gold, who eventually became a school superintendent in Kentucky while Harkness, beyond his playing and sportscasting career, became a founding member of the Indianapolis-based youth mentoring organization, 100 Black Men.

“We just discovered that, through education, we had a lot in common,” Harkness says. “Our wives became friends as well.”

When Gold died in April 2011, one black person attended his funeral: Harkness.

“I just remember walking up to the front and paying my respects,” Harkness says. “But when I looked to the left of the casket, there was the picture of Joe Dan and I shaking hands before that game. His family was so glad I was there. We hugged and cried. It was very emotional.”

Harkness says it also will be emotional when the surviving players gather at Loyola on Dec. 15.

Of course, no one will even take note of the integrated rosters of today’s Ramblers and MSU Bulldogs, the result of a long journey that began with a simple handshake illuminated by flashbulbs.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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