In the run up to this year’s Dance, the NCAA is self promoting the 75th anniversary of its men’s basketball tournament.
Best players. Best teams. Best coaches.
This is to propose that the best moment isn’t a made shot. Not Lorenzo Charles’s nor Michael Jordan’s nor Christian Laettner’s. Nor a supreme defensive effort. Not John Crigler checking Elgin Baylor nor Kentucky’s tourney lockdown in ’96. Nor Carolina holding Wilt and his Kansas mates to less points than The Stilt averaged in a pro season . . . in 3 OTs. Nor a coaching memory. Not Jimmy V running around the court looking for somebody to hug, nor Al McGuire quietly walking off the court with tears of joy. It hasn’t a thing to do with the Wizard of Westwood, the Fab Five, Coach K, Danny & the Miracles or Nova over the Hoyas.
It’s not even the cultural significance of Texas Western’s all black starting five “upsetting” Adolph Rupp’s mighty Wildcats in ’66 in College Park.
But if that’s your guess, you’re getting closer.
Though it wasn’t a shot or ball screen or timely steal, the moment did come on the hardwood. But the clock was stopped.
You know that famous photo of Pee Wee Reese walking over and putting his arm around Jackie Robinson during a game?
This was that kind of moment. A Shining Moment for the NCAA.
No, The Shining Moment for the NCAA.
If you are familiar with college hoops lore, you’ve probably heard the tale of Mississippi State’s clandestine travels to play in the ’63 tourney. Babe McCarthy had to sneak his team out of the state in defiance of a court order sought by Governor Ross Barnett.
There were no ballers of color in the SEC then. Mississippi State had never played a team with a black player. Loyola, its first round foe, started four.
The game was contested in East Lansing. The Ramblers won. The Ramblers went on to win the whole shebang. Over Cincy. In OT. At Freedom Hall.
The moment I’m talking about came before the game. The captain’s handshake. Bulldog captain Joe Dan Gold. Rambler captain Jerry Harkness.
Gold was born in Benton, Kentucky. That’s in Marshall County. Census in 2000: 4,197.
Harkness was born in Harlem. That’s in New York City. Census in 2000: Way more than Benton. Take the A Train to get there, not the L & N.
The photo became famous. It was the moment of a racial paradigm shift in college basketball.
What’s fascinating about this whole affair is this. When Mississippi State returned home, their plane was met by a surprising number of fans, all lauding what the Bulldogs had done.
Even more fascinating is little know aftermath.
Somehow Jerry Harkness and Joe Dan Gold connected after the game. Harkness has said he and his now deceased pal had more in common than they’d have thought. They kept in touch through the years.
When Gold died in 2011, Harkness went to the funeral. He was the only African-American in the chapel. When he entered the room, Gold’s family immediately came over to embrace him. They walked him to the open casket.
There in the coffin lay Jerry Harkness’s ofay come friend Joe Dan Gold, along with that photo of the two shaking hands.
– Seedy K
I’m far from the first to write about this moment. Not even recently. ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil wrote a marvelous piece this past December. You can read it here. Yahooo Sports has put together a nice short video with interviews. You can find it at the bottom of Pat Forde’s latest column here. The story of the friendship between the two players is the deal. That’s why I added my voice.