Even with 65 NCAA Division I college offers on the table, Chuck Wood didn’t see himself as a college basketball player as he considered his options in 1960.
He had just wrapped up one of the most distinguished high school basketball careers in Racine County history as a senior at St. Catherine’s, but football was still Wood’s true passion. Just give him a University of Wisconsin football jersey and he would reward coach Milt Bruhn with a dynamic playmaker in the Badgers’ defensive backfield.
“Remember, Jim Haluska from St. Catherine’s took them to the Rose Bowl (in 1953),” Wood said. “I dreamt about playing there.”
By a twist of fate, Bruhn wasn’t interested in Wood’s services, but the Loyola University men’s basketball team in Chicago was. And after almost signing with Saint Louis, Wood reconsidered and earned an enduring place in history.
It was 50 years ago in March when Loyola, which started four black players, beat two-time defending champion Cincinnati 60-58 in overtime in the NCAA championship game. It was a tale of triumph in the midst of so much turmoil.
Jerry Harkness, Les Hunter, Ron Miller and the late Vic Rouse joined lone white starter John Egan to make history when racial tension in this nation was at its height. The high-scoring Ramblers bonded together as a color-blind unit — Wood was the sixth man — to roll through the season with a 29-2 record, culminating by toppling a giant at Freedom Hall in Louisville March 23, 1963.
“Loyola’s team really broke the color barrier when we played four blacks,” said the 71-year-old Wood, who is retiring as St. Catherine’s athletic director at the end of June. “That’s why I think they’re making a big to-do about it now.”
The tributes this year have included April 10, when Wood, Egan and Rich Rochelle, another team member, were honored at Wrigley Field during a Chicago Cubs game. Coming this summer is a trip to the White House, where Wood said the team will be honored by President Barack Obama.
That memorable team is worth remembering all the more when we reflect on what was going on in the United States during those racially tense times. Then Alabama Gov. George Wallace’s defiant proclamation of “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!” that January was still reverberating. The rioting that followed black student James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi in October 1962 was a fresh wound. Four black girls killed in September 1963 by a bomb planted in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., would horrify the nation.
And as Wood and his teammates rolled through that season under coach George Ireland, they were a lightning rod for the ugliness that was scarring this nation.
“We played at Houston (Feb. 23, 1963) and it was frightening,” Wood said. “I’m sitting on the bench, they’re yelling ‘(expletive) lover,’ they’re spitting on us ... yeah, that brought us real close because we didn’t know if we were going to get out of there with our lives.”
They worked so well together on the court that season but society often separated them against their will off the court. During road trips in the south, Wood’s black teammates were forced to stay in a separate hotel and team meals were sometimes clandestine affairs.
“We’re having our pre-game meal laughing and joking and the owner comes in, who’s black,” Wood said. “He said, ‘Gentlemen, please keep it down. If one of my patrons finds out I’ve got black people in here, they’ll burn the place down.’
“We eat up and leave for the game. We stand on the corner and cabs are driving by. Finally, a guy comes and says, ‘Hey, blacks are going to have to stand on one side and whites are going to have to stand on the other side.”
What endures for Wood after all these years is a group of guys who spiritually stayed on one side as society tried to pull them apart. These guys loved each other and that’s all there was to it.
“I didn’t dance and the guys would say, ‘How come you don’t dance?’ ” Wood said. “I said, ‘I’m not a very good dancer.’ So Les Hunter, Jerry Harkness and some of the other guys said, ‘Come back to our room.’ They put the music on and they taught me how to dance.”
And while the ugliness of racial prejudice persisted outside their world, the bond between a group of young men who were so much wiser only tightened.
Peter Jackel is a reporter for The Journal Times. You can reach Peter at (262) 631-1703 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org