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INTERVIEW: Ramblers Author Michael Lenehan

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 26, 2013 8:40PM

Image courtesy Loyola University.

The current state of Chicago-area college basketball is sad. We pine for the days when Ray Meyer and DePaul were part of the national discussion and near the top of the AP rankings.

Before DePaul, Loyola was a basketball power for a fleeting moment in the early 1960s, culminating in a NCAA championship in 1963 over the Cincinnati Bearcats.

More important than the championship was the makeup of the two teams: Four of Loyola's starting five were black, while Cincinnati placed three black starters on the court. This was unheard of back then and, according to Michael Lenehan in his new book Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963 — The Team that Changed the Color of College Basketball, served as a watershed moment in integrating college sports and a momentous but under-heralded achievement in the Civil Rights movement. But it may not have happened without the courage of Loyola coach George Ireland, who defied the "gentlemen's agreements" of the time to field the best team he could and worked to develop a pipeline for talent in New York City's famous Holcombe C. Rucker Park, home to some of the best street ball on the planet and the proving ground for legends such as Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Rafer Alston and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe.

Lenehan, a former Chicago Reader editor, spent four years researching the book, interviewing players from the Loyola and Cincinnati squads as well as members of the all-white Mississippi State team that defied Jim Crow laws to play Loyola. We interviewed Lenehan about the book, his research and why he felt it was important to write it now on the 50th anniversary of that championship team.

Chicagoist: When did you first hit upon the idea for the book and when did you start researching and writing it in earnest?

Michael Lenehan: I first thought about writing the book in 2008, but started writing it in earnest sometime in ’09. I got together with (publisher) Agate last summer. It took us less than a year between getting the deal done and publishing the book.

C: What was it about the subject of Loyola basketball back then that appealed to you most?

ML: For me it was the opportunity to tell a Civil Rights story in a time period that’s beginning to be forgotten — lost to firsthand memory — within a sports framework that gives you all the hooks you need. But the main appeal for me was the integration angle. I wouldn’t have written it without that.

C: Did you notice any parallels between the way George Ireland integrated the Loyola basketball team and the hyper-segregation that still exists in Chicago?

ML: It wasn’t fresh in my mind. The subject material was more of a history lesson for me.

C: One aspect of the book that resonated with me reading it was Loyola working to lower their admission standards in order to bring these young men on the basketball team, something schools with high academic standards still struggle with today. Do you think that places African American athletes in a negative light?

ML: I don’t think so; I think coaches everywhere are trying to bend academic standards for student-athletes of all colors and races. They don’t try any harder for black guys than seven-foot white guys. I think it’s a contradiction that’s built into the whole idea of the student-athlete, when you get to the point where athletics becomes a revenue producer. Many schools never get to that point — Loyola certainly wasn’t there in 1963. When a school does get to that point, the (academic) threshold gets lower and lower and the voracious hunger for television programming increases. At that point, basketball becomes about winning and less about forming character. And it’s the coach’s job to win. There’s always been, and always will be, that tension.

What I do know about that Loyola program is that George Ireland said, “give these guys a chance.” And the players responded: They graduated with a higher number of average degrees than I bet are sitting at this table. They had, I believe, 14 degrees — one guy had four. These guys probably wouldn’t have had a chance to go to college otherwise.

C: You paint a very sympathetic portrait of George Ireland in the book. He seemed to be someone who took these kids under his wing and made sure they were protected. But as you wrote in the book, his early record at Loyola wasn’t very good. Do you feel he approached recruiting these kids as much out of necessity as giving them a better opportunity?

ML: Absolutely. At the end of the book I wrote a chapter on Ireland where I heard many conflicting opinions on the man and his motivations. I think he was a combination of a few different things. He needed to win and if you remove the years where he was recruiting players from New York, his record wasn’t stellar. I think that he was smart enough to see the market imbalance that existed as an opportunity for him. Finally, he was evidently a stubborn Irishman who didn’t care if other coaches criticized him for having too many black faces in his team picture.

There is some evidence that, the more he was criticized, the harder he tried to go out and find more black players. One of the players told me, “He just wanted to show you that you were wrong.”

C: What did you learn about George Ireland from your research?

ML: When I first started the book I sort of regretted not being able to speak to him. (Ireland died in 2001.) By the end of the book I came to the conclusion that it was better I didn’t have the chance. I thought he was more interesting as this contradictory, multifaceted guy. Some players loved him and thought he was consciously trying to advance the Civil Rights cause. Others thought he was self-centered and only cared about winning. One explanation that tied it all together was he was a good salesman: He knew what to say that was going to work for you. In the case of a lot of these black players, he knew what to say to their mothers in order to work for them.

C: You write in the book that Ireland recruited the players’ mothers as much as the players themselves.

ML: I think that’s still the case with modern-day coaches when it comes to these inner city guys. They often come from fatherless homes and the mother is Target Number One.

