Gasaway spoke with CNA during the 2021 NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. Four of the teams that advanced to the tournament’s round of 16 were Catholic schools, although as of Tuesday morning only one Catholic program – Gonzaga University – had advanced to the “Elite Eight” round.
College basketball in the 20th century mirrored the overall transformation of America, especially in race relations – and at Catholic schools this was, in many ways, no different, he said.
The University of San Francisco, which is affiliated with the Jesuits, dominated basketball in the 1950s. The “Dons” were led by Black future hall-of-famers Bill Russell and K.C. Jones. Among college basketball programs, San Francisco was relatively “early” in integrating their lineup – although some Black athletes had already been playing at secular programs since the end of the 1930s, Gasaway explained in his book.
Nevertheless, schools like San Francisco and Duquesne, another Catholic university in Pittsburgh, were lauded by African-American publications for integrating their lineups, Gasaway noted.
Several years later, the Jesuit-affiliated Loyola University Chicago featured four Black starters on its 1963 championship team. Their road to the title included what has been billed as the “Game of Change,” a matchup with all-white southern powerhouse Mississippi State University.
Loyola’s opponent had to decline tournament participation three times in the previous four years because of a regional custom of refusing to play teams with Black players. The players, coach, and university president all wanted to play in the 1963 tournament, but state officials secured an injunction on the team leaving the state. The players and coaches sneaked out of the state and arrived at the tournament for their desired matchup with Loyola, who triumphed in the contest.