Transition Game: Longtime Reader Editor Michael Lenehan on Race, Basketball and a Changing World

Author Profiles, History, Sports Add comments

Rouse, Vic 63 winnerBy Brian Hieggelke

I’ve known Michael Lenehan for more than twenty years, in that distant friendly way you know your competitors. He was the top editor of the Chicago Reader from the time we started Newcity until the company was sold in 2007. I knew very little about him—friendly competitors tend to limit their conversations to five minutes or less—other than that he had a devilish grin and the kind of dry wit that feels like it must be skewering you without you even understanding how. What I did know is that he was largely responsible for executing the Reader’s editorial vision all those years, and that he not only once published a 20,000-word story on beekeeping that epitomized what made the Reader different, he wrote it. Lenehan was an editor who was a proven writer.

Now, several years after the sale of the Reader led to his exit from what had been his life’s work, he’s published his first book, “Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball,” the story of Chicago’s—of Illinois’—only national basketball champion, ever. But even more than digging up the backstory of the hardcourt’s ultimate one-hit wonder, he convincingly constructs a narrative, told with acumen and suspense—that this team, that this national championship game, marked a turning point in the sport and in the country, as we grappled with the final stages of overt racial discrimination. But expect no self-righteous soapboxes here; Lenehan lets the story tell itself by following the fates of three teams that converged in the tournament that year: the Loyola Ramblers; the would-be-dynasty-in-process Cincinnati Bearcats, who like Loyola fielded a starting lineup dominated by African-American players but attacked the game in a wholly different style; and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, a team so white that it had to sneak out of state at night in order to play in an integrated basketball game.

Photo: Rose Lenehan

Photo: Rose Lenehan

For sports fans, Lenehan’s book is a page-turner; for those interested in the pace of social progress, the book offers  a perspective—that of the student athlete—integral to the civil rights movement but largely overlooked up to this point. And for the student of Chicago history and media, there are plenty of nuggets both small and large, like his inside joke singling out Carleton College as being a “warmup” opponent for Loyola in its championship season—the small Northfield, Minnesota school was the meeting place for the founders of the Chicago Reader. I corresponded with Lenehan about his book via email.

You’re best known as the former longtime editor of the Chicago Reader. Where did you grow up, go to college and how did you end up in Chicago?
I grew up mostly in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, a suburb of New York City. Went mostly to Catholic schools, including Notre Dame, where I studied what they called “Communications Arts.” Followed a woman to Chicago, went to work at Encyclopaedia Britannica, and fell in pretty quickly with the Reader gang. This was 1972; the Reader had started up in autumn ’71. I was not one of the founders but there aren’t many people who remember that. To make up for not having gone to Carleton, I later married a woman who did.

What’s your personal basketball history?
I cannot claim any deep understanding of the game. I played rec league basketball up through eighth grade, but I was a short, slow kid—not a bad athlete in general, but I was not a good basketball player and I never had a coach who taught me fine points. As a result, I don’t think I ever learned how to watch basketball very well; I don’t see what really knowledgeable fans see and so I don’t enjoy it as much. I’m a baseball fan (Sox). I don’t get too much into basketball until the tournament and the playoffs.

How did you end up undertaking “Ramblers”—it’s your first book, correct?—and how long did it take to research and write?
It is my first book if you don’t count (and you shouldn’t) a hand-made edition of that beekeeping story. I think I got the idea while I was still working at the Reader. Like all red-blooded Chicago sports fans, I knew about Loyola’s championship season, but I didn’t know—and I’ve since learned that I was not unusual in this regard—the racial dimension of the story, which I got from a flashback feature I saw on Channel 11. The integration part of the story intrigued me; I looked for a book on the subject and couldn’t find one, so I filed it in the back of my mind. This must be around 2006, I’m guessing. After we sold the Reader (2007) and I was invited to not stay, I wrote a few articles and tried to get a farm-restaurant book off the ground. That fell through and I returned to this idea. I needed something to do, so I started to wade in, and as I went deeper the story kept getting better. To me, that is the “go” light. I started in the winter of 2009 and within a couple years it was taking all my work time. All told it took me about four years to finish.

