Q & A with Jerry Harkness: 50 years after the Game of Change and his trip to the White House

July 19, 2013

NBRPA Member Jerry Harkness was a star at Loyola University Chicago, where he served as captain on the team that upset the University of Cincinnati to win the 1963 NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship. He then moved on to the professional leagues, playing one season (1963–64) with the NBA's New York Knicks and two seasons (1967–1969) with the ABA's Indiana Pacers.

Harkness and his Loyola teammates were recently invited to the White House to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their national championship and meet President Barack Obama. The 1963 Ramblers – who had four African American starters – played an important basketball game in race relations that NCAA Tournament, defeating Mississippi State in what would become known as the "Game of Change" to help put an end to segregated college basketball.

He recently visited with Ashley Kain of LegendsofBasketball.com for a Q&A

Q: What was it like to revisit the “Game of Change” at the White House with President Obama?

The experience was amazing for me and the other players. The “Game of Change” was the first time a team from the Deep South traveled north to play against other African American players. The players from Mississippi State had to sneak out of the state because their Governor at the time, Ross Barnett, put an order to restrict them from leaving the state. It was remarkable to be recognized in general, but to be recognized by the first African American president was remarkable. The overall trip was such a wonderful, warm, nice experience. President Obama made all of us feel comfortable, even though we only had 15 minutes with him! After he found out I was the Captain of the Loyola team, he called me “Cap” throughout our time with him which was kind of neat.

We were the only college in Illinois to win a national basketball title. It was an awarding experience helping break down the racial barriers in Illinois through the “Game of Change.” Meeting the President was an overall lifetime experience, and then getting to talk with him about basketball was even more enjoyable. President Obama understood how much it took for Mississippi State and Loyola to face this racial barrier and he treated us with the respect that we earned. In addition to meeting with President Obama, we also got to meet Senators Dick Durbin, Mark Kirk and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Q: Do you think that the “Game of Change” was a pivotal moment in your life not just as a basketball player, but as an overall person?

It was a pivotal moment for America. I would say that eighty-five percent of Mississippi State wanted that game—not necessarily for racism issues, but for their team to advance in the tournament. It was a barrier that had to be crossed in order to move up, regardless if the entire team wanted to play against African Americans or not. The whole community in Mississippi wanted the team to go. Once the team made the decision to go behind the Governor’s back and leave the state, everything between the races went well because it was just basketball. The “Game of Change” was nationally televised and took America a step further in the battle against racism although it still took another three to four years before the conference was actually integrated.

As an athlete, the only thing on your mind is to win. When we started playing, color didn’t exist; it was just basketball. It was our team against the other team, not black versus white. After we beat Tennessee Tech in the first game of the NCAA Tournament we started to get hate mail. This opened my eyes more to what was going on outside of basketball during the civil rights movement. As the tournament continued on, all of the race issues became more visible to us.

Q: Do you think that racism has subsided since Barack Obama was elected president?

The election of President Barack Obama was an indicator that racism has made progress. I truly believe that it is the same thing that happened with Mississippi State before playing us. President Obama was elected because he was the better man for the job—not because of the color of his skin. Obama has taken a lot of abuse, but he still needs to push through and do his job. When I played, my job was to get rebounds and play hard. Using those two examples as an analogy is a good way to put what President Obama needs to do—just do his job. Instead of dwelling on the “hate mail”, he needs to do what is best for the United States and do his job as President. There has to be a first for everything, and sometimes that is the hardest part-- Loyola/Mississippi State, Jackie Robinson, and now President Obama. There will always be political issues and I think America needs to look past these issues in order to grow and move on as a united nation.

Q: You were quoted in an article in The Huffington Post that the trip “brought everything full circle”. What did you mean by that?

I see my life as a circle and by meeting President Obama, the first African American president, my life is now complete. If it were not for breaking down the barriers of racism through events like the “Game of Change” then President Obama never would have been elected president. During my childhood my family lived on welfare and in the projects of Harlem. I started to play basketball as a child, but I was too afraid to try out for any teams because if I did not make the team or play, it would just be another negative in my life. One day I was at the YMCA and someone spotted me playing and told me to try out because he thought I was good. That person just so happened to be Jackie Robinson. It was such an honor that Jackie Robinson talked me into trying out for the team. For me, this was the beginning of my life circle. I had a lot of people that supported me through high school, college, and then the racial issues that I faced while playing with the Pacers. During my life after basketball, I became the first African American salesman with Quaker Oats, the first African American sportscaster on an Indiana news station, and also the first African American fundraiser with UnitedWay. Starting with meeting Jackie Robinson and ending with meeting President Obama, my life has gone full circle. Now I am awarded for what I did and get the chance to give back to the community by mentoring young kids and pushing them in the right direction. Regardless of who they are, they are the only ones who can change who they want to be.

Q: Is there anything else you want to add about the progress of civil rights, racial integration or any issues of racial problems that you see in sports?

I think that this whole experience was made to happen. All the guys on my team were very level headed; no one acted out during the racial issues that we went through and I think that kept us all with a positive mindset. There were 19 degrees between the nine players on the team. Besides for me and Less Hunter receiving our B.A., the rest of the team received either their M.A. or Ph.D. Most basketball players can get drafted after their first year of college now and there is a lot more money involved. The fact that they players coming from underprivileged areas can have a “life” without a degree is unheard of compared to what we faced when we were their age. Players can make five to six million dollars in one year today which is so much more than what we made. I think that in order to make a life it was more important for us to earn our degrees compared to the athletes that play today. There are still issues that players are faced with today, but overall they have an easier time than we did. The only advice that I have for the players now is to really trust the person that takes care of your money!

Q: What are youth thoughts on today's NBRPA?

I am most impressed by the NBRPA because of the work we do with mentoring, clinics and providing kids with opportunities to succeed. That is my line of work and I couldn't ask to be part of a better organization to promote the welfare of children.