Jerry Harkness was inspired by Jackie Robinson to take up the game of basketball. He ended up becoming a civil rights trailblazer in his own right.
Following a path paved by Major League Baseball’s first Black player, Harkness led Loyola Chicago to a barrier-breaking national championship in basketball in 1963 and a was pioneer well after his playing career.
The school announced Harkness died Tuesday morning at 81 after a long life of breaking through boundaries and one big Game of Change.
“All of us at Loyola have heavy hearts today,” Loyola coach Drew Valentine said in a statement. “Jerry was a true trail blazer not only in basketball, but in so many different walks of life, and the impact he made was immeasurable.”
A two-time All-American at Loyola, Harkness was part of the 1963 team that won a national championship with four Black starters and played in what became known as the Game of Change.
State laws prohibited Mississippi State from playing integrated teams, but the Maroons — now Bulldogs — slipped out of town under cover of darkness to play Loyola in East Lansing, Michigan, in the opening round of the Mid-East regionals. Harkness shook hands with Mississippi State captain Joe Dan Gold before the game in an iconic moment.
“Boy, the flashbulbs. I couldn’t believe,” Harkness recalled in 2018. “I just couldn’t understand. … I was shocked. I looked him in his eyes. He didn’t smile; 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 game face. I was shocked with the bulbs and I went back to the huddle in kind of a daze, a little.
“I thought, boy, this is more than a game. This is history.”
Loyola went to work, winning by 10. Afterward, the Maroons spoke about the basketball, not the moment.
“They were perfect gentlemen — just like any other team we played,” said Gold, the Mississippi State captain who died in 2011. “They beat us on the offensive backboards. They just had too many big men for us and they won it by taking all those rebounds.”
The Ramblers went on to beat reigning 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 endured taunts from fans in Houston during their title run. 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 once recalled, came after Loyola opened the NCAA tourney by beating Tennessee Tech by 69 a few miles from their Chicago campus. It put the Ramblers into the matchup against Mississippi State and that led to some ugly letters from Ku Klux Klan members, calling them names and saying they had no right to play, arriving at their dorm on Sheridan Road.
Harkness got two of those letters, some were sent to other teammates. Coach George Ireland wound up taking them, dismissing the threats as junk.
“I was all right about it after we got over that,” Harkness said. “In a couple days, we were on our way to Michigan so I felt all right at that time.”
Harkness played one season with the NBA’s New York Knicks after being drafted in the second round and two more with the ABA’s Indiana Pacers. He went on to a successful career in business and broadcasting, becoming the first Black spokesman for Quaker Oats.
“We are deeply saddened to have lost not only one of Loyola’s all-time great players, but also one of its all-time great human beings,” Loyola athletic director Steve Watson said. “Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, former teammates and countless friends.”
Harkness was Indianapolis’ first Black sportscaster, worked with the United Way of Greater Indianapolis and ran an athletic shoe franchise.
“As soon as I learned the story of the 1963 Ramblers basketball team, Jerry became one of my role models,” current Loyola guard Lucas Williamson said. “He will be deeply missed and forever remembered as one of the best to wear a Loyola jersey.”
A native of the Bronx, he is a member of multiple halls of fame, including the College Basketball Hall of Fame. Harkness is survived by his wife, Sarah, and two children.