(Writer’s note: On this day, 53 years ago, Hall of Famer Babe McCarthy’s Mississippi State basketball team flew out of Mississippi, secretively, to go play an NCAA Tournament game against Loyola of Chicago at East Lansing, Mich. It is known as the Game of Change. In April, of 2011, Joe Dan Gold, the Mississippi State player shaking the Loyola player’s hand, died of cancer. As it happened, I delivered by telephone the news to Jerry Harkness, the man whose hand Gold shook all those years ago. This was the column that resulted in the April 15, 2011 Clarion-Ledger.)
Seventy-year-old Jerry Harkness answered his home phone in Indianapolis Thursday afternoon and received the news of Joe Dan Gold’s death from a Mississippi sports writer.
There was a long pause.
“No, no, oh no,” Harkness said. “Joe Dan? I had heard he wasn’t well, but … oh no, God, I hate to hear that. What a great guy; you know, we became good friends.”
Forty-eight years ago, Harkness and Gold shook hands on a basketball floor in East Lansing, Mich., and the world took notice.
Gold, who died of cancer at 68 Wednesday in West Liberty, Ky., was the captain of the 1963 Mississippi State team that sneaked out of Starkville, against the governor’s and state government’s mandate, in order to play in the NCAA Tournament against Loyola of Chicago, captained by Harkness, one of several African Americans on the Loyola team.
“I remember we shook hands and nodded at one another; no words were spoken,” Harkness said.
No words were needed. The flashbulbs that captured the moment said it all.
“It was amazing, so many camera flashes,” Harkness said. “That’s when it hit me, that this was more than a game. This was history, a special piece of history.”
Loyola, which became the national champion that year, had won its first-round game by 68 points. State, coached by the legendary Babe McCarthy, scored the first 10 points against Loyola, but Harkness and his teammates fought back and won 61-51 in a game that was much closer than it sounds.
“It was a well-played game by both teams,” Harkness, who grew up in Harlem, said. “They played us as tough as anybody. There was no jawing, no verbal stuff at all between the players. Both teams just played hard and well.”
Won 3 SEC titles
McCarthy recruited Gold out of Benton, Ky., where he had grown up playing against black players. Gold wasn’t the best player on the State team, just the smartest and the steadiest. During his three varsity seasons, Gold started on teams that won 65 games, lost 13 and posted a 36-6 mark in SEC play. They won or shared three SEC regular-season championships. Remember, Adolph Rupp was in his prime at Kentucky.
Said teammate and close friend Bobby Shows, “Joe Dan was just a steady, steady, steady person, on the court and off the court. You could count on Joe Dan. He was going to get his 10 to 15 points every game. He was just so consistent, nothing fancy, just consistent.”
This will tell you much about Joe Dan Gold. He later became the head coach at State at age 23. And this: At some point during that Loyola game, he broke one of his hands and just played on. When he awakened the next morning, he knew something was badly wrong and went to have it X-rayed. Back then, the regional first-round losers played a consolation game. Gold couldn’t play.
And this will tell you much about how good that State team – and that Loyola team – were: Without its captain, State defeated Bowling Green and the great Nate Thurmond for third place.
This writer last talked to Gold at teammate Red Stroud’s funeral in March of 2008. Gold then talked about having been part of a 24-1 State team in 1962 that was forced to turn down an NCAA berth. That year, he and teammate Jack Berkshire had traveled to Iowa City to watch an NCAA regional tournament there.
“We saw Jerry West (West Virginia) and John Havlicek playing for Ohio State, and that’s when I found out what a big deal we had been missing,” Gold said. “Jack and I talked about how we should be playing. We knew we could compete.”
At least, Gold and his teammates finally got the chance. Basketball Hall of Famer Bailey Howell, who finished his State career in 1959, never did, something Howell regrets to this day.
“We knew it was wrong, but back then, we just did what we were told,” Howell said. “But, yes, of course we wanted a chance to compete and see if we were the best.”
Little known fact: In 1956, Howell’s sophomore year, State played in the Evansville Christmas Tournament and defeated Denver, which had two black players, in the first round. The Bulldogs were supposed to play Evansville in the championship game, but by then word had gotten back to Mississippi that State was competing against integrated teams. The Bulldogs were called home and given no choice. They thought they were getting on the bus to go play a championship game. Instead, they headed south.
“Ridiculous,” Howell said. “It made you just feel sick.”
From Howell’s manner, you could tell it still does.
When will we learn?
Gold and Harkness, currently battling cancer himself, became friends later in life when the two teams were brought together for reunions of the two teams. Gold first visited Harkness’ house three years ago.
“I remember we shook hands and nodded at one another again,” Harkness said. “I wish I could describe the warmth, the shared feeling. We sat down and talked for a long time.
“I would say we became close friends with the intent of becoming closer,” Harkness continued. “We’ve talked on the phone from time to time since. But we intended to get together again and now we won’t. I’ll always regret that. We didn’t learn enough about each other.”
Which begs the question 48 years – and so much progress – after that famous moment was captured for the ages: Will we ever?
On July 11, 2013, Harkness, a cancer survivor, and former Loyola teammates John Egan, Les Hunter and Ron Miller met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the school’s 1963 national championship. It remains the only NCAA Division I basketball championship won by a university from the state of Illinois.