C: He also saw, from reading the book, the answer for the program and his job security lay east at Rucker Park in New York. Did recruiting players like Jerry Harkness serve as the beginning of Loyola’s turnaround?

ML: Well that five-to-six-year window where the program was really good began when Ireland got Jerry Harkness. It stops when the New York pipeline runs dry. He had a “bird dog” in New York in this Walter November character. Ireland’s relationships quite often went sour and this one was no exception. Ireland continued trying to recruit in Nashville, because he had a relationship with the coach at Pearl High School, which was an all-black high school. In a way, he was a victim of his own success. When other coaches saw what he could get away with, they started getting away with the same thing and it turned Loyola into this disenfranchised program very quickly.

C: Were the informal “gentlemen’s agreements” coaches worked under up north any better or worse than the legislation being passed in Southern states to keep the sports teams of state-funded universities all white?

ML: When you say “gentlemen’s agreement,” the only conference I see is the Big Ten. They supposedly had an agreement to not recruit black players. I don’t know exactly what it was supposed to consist of, because they were recruiting black players as early as the late 1940s and early 50s, so I don’t know if there was an actual agreement or someone’s fiction.

I think what was happening with coaches wasn’t an issue with prejudice — a lot of coaches had open minds about this and were champing at the bit to get more African American players. But you have to look at the bigger picture of higher education. Student bodies were white. The faculty was white. The alumni were even whiter and, if you were the coach, you got to wonder “how many black players to I put on the court before they start to feel it’s not their team.”I think that was what was working on the coaches, more than some form of collusion.

As one of the coaches I interviewed in the book told me, “Coaches are practical people." They want to win with the best players they can get. I think the pressure they were under at the time was a reasonable fear. If Loyola is 98 percent white and the basketball team is 80 percent black, there’s a disconnect there.

C: But then you point out Mississippi State coach James “Babe” McCarthy, who was in many ways Ireland’s doppelganger and only wanted his team to play the best, regardless of color.

ML: I’m glad you called him a doppelganger because he, too, was a sweet-talking salesman. In the case of Mississippi State, there was some evidence he overplayed the Christian gentleman role a little bit. When he left Mississippi State, it was under a cloud of what a Christian gentleman would consider bad behavior.

One of the things that interested me most about the subject was, if you’re a basketball player, prejudices you grew up with cease to matter when you look at someone as another basketball player. You don’t have to know where someone’s grandmother went to church or if they were a slave or slave owner or what part of town he lived. You have to know if he moves left or right. Can I out-jump him or do I have to box him out? In my mind, these guys shared a language; they shared expertise in a small part of life. That gave them something to relate to besides the stereotypes. The guys from Mississippi State didn’t care about that. They only wanted to play against the best; that meant playing in the tournament, playing against black guys. There are many examples of this and that’s why I think sports are on the leading edge when it comes to social change.

C: You dedicate a great deal of space in the book to Oscar Robertson, who was the best player of his time. (Note: Robetson graduated from Cincinnati in 1960.) Were you aware of his prep career and the hero status he commanded from African Americans when you started the book?

ML: I had no idea about Robertson’s prep career and how it tied in until Jerry Harkness told me some stories which caused me to go back and research Robertson’s high school days, because it made another hook for the integration angle to the story. He led his high school, Crispus Attucks, to the Indiana state title, and that perked me right up. There’s a lot of material out there about Oscar Robertson, including his own autobiography. That material fit right in with my story. It just seemed custom made.

C: Do you think the Loyola-Cincinnati game and, years later, the Texas Western team that beat Kentucky and Adolph Rupp for the title, helped speed the process of integrating college sports?

ML: It might have taken a little longer without them. But it was clear from those two examples that things were changing and, if it wasn’t Loyola in ’63, it would have been another team a year or two down the road. The Loyola championship is significant because a young coach like (Texas Western’s) Don Haskins looked at that and saw the world didn’t come to an end. Other people saw the game was opening doors for them.

C: Why do you think Ireland didn’t make the inroads recruiting Chicago prep players the way Ray Meyer was able to at DePaul?

ML: It’s an interesting question — one I’ve been asked before and I don’t have a good answer. Ireland did have a couple guys he recruited from Evanston, but there’s no evidence he went to the South or West Side high schools. One thing that occurred to me is my kids didn’t want to go to school close to home. I’ve heard that same thing from other players. What I imagine is there’s always controversy about why local coaches can’t recruit Chicago high school players. It’s all about relationships and schmoozing. Ray Meyer was good at that, but he was an exception. If I’m George Ireland, I look at Chicago and see these other guys recruiting, heading into the ghetto to chat up some guy I never met; that’s a lot of work. On the other hand I have a buddy in New York providing access to good players and a high school in Nashville that’s a magnet for talent. It’s a path of least resistance.

But that’s only speculation.