Sixteen years ago, Loyola of Chicago challenged No. 1-ranked Cincinnati for the national basketball championship in Louisville's Freedom Hall. With four minutes to go in the NCAA title game, Cincinnati was a comfortable 10 points ahead, and it appeared that what everyone expected to happen would. But a Loyola surge and a clutch, last-second shot put the into overtime. The contest was decided when Loyola forward Vic Rouse grabbed a teammate's missed shot and laid it in at the buzzer for a 60-58 win.
Today, Rouse lives in Chevy Chase and is a research fellow for the American Institute for Research in Washington. In the following first person account, related to free-lance writer Bill Finger, Rouse reflects on the role of basketball in his life. He describes how the game carried him from the ghetto of East St. Louis, Ill., to Pearl High School in Nashville, where he helped the team to three national black high school championships, and then to Loyola and the title match of '63. This excerpt is from Finger's book-length collection, "Courtside at Freedom Hall: Sports and Integration, a Cultural Collision."
My junior year in high school, I tore cartilage in my left knee.The doctors told me then I shouldn't play anymore. I had surgery after the season and then went back and played the next year, which I shouldn't have done. My senior year, when we won the national (high school) championship again, often I could hardly walk on it. But if I don't go out and play, I can't get to college. I couldn't have gotten a scholarship.
At Loyola (of Chicago), George Ireland needed to win. He was under real pressure to keep his job. Black athletes would help him win so he brought them in. That self-interest was enough to help me get educated.
Sports has defined success for black youngsters beyond a local neighbourhood. It's taught many black athletes what survival's all about. If you lose on Monday night, you got to play on Wednesday. Life goes on. We lost twice in the championship year but we didn't decide to give it up. Being able to lose twice and being down in the Cincinnati game and coming back have given me great conviction. Until I am out of it totally, I am convinced that I can come back and get it together.
My father believed in pgysical discipline, and he would enforce it. He rarely did, but you always knew he would if it got too bad.If it was a family embarrassment, it was serious, My father just said, "Don't do it. If you do," he said, "I'm going to deal with you." He was a big man, about 6-foot-3, 230. If you had any sense, you just didn't pull it off.
We respected both our parents. My mother was rural, came from Lebanon, Tenn., 23 miles from Nashville. My father grew up in Nashville, came through the Depression.
My father pastored all around the (Nashville) area. In the Baptist church, a pastor is invited to another church. He was offered, among others, Mt. Zion Baptist Church in East St. Louis, Ill. We moved there when I was six or seven.
I was in braces up to my waist for the first six years of my life. I had some problems with my knees and the doctors were afraid that I wouldn't be able to play at all. . . or walk. They wanted to break my legs or something to straighten them out. My father wouldn't allow that. As a result, I stayed in braces a long time.
So I was 7 or 8 before I got into sports. I'm sure it was a response to the leg thing. I started playing basketball at the elementary level. As soon as I was able to play, I was out there. Winter, summer, that was the game.
During the summers, Lincoln High would have the gym open from 9 (in the morning) to 10 at night. I played from 9 'til 10 at night every day. That's where I learned the game.
There's a self-restriction on those courts. If you foul a guy, he calls it on you. If the rest of the guys saw it happen, then that's it. But if they didn't, you had to work it out between you, which often led to a lot of friction. Fights would go off like that (snaps his finger). But they usually cool down pretty fast.
I played at lot of ball on the courts outside, too-hard, tough basketball. The most difficult issue is, you're going against guys who have no reputation. If you've been off and developed one, you become a target. If they can dunk in your face or slap your shot back, then they gain a little rep. All you get is hurt.
The last thing to do is get mad cause they'll just take you out, punch you out. A lot of old-timers, 35-year-old guys out there, serious business. They will not let a young guy come and do too much to them.
Since you don't have refs out there, the guy holds you, hit you, knocks you down. You can't fight all the time. Mostly, you can't deal with the guy, anyway. So I learned to go under the basket, take the licks and shoot, anyway. I evolved a very physical game.
