Friday, February 3, 2023

‘The Loyola Project’ will open your eyes to early days of college basketball

By Matt Pascarella

Not Rated
Runtime: 1 hour, 28 minutes

Prior to 1963, Loyola University Chicago was not ranked or noticed. Once Coach George Ireland recruited several black players: Jerry Harkness, Ron Miller, Les Hunter, and Vic Rouse, along with their only white starter, Jack Egan, the Iron Five would not only put Loyola on the map but go on to change the landscape of college sports. This is their story, and it is a fascinating one.

Prior to the early 1960s, Loyola University Chicago coach George Ireland had been on a losing streak and students wanted him out.

In the early 1960s in college basketball there was an unwritten rule about how many black players could be on the court at one time. In short, it was no more than three, and silently encouraged as discrimination and racism were prevalent at the time.

While it may have been Coach Ireland who broke this rule by starting four black players consistently, it’s the players themselves who share their experiences and feelings in this documentary that make it significant.

Created and narrated by Loyola alumnus Lukas Williamson, “The Loyola Project” stars Jerry Harkness, Ron Miller, Rich Rochelle, Gary Salies, Jerald Harkness, John Egan, Nona Martin Storr, Chuck Wood, Judy Van Dyck and Fred Mitchell.

In March of 2018, Loyola advanced to the Final Four of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament. Williamson was a freshman and with every round they advanced, he was reminded of the past.

Jerry Harkness loved basketball, but never considered himself good enough to play on a team. He kept playing ball and, with the help of his high school basketball coach, got noticed by Ireland to play for Loyola. This was the beginning.

Higher education was overwhelmingly segregated at the time and in places like Mississippi, the governor there, Ross Barnett, denounced any integrated athletic contests.

"Racism in sports was not a new thing, but it was a part of our lives that we lived,” said Rich Rochelle, a Loyola center from 1960 to 1964.

The Jim Crowe Laws were rule in the South. There was nothing that could protect from this type of segregation.

Black players were disrespected and shouted at during games; there was a belief that the white players on a team were the brains and the black players the ability.

In Chicago there were hate-filled mobs. If Loyola was to compete nationally, they would have to get past race.

The hard truths about segregation were unavoidable to the Iron Five; however, they could take it out on the court – which is exactly what they did.

Ireland recruited very talented black players more so because he wanted to win and less because he was making a statement about being against segregation.

After Loyola’s basketball team lost three players, the Iron Five were now playing the full forty minutes and the pressure which had mounted, was getting to everyone.

It’s important for generations past, present and future to know what this team endured. I learned about an aspect of black history I wasn’t aware of. Their sacrifices made an incredible difference and left an impact on the game of basketball. The Iron Five are a precursor not only for basketball but for many black athletes of today. The Iron Five broke barriers and made me wonder if they were able to get past those barriers on the court, why society can’t get past them off the court?

Definitely worth watching; two thumbs up.

Now streaming on Paramount+. <

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