In 2002, Orley Hood wrote this column about the original version of “One Night in March.”
That night wasn’t Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. It wasn’t the March on Washington or the bridge in Selma.
But nearly 40 years later, the echoes of that night still resound.
On the Ides of March in 1963, as the country rumbled with the thunder of the civil rights movement, five white boys in Mississippi State uniforms stepped out on the floor in East Lansing, Mich., for a game of basketball. Integrated basketball.
Loyola of Chicago started four black players that night in that game in an NCAA Tournament regional against State.
Robbie Coblentz, who owns a video production company in Starkville, has recently released an eloquent 35-minute documentary called One Night in March.
“We didn’t know anything about this until we went to the Final Four in 1996,” says Coblentz, 32, a State graduate. That was the year Mississippi State made its historic run in the NCAA Tournament.
The New York newspapers were filled with long articles on the night in 1963 when Babe McCarthy’s team sneaked out of the state in the dark to play a game of ball against black folks.
The film begins with a wistful monologue by hall of famer Bailey Howell, the greatest player in MSU history. In Howell’s last year, 1959, State went 24-1, won the Southeastern Conference championship, ranked in the top five in the country and … went nowhere.
The unwritten law of our land back then forbade the mixing of the races, even on the hardwood.
By 1963, State had won three straight SEC titles and four in five years. The great trio of Leland Mitchell, Red Stroud and Joe Dan Gold — who went 24-1 their sophomore year, then won two more titles on top of that — had just run off a 21-5 regular season.
This time, McCarthy, the legendary coach, was determined to go. Maybe he figured with his magical threesome graduating, this might be his last chance.
Go … stop … go
The state College Board said yes. Go. Then two state senators got a court injunction. No go.
Before they could be served, McCarthy and athletic director Wade Walker went to Nashville.
On the night of the getaway, the substitutes went to the airport. Seeing no deputies, they called the campus and the starting five plus the top sub joined them.
The next day, the state Supreme Court threw out the injunction.
Coblentz’s film offers wonderful interviews with Mitchell and Stroud, with Aubrey Nichols, now a lawyer in Columbus; the great two-sport star Doug Hutton, legendary announcer Jack Cristil, Richard Williams, Van Chancellor and our own Rick Cleveland.
What he found stunned Coblentz. “These kids were discriminated against, too.”
You can hear it in Howell’s voice. Even with all the college and professional glory, he feels cheated. Then there are the what-ifs:
What if State had gone in 1959, ‘61 and ‘62, as well as 1963?
What would that have done for the program and Mississippi? Would the riots at Ole Miss have even happened? Would James Meredith have been a happy afterthought instead of a martyr?
Oh, yeah. State lost that night to Loyola, the eventual national champion. But you know what? In the end, we all won.
Call (662) 324-2489 to order a copy.
Orley Hood was a columnist with the Jackson, MS Clarion-Ledger from 1976-2008
Originally published June 21, 2002 about 1963 Mississippi State Basketball One Night in March.