It's important for youngsters to play outside because that's where the game is learned. My son goes over here to this park where many of the black guys from D.C. come up.
The ball over here is as good as the ball I played in East St. Louis. But once a youngster starts to progress, they've got to be careful. I ruined my knees on concrete. In college I dislocated my shoulder. I could never stop. I was always out there when I shouldn't be. It can destroy you in the long run.
East St. Louis was a great educator for me. I understand now how to get along in a city. I've seen parents raise their children with great education, great moral fiber in the midst of problems and difficulties because they have the strength of personality to do it.
I could have gotten into a lot of things-drugs and heavy stuff was no big deal in East St. Louis in the '50s. People didn't argue with you a lot. If there was going to be a fight, the decision was made early. You better get the first lick in. I've been in fights when people were killed.I've had close friends killed, robbing a store or something. Shot. That stuff wasn't fun and games. All those things are like early traumas.
To be a good athlete was one way of achieving distinction. Athletes are not hassled. If there was going to be a fight, I might or might not be in it, but I was never really targeted on.
I was on a black team at Lincoln. It was a black league with an occasional white team. They had to play us. We beat them mostly. Being in the North, certain things were expected. But southern Illinois is as bigoted in many ways as the far South. The antagonisms were there. There was much greater tension playing schools that didn't want to play you than whin I played in Nashville.
You were lucky to get out of Collinsville (Ill.) without getting hurt. You always got insulted bad enough that you would like to do something about it, but you knew you better not. The state tournament was strictly integrated. But even then, there was always the feeling that the refs were going to get you when you went up against a white school. You believed it whether it was true or not.
We had a very fine team at Lincoln High. I was the sixth man on that team, became a starter in the tournament. And was made captain (for) the next year, which was when I left. It was a blow.
My father thought I had a better chance of academic development at Pearl (in Nashville) because it was really a prep school for Fisk and Tennessee State. There was too much temptation to get into trouble in East St. Louis.
Going to Pearl was a big move. I didn't expect the quality of basketball I had at Lincoln, I was very surprised. Pearl had smooth, finesse players. I was a physical player. I went in and said the ball was mine. My under-the-boards game at that stage was much stronger than the rest of the guys.
Les Hunter was a young, pleasant guy, just coming into his own. As Les matured and became a physical guy as well, we were very powerful under the boards.
By my senior year at Pearl, I can go against anybody; high school, college, doesn't matter. I felt it. Les and I are 6-6, 6-8 and we didn't have to back down. So we didn't. St. Elizabeth's came in here from Chicago for the national tournament, but we didn't care much about them. We thought we were the best. . . gave them a pretty good beating. Because of the national championship thing, I got a chance to play against many of the guys who later went on to be pros and a vast number who went on to college.
Les and I knew each other so well and played the boards so well that we could have a sizable impact on any team. George Ireland had heard about Ronny Lawson (Pearl's 6-foot-5 guard).When he came down to look at Ronny, he saw Les and me. Ireland was one of the few that offered both of us scholarships. Having good academic credentials, that was a good place to go. My father wasn't really big on it because it was Catholic. We visited the school and talked with George. He promised I would not have to take any theology or religion. He believed if he sold the parents, he would get the kids. So George convinced my father that he was concerned and wanted to give a black player a chance. George mad a big deal out of that.
Les and I talked about it. Fisk and Tennessee Stated waited to the last minute to offer us any kind of grant-in-aid, as if they thought we couldn't go anywhere else. We were both feeling it wouldn't be a bad idea to go into a different environment together. It was a conscious decision.
George was willing to play black players, I'll give him that. He brought in some guys who had made (high school) All-america, like a white guy from Wisconsin who played sixth man on our championship team. And then he had another four or five who were good, like Les and me, but (who) did not have big reputations because we had not played in a big arena. They'd say these guys are from the black schools, they're not that good. We weren't even expected to make it. But we did.
