In the scope of a reunion weekend at Jenison Field House, it was an event bigger than basketball.
There are endless basketball storylines surrounding the first game at a historic venue in more than two decades. It’d be customary to talk about senior Derrick Nix hitting the first shot at Jenison since 1989 or the rash of the home team’s early turnovers or the action that allowed the No. 19 Spartans (9-2) to defeat Tuskegee (1-5), 92-56.
But it was moments that drew parallels to the significance of the night such as when four members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first black members of the United States Air Force during World War II were honored during the first timeout of the game, to make it clear this one meant a little more.
It was a night of historic moments that certainly wasn’t lost on head coach Tom Izzo, who imparted the lessons taken away from the positives of such a cultural shift in American history.
“It was a challenging week with everything that was going on on the road and all of the things we went through for this game,” Izzo said. “But the ovation those Tuskegee Airmen got, the thought of what they went through and what a lot of people have gone through.”
The game itself was a marker of the 50th anniversary of the Game of Change, which took place at Jenison during the 1963 NCAA Tournament between Mississippi State and Loyola-Chicago.
Due to Loyola-Chicago having several black players on its roster, then-Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett had plans to serve papers not to allow Mississippi State to play the Ramblers in the NCAA Tournament. It was an act of reinforcing racial segregation, which was prevalent in many southern states since before the Civil War.
However, Mississippi State head coach “Babe” McCarthy, with the support of university president Dean Colvard, sneaked the team out of the state to get to East Lansing and let the game play out as scheduled.
Loyola-Chicago went on to defeat the Bulldogs, 61-51, and eventually capture the national championship. But more important than the outcome of the game, was the bold move in the effort of correcting social injustice and continuing the push for racial integration in collegiate athletics.
The two programs played their own 50th anniversary reunion game on Saturday in Chicago with Loyola-Chicago once again coming away with the victory.
It was a night appreciated by Tuskegee head coach Leon Douglas.
Douglas said he had a manager from the Mississippi State team at the time visit with the team and share the story of the Game of Change in an effort to impart some historical wisdom before the Bulldogs came to East Lansing this week. With the racial and historical ramifications in mind, Douglas said his team has taken a lot from the experience and was grateful to be a part of it.
“All of our young people now are not really educated on what happened back in the 60s and 50s and whatever because they’re not a part of that era,” Douglas said. “Really, they’re not for example, students of the game, as far as basketball goes and they’re not students of what happened since segregation times.
“This game was a history lesson to many of them because I’ve had several of them come up and ask why the governor of Mississippi didn’t want those guys to play and they have a chance to really read about history.”
As the Tuskegee Airmen were recognized before a standing ovation of fans, players and media professionals, the weight of the moment and the overall weekend is important for players such as junior center Adreian Payne. Payne said he was appreciative to learn about this history of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Game of Change, and it’s allowed him to have deeper understanding of the struggle of those in the past to pave the way in opportunities for himself and others.
“It was a tremendous opportunity for us to be able to see things like this and see the people and see what they went through just for us to have the game we got with the mixed variety of people playing,” Payne said. “It was just a great feeling and of course, (the airmen) sat courtside and with the type of meaning it had with them being here.”