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Today, the game of basketball features a diverse group of athletes: Americans, Asians, and Europeans of all creeds and colors, most of whom play "above the rim." But 50 years ago, the game was played on the floor and offered severely limited the opportunities for African Americans. As the country reeled with racial conflict in the crucible of the Civil Rights movement, the Loyola Ramblers fielded a transgressive lineup that included four African-American starters. Often playing against all-white teams, some of whom were even barred from playing against integrated teams, the 1963 Ramblers endured countless hardships on their way to achieving one of the greatest underdog victories in NCAA history.
Ramblers is an entertaining and detail-rich look back at the unlikely odds that went into creating Loyola's last championship squad. The book offers a vivid illustration of the historical context in relation to basketball in particular and 1950s and 60s society at large. Additionally, Ramblers explores the stories of two Loyola opponents: Mississippi State, the all-white team who defied state policy by sneaking out of town to play the Ramblers; and Cincinnati, the two-time NCAA tournament winners who were also integrated and heavily favored against Loyola in the championship game. All of these narratives are masterfully intertwined along with enrapturing play-by-play of the final championship game, a miraculous come-from-behind upset in overtime that featured two buzzer-beating, last-second shots.
While on the surface this is a story about basketball—inherent with the drama, tension, and unambiguous climax of victory—it is also a story about our culture and how our games interact with our politics. In the microcosm of sport, the only measures of worth are skill and character. In the heat of competition, superfluous factors like race or social standing fall by the wayside and all that matters on the court is if one athlete's play can best the play of another. Because of this, the history of the Civil Rights movement is so poignant, compelling, and palpable in these situations, as we can see in the course of a 40-minute game the shifting of cultural perceptions from someone's appearance to their innate ability.
At its heart, Ramblers is a story about history and culture, and American society at a crossroads. It shares these traits with Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit, Don Haskins's Glory Road, and Buzz Bissinger's Friday Night Lights, most closely with the latter two in their dealing with the crucial issues of race and social standing in our society. The story of the 1963 Ramblers, which predates by three years the "Glory Road" game commonly referred to as college basketball's white-to-black tipping point, has never been explored so comprehensively and in as much fascinating detail as author and journalist Michael Lenehan does in Ramblers. America's next great sport story is one that happened 50 years ago, and the celebration of this anniversary will take place beyond Loyola's campus and Chicago's city limits, extending to basketball fans and lovers of powerful, dramatic storytelling everywhere.
Michael Lenehan is an award-winning journalist who was the longtime chief editorial executive of the Chicago Reader and a contributing editor of The Atlantic. He is a board member of the Association for Alternative Newsweeklies and the Medill School of Journalism's advisory board.