In your notes, you mention a fair bit of travel. Any highlights?
I spent about a week in Starkville, Mississippi, my first visit of any length to the “real” South, by which I mean a place not accustomed to a lot of tourists, like New Orleans or Florida. I have to say, everything they say about Southern hospitality is true and then some. Everyone I met there treated me with the utmost respect and kindness, and they seemed to be doing it just on principle. To a cynical big-city northerner, it was almost scary.

Loyola TeamThe book springs from a couple of central premises. One, that Loyola was unique in the number of African-American players (four) in its starting lineup. However, its opponent in the NCAA Tournament final, Cincinnati, fielded three. Was Loyola truly unique, or was this more of a Mason-Dixon Line phenomenon at the time?
I don’t agree that one of the premises is that Loyola was “unique.” When I started I did believe, briefly, that Loyola was the first team to regularly start four blacks, but I soon learned otherwise. Cincinnati had four black starters for the second half of the ’61-’62 season. I did not come across any other team that had four black starters as a matter of course, but when you start looking into stuff like this you quickly learn to avoid definitive statements. They are almost impossible to substantiate. I mean, it’s not like the score sheets had a column for “number of black starters.” I think CCNY had three black starters in 1950, the year they won both the NCAA and the NIT. San Francisco had three in the Bill Russell-K.C. Jones years, and they won two consecutive NCAA titles. And if I’m not mistaken, Wichita State had three in the early sixties. After I had a piece published in the New York Times, a reader wrote in to claim that Duquesne had four blacks in ’53-’54, but the Times (God bless them for still caring) did some research and found that the reader was remembering wrong.

But it was definitely not a Mason-Dixon line phenomenon. Starting four or even three blacks was very rare; the Big Ten, for example, was notoriously slow. It was not all that unusual to have a couple black guys on a team, but these schools were still overwhelmingly white—student body, faculty, alumni. Coaches had to get over a big hump before they felt they could represent these white institutions with mostly black teams.

Do you think the book would have had a similar character if, for example, you’d written it about the championship Cincinnati team of two years earlier?
Similar, maybe, but not as good. The Loyola story has direct ties to New York playground basketball and to the Nashville scene and John McLendon—both important parts of the integration story. And, of course, there’s the dramatic story involving Mississippi State, which had to sneak out of Mississippi in order to play against Loyola in the tournament. The Cincinnati story would not have given me those opportunities, though it might have presented others. Another thing: to me, the tipping point is not the first black player or star, or the first black championship, it’s the first time people tune in a game and see the sight we take for granted today: most of the players on the floor are black. In my opinion that picture had to affect a lot of players and coaches.

The other central premise, which you seem to connect to the transition in the racial makeup of the game, is in the style of play. One of your sources talks about the game changing from horizontal to vertical, from a game of strategy and passing into a game of soaring acrobatics and showmanship. Isn’t this a tricky subject, since the older style seemed rooted in the more cerebral realm of tactics, and the new game in athleticism, a prevailing stereotype about white vs. black athletes. Doesn’t this at heart imply some sort of genetic trait, a la “White Men Can’t Jump” or the comments that once got Jimmy the Greek fired? 
You mean to say white men can jump?

I’ve been wondering if this would come up. I too am accustomed to thinking of this as a taboo subject: we dare not talk about inherent differences between the races, because that opens the way for all kinds of scurrilous nonsense. At one point very early on—when my scheme for the book was a lot less narrative than it ended up being—I thought I would address this issue with a chapter about the history of the controversy, a review of whatever research I could find to address it, some academic experts hashing it out…

But here’s what I learned: basketball people do not care about this taboo. At least none of the ones I talked to, and I questioned some of them directly about it. Black and white, coaches and players, all were quite comfortable articulating what to them seems perfectly obvious and incontrovertible: African-American players brought different athletic skills to the game. I dare say this opinion was unanimous.

It does suggest a genetic difference, or at least raises the question. I think if one were so inclined, one could dance around that suggestion with a lot of talk about nature and nurture and which abilities were valued and cultivated by which group, but I think it would be dancing.

Rather than going all the way down this rabbit hole, let me just make a couple of points. First, I would not say, and hope I did not imply, that the old half-court game is more “cerebral.” In my mind the meaningful distinction is between coach-centered and player-centered. Coaches by their nature care about schemes, percentages, Xs and Os, and about “character” issues like teamwork, discipline, unselfishness. Uncoached or less-coached players are freer to improvise and play instinctively. As I try to show in the book, in the fifties and sixties a lot of coaches thought that the faster, more athletic style of play—the “playground” style, to oversimplify a bit—could not win at the major college level. No doubt there was some prejudice at work there, but coaches at least thought they had reason to discourage that kind of game. They had less reason after Loyola creamed Duke in the semifinal and then defeated Cincy (a “disciplined” defense-and-ball-control team) in the final.