Ireland and I fought every day, every year that I played there. Ireland insisted on keeping control. He would panic sometimes, go wild on you. I didn't like being insulted, being jumped on. I would resist him constantly. Ireland had a habit of slapping ball players, actually slapping them upside the head. But he wouldn't do that to me or Les. He knew if he hit me, they'd have to carry him away. Les was the same way. I'm sure had we not been an absolute vital part of his success, we were gone.
There was always a sense of distruct about George. We were athletes, who happened to be black, to save his basketball for awhile - his career.
George was sensitive enough early on to see that (playing black players) was coming. He wanted to be one of the leaders.He was in an environment where being a kind of activator for social change was a cool thing to do.
He was never criticized in Chicago once we started winning. He was criticized early on, though. Up until we got there, there were never more than one or two black players at any time. They had to be very careful what they said. But we were the new breed of black ball players. We didn't get pushed around.
I always felt I was on a winning team. After our sophomore year, we really started to beat good teams. When we beat Indiana with the Van Arsdale twins (both later pro standouts), we started to believe we were a good club. It's a vital difference when you think you're a winner. I felt we were proceeding along a normal course to get to the championship. We lost two games - Wichita and Bowling Green.
We were a real unit. Jerry (Harkness) had speed and size at the small forward; I was a big guy (6-foot-6) at forward and Les at center. We were aggressive on the boards. (Ron) Miller was a 6-2 guard. John Egan was a strong, fast guard; you could not stop him from getting the ball downcourt because he had the bulk.I would score 12-15 points, Les with 16-17. We had a real balanced attack.
When we entered the (NCAA) tournament, it was just no question as to whether we were going to win. I felt it against Tennessee (Tech), against Mississippi (State), Illinois, even Cincinnati.
I absolutely felt sure we could not lose to Mississippi State. I just couldn't accept losing to an all-white team. The game introduced me to that. If I had to do it singlehandedly, we are not going to lose to Mississippi State.
With four black players on our (starting) team, we had to win. Win because we represented something. We were an indication that black people can be successful if given an opportunity. We were representing more than the team.
(In the championship game in Louisville), Cincinnati had us down. Even then, I felt we were gonna come back. Cincinnati slowed its pace and they could never get it back. There were so many players on our team that were believers. We felt that if we keep the pressure on, one of us is going to pull this thing out. Jerry's game wasn't working that great in the tournament. But Jerry was the quality player that came out and scored that basket that tied it up (and sent it into overtime).
In Louisville, after the championship game, the black community was there to take us out, have dinner, party. It was pride in being there
A shoulder injury came at the end of my junior year (the championship year). If I had put the shoulder in a cast for the better part of my senior year, I wouldn't have had to have surgery. But I dislocated it two additional times that year. The ligaments were so strained, I had to have surgery. The surgery prevented me from going into the pros because the risk was too great.
That was a trauma for me. It ended my pro-opportunities and the chance to try out for the Olympics. These were things I wanted to do.
A lot of guys go into basketball because they are committed to excellence without having it articulated for them that this is a way to achieve. Usually when you start to think about excelling in school, you're at the junior high level. It's too late then. So sports becomes a way out.
You cannot be prevented from excelling in sports, particularly in basketball, because the court is there and you got a ball. So you can get out and really work on your skills.
Getting out means breaking out of the psychological depression of the environment. If a guy is really grooving on what he is doing, he is breaking out, even though he is returning physically to the environment. It is not fun to be there, to see pain and poverty around you all the time. So you want to get out.
I used to come back to East St. Louis during the offseason. . . I was respected, and Maybe for some guys, I was a hero. But more than anything else, I represented a lot of pride.
"It's about time somebody got out of here," they'd say, "and did some things and got recognized for it."
That's what I represented. CAPTION: Picture, Vic Rouse: "You cannot be prevented from excelling in sports, particularly basketball, because the court is there and you got a ball." By Larry Morris-The Washington Post