CARE: Les Hunter

This has been a funny month, as we’ve focused on our “C” word of CARE, which, in the “C” You In The Major Leagues’ dictionary includes: puts others first; evaluates everyone honestly; understands everyone’s impact. Earlier this month, because of his former team reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time ever, we featured ex-Lipscomb coach, Don Meyer. This week, because of the unlikely run of his alma mater, we’re featuring a previously published article on Kansas City area resident Les Hunter, who helped lead Loyola of Chicago to the national championship 55 years ago, in 1963. How does Hunter fit with CARE? It’s necessarily Hunter; but rather, how Loyola coach George Ireland helped change the social landscape of college basketball. 

Something seems to stir a little inside Les Hunter around this time each year, this whole “March Madness” time.

“I think about it quite a bit, but generally this is the only time I think about it,” said Hunter, who was instrumental in Loyola of Chicago’s championship run in 1963. “When you see teams in the tournament today, you compare to how you might stack up. I think our team would do OK. There’s not much difference.”

Coach George Ireland (second from left) helped lead a change on college basketball’s social landscape in 1963. Here, Ireland and several of his players, including Hunter (No. 41) show off the championship trophy.

Only, there is a difference. A vast difference.

As a quick history reminder, there was a lot of social unrest in the United States in 1963. The words “race” and “relations” didn’t exactly fit with many parts of the country.

In college basketball, there was an unwritten rule among coaches that teams wouldn’t play more than two black players at a time at home, and only one on the road. The all-white Mississippi State team, winners of the Southeastern Conference, had to sneak out of the state in 1963 because of a possible injunction against them for using state funds to play in the integrated (to an extent) tournament. (The school declined playing in the tournament three previous times for the same reason.)

And, Loyola’s title in ’63 came five months before Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech and a year before the Civil Rights Act passed.

Meanwhile, Loyola coach George Ireland didn’t care about unwritten rules and social issues — even on the Jesuit Chicago campus. He wanted to win. So, he recruited the best players, including Hunter and teammate Vic Rouse from segregated Pearl High School in Nashville.

Throughout the 1963 season, Hunter’s junior year, Ireland started four black players.

“Loyola wasn’t known as an athletic school and black athletes weren’t always treated well around the North Side (of Chicago) or even on campus,” Hunter said from his home in Overland Park. “There were several times when the black players were told by even the priests that we weren’t supposed to mingle at a mixer on campus. Some of the teachers, at times, seemed to be prejudice.”

That changed a little at the end of the 1963 season. That year, Loyola’s basketball team was incredible. The Ramblers led the nation in scoring at 91.8 points per game, led by senior Jerry Harkness (21.4 points per game) and the 6-foot-7 Hunter, who averaged 17 points and 11.4 rebounds per game.

The Ramblers overflowed their 2,500-seat gym often enough that the team started playing games at Chicago Stadium. Loyola lost only two games that year and found itself for the first time in school history in the NCAA Tournament, where it eventually faced two-time defending national champion Cincinnati for the title.

A one-point loss to Wichita State was the only blemish on the Bearcats’ record. Opposite of Loyola, Cincinnati boasted the nation’s best defense, allowing just 52.9 points per game.

One more detail — possibly more significant for 1963 — about that Cincinnati team: it started three black players. So, for the first time in NCAA history seven of the 10 starters in the national championship game were black. There had been black stars, such as Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas, but not entire teams.

The game itself was outstanding. Throughout most of it, favored Cincinnati was ready to become college basketball’s first three-peat champion, leading by as many as 15 points in the second half.

“We were all really confident,” said Hunter. “There was a point in every game, without fail, that we would hit a stretch where we would steal a ball and play flawless. In our minds — or at least in my mind — we were waiting until we hit that spot.”

Loyola hit that spot and made a game of it in the final 10 minutes.

Trailing 54-52 with 12 seconds left, Hunter grabbed a rebound off a missed free throw, fired a pass to Ron Miller, who got it to Harkness for a basket that sent the game into overtime.

Overtime went back and forth, and was tied at 58-58 with 7 seconds remaining when Harkness started to go up for a shot, but lost the handle. Instead of shooting, he passed to Hunter, who was at the free throw line.

“I wasn’t ready for a pass because I was starting toward the basket for a rebound,” says Hunter. “I had a wide open shot, but my momentum was going too far forward and I missed it.”

But there for Loyola was Hunter’s friend and high school teammate, Rouse.

“Rouse wasn’t going to be denied,” added Hunter, who finished with 11 rebounds and a team-high 16 points. “Rebounding was his game. He was our leading rebounder that year.”

Rouse grabbed the ball and put it back in at the buzzer.

All five starters for Loyola played the entire 45 minutes, the Ramblers were national champions, 60-58. (Four of Cincinnati’s starters played all 45 minutes and the other played 41.)

To this day, Loyola is the only team from the state of Illinois to win the NCAA basketball national championship.

“I probably would’ve regretted (going to Loyola) a lot had we not won the championship, because it wasn’t a fun time for me or for my teammates,” Hunter said. “There wasn’t a lot of rah-rah around the campus for us.

“But I cherished the relationships that I made with some of the students and all of the ballplayers. There are some people I’ll never forget and I talk to on an almost daily basis.”

Following his career at Loyola in 1964, Hunter played in the NBA for Detroit for one season before going to the newly created ABA for six years. Between the NBA and ABA, Hunter also tried out for the Chicago Bears and broke his collarbone diving for a pass. The injury forced Hunter to miss the ’66 NBA season.

Since his playing days, Hunter has led an interesting life. Besides the basketball career and attempt at the NFL, Hunter has sold insurance, managed steak restaurants (which brought him to Kansas City in 1976), owned a popular Overland Park barbecue restaurant, been a case work supervisor for a detention home in Chicago, and worked in the telecommunications industry. He’s even taught adult education classes — helping adults prepare for the GED exam — through the Kansas City School District.

Looking back, although it’s been 55 years and he’s done so many things, the 1963 national championship remains a huge moment in Hunter’s life.

“To take a school that people hadn’t heard of and win a national championship, in a game that friends in my hometown could watch on television, was great,” Hunter said. “For Chicago and the fact that we were accepted that well on the North Side after that game, was a great opportunity. I feel very blessed.”

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