Now, to say that a lot of coaches thought this way is not to say they all did. Loyola was not the only fast-break team in the country, not by a long shot. Duke was a fast-break team. So was Illinois, the team Loyola beat to get into the final four. But Loyola was a better fast-break team than either of them.

I think it’s important to stress that a lot of this is past tense. If African-American players brought or represented a more athletic style of play—and it’s my feeling that they certainly did—that work is done and that influence has been assimilated into the game. Now we have a different standard of athleticism that all players, black and white, have to measure up to. To succeed at the highest levels, every player needs those athletic skills, every player needs discipline, everyone needs to play defense. It’s not that one set of skills was replaced with another; rather a set of skills was added that had previously been undervalued.

Finally, about that taboo. Based on absolutely no evidence, I have the vague sense that it’s not as urgent as it once was. What do you think? Is it possible we have found better ways of talking about this issue and it no longer seems so dangerous?

MBB Trophy63In your prelude description of the championship game, where you are characterizing the old style of play as personified by the Cincinnati Bearcats, I scribbled “Tom Thibodeau” in the margin and “OK City Thunder” next to Loyola. Could one see the game that way as well, as an age-old battle of two different tactics?
Absolutely. Loyola and Cincinnati were opposite ends of a continuum that has always applied and always will: fast-slow, offense-defense, discipline-freedom. Jerry Harkness called them Indiana and New York. And the fact that Cincinnati was a mostly black team shows you can’t always call one style white and the other style black. But each was a pretty extreme example of its respective style, and I think Loyola’s kind of game was beginning to be firmly established.

Though it’s evolved dramatically, of course, race today still seems to play a more central role in basketball than any other sport. In his 2012 book “After Artest,” David J. Leonard implies the NBA is still a bastion of systemic racism, favoring the more palatable off-court persona of, say, a Michael Jordan over the street-style, hip-hop-infused characters that might “frighten” white audiences. Any thoughts on the subject of race in basketball today? Is the legacy of “two at home, one on the road, three if you’re way behind” still alive in a more subtle fashion?
One of the things I had in mind as I wrote, and found attractive about the story, was the idea that athletes have to deal with each other in athletic terms—to see another player not as a racial or socioeconomic entity, but as a person who knows things you know, speaks a language you understand, has skills and abilities that you have to deal with somehow. So it’s hard to be a prejudiced basketball player. And players can quickly reach a level of empathy and understanding that comes a lot slower to the rest of us. I think the same thing happens with musicians, and probably with other groups who share a special knowledge or passion.

For fans it works a little differently. One of the heroes of the book, John McLendon, the “father of black basketball,” used the game deliberately as a way of promoting integration. He reasoned that if your team has a black guy on it, or two or three, you end up having to root for them. You can’t just root for part of your team. And so integrated teams like Loyola’s had to soften racial attitudes for a lot of people. And a lot of fans were inspired by and felt admiration for people they would not have known otherwise.

But when you get to the modern professional game, where the money gets ridiculous and the gladiator aspect of the spectacle is a little more pronounced, then I think it gets complicated, at least for me. Maybe I’m the only one, but I feel a kind of tension when I go to a Bulls game. In the stands are a lot of one-percenters who probably don’t live close to many African-Americans and don’t have a lot of black friends or acquaintances. And they are paying outrageous money to watch and cheer for guys they would not have associated with, or even had a chance to associate with, in high school. And because they can pay so much money to be entertained, the guys they would not have associated with have now become a privileged class unto themselves, the one percent of the one percent. But if the entertainers don’t hold to very strict standards of behavior, they’re quickly dismissed as petulant or spoiled or thuggish…. And then someone makes a massive dunk and the white fans and the black fans are all whooping together and high-fiving each other. I can’t begin to parse it out. All I can say is, sometimes it feels weird.

The book documents in detail the trials and tribulations of blacks playing hoops in the early sixties, especially in the South, but wasn’t this just the general African-American experience of the time?
I don’t know how general it was for Northern blacks to be traveling in integrated groups in the South. In any case, one of the things I had in mind was that younger readers, my kids for example, haven’t a clue about the general African-American experience of the time. I saw this story as a way to tell them.

I was increasingly struck that your book is really a portrait of that era’s civil rights crucible through a collegiate prism. Did you see it that way? Unlike the antiwar movement, which became so closely associated with youth, the civil rights issues of the time did not seem to be stirring up campus forces the same way. Did you unearth much in the way of college activism on the subject at this time?
None. I wasn’t looking for it, and I wasn’t paying attention to many campuses, but I did not find the same kind of campus activism there was around the war. There were students involved, of course, in the Freedom Rides and sit-ins, and in SNCC, which started in 1960—but it seems like the energy was coming from somewhere off campus. A lot of the antiwar movement was about the draft. There was no danger that students were going to be drafted to ride buses in Alabama.

Fifty years later, this remains the only national championship won by a Chicago team. Yet the city is the spawning ground for many NBA superstars, and the Chicago Bulls certainly don’t lack for success or a following. Why do you think our colleges have not been able to establish themselves among the perennial forces in the college game, perhaps even to the level of neighboring Marquette and Notre Dame, both also Catholic schools like Loyola and DePaul?
I don’t think I know enough to answer this question intelligently. There seems to be something strange about recruiting in Chicago—some kind of secret code that a lot of coaches evidently find hard to crack. But I don’t want to speculate about that. I think some people would put DePaul in the same class with Marquette, though DePaul hasn’t been that successful lately. Loyola I think has always been a little wary about all the things you have to do to chase big-time athletic success. And considering what that world has become, I don’t think that’s an unreasonable position.

You mention watching the final game on a choppy tape. Are there no extant films of this legendary team, or are they just not easily accessible?
There’s a bit of footage on YouTube. I used an out-of-print DVD that I borrowed from the Loyola athletic department. At one time it was available commercially, but no more. It combines what I think is NCAA-owned video with the radio call from Red Rush at WCFL. It’s poorly synced and some of the action takes place out of the frame. The NCAA supposedly has the game in its archive, probably the same footage, but there’s not enough demand for them to release it. At least that’s what I was told when I asked to see it.

You cite NCAA records that track racial statistics. Do they really track such things and how extensive are they?
I think the only record of this kind that I cite is that Loyola was the first “major college” team (a category that does not include the historically black schools) to put five African-American players on the floor at the same time. This is in the NCAA record book, though it’s not really a record: it’s one of a list of “firsts.” Of course it’s hard to prove a thing like this and the record could always be challenged. As I mentioned above, this one was challenged but ultimately upheld. Before that happened, the NCAA guy responsible for such things told me he had been at it for about thirty years without ever hearing a prior claim. He put it in the book a few years ago.

The other racial statistics I cited concerned the participation of black players over time—how many teams had blacks, how many blacks per team, and so on. This data was from an academic study that used team photos and programs, which seems to be the only way to do it and obviously has its limitations.

Ramblers_cvrThe Reader has been through quite a rough time since your days: multiple owners, bankruptcy and, now, ownership by The Sun-Times. What do you make of all this? Do you see a future for publications once known as “alternative newspapers”? Were you surprised by the demise of the Boston Phoenix?
I was surprised to see the Phoenix just hang it up like that. I think what happened to the Reader is a lot more typical, namely the company keeps changing hands and cutting costs until it reaches some sort of economic equilibrium, then proceeds toward its future drastically changed and much diminished. That seems to be the way the Tribune and the Sun-Times are going too. I think we were lucky to be publishing when we did. The competitive situation today is brutal by comparison.

I still read the Reader and I do think it has a future, but it doesn’t look anything like the past. The Phoenix has always been closely controlled by Steven Mindich, an independent and idiosyncratic guy. Maybe he preferred folding it up to letting go of it. This way there’s no danger that his legacy will wind up in the hands of Rupert Murdoch.

And, finally, the most important question: who do you favor in the Final Four and why?
I can’t root for any of these teams that are left. In honor of Loyola, I was pulling for Marquette, Gonzaga, Georgetown, and St. Louis—an all-Jesuit final four. I thought it would be a good test for the new pope.


“Ramblers: Loyola Chicago 1963—The Team That Changed the Color of College Basketball”
By Michael Lenehan
Midway/Agate, 299 pages, $16

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