CHICAGO >> Les Hunter, a star on Loyola’s 1963 national championship basketball team that defied racial barriers, died Friday. He was 77.
The university announced Hunter’s death, saying he had cancer.
He was a starting center for the Ramblers, who upset Cincinnati in the national title game and drew acclaim for their basketball prowess and for what they represented to a nation divided by segregation.
Hunter was a pivotal player in the landmark contest that became known as the “Game of Change.” The all-white Mississippi State team defied its state governor’s order banning it from crossing state lines to compete in the NCAA Tournament second round against the integrated Ramblers, who started four African-American players.
“That’s when it began to turn,” Hunter told the Chicago Tribune in 2018. “Nobody had ever heard of us, and we’re showing up with black players and winning like that? It taught people that if you’re going to compete, you’re going to have to learn acceptance of black athletes.”
Born on Aug. 16, 1942, Hunter grew up in segregated Nashville, Tenn., and sprouted into a 6-foot-7 basketball star, growing 3 inches the summer before he arrived at Loyola. He later played professionally and became a restaurateur in Kansas City, Mo.
His towering frame in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood will long be remembered.
Hunter was a fixture in the stands along with teammates Jerry Harkness, Rich Rochelle and John Egan during Loyola’s 2018 Cinderella run to the Final Four. He stood on the court in Atlanta congratulating the young Ramblers after their victory against Kansas State to advance to the Final Four.
“We loved it. He really enjoyed that,” Harkness told the Tribune. “When it takes that long and you’re getting of age, you don’t think something like this would ever come back.”
As a junior, Hunter scored 16 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the championship game against the Bearcats, who had won the previous two NCAA Tournaments. Vic Rouse scored “The Shot Heard ’Round the Basketball World,” as he rebounded a Hunter miss for a putback at the buzzer, lifting Loyola to a 60-58 victory in overtime. The 1963 team finished 29-2.
Hunter is one of two players, joined by LaRue Martin, to record more than 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his Loyola career. Hunter finished his three-year varsity run — in an era when freshman did not compete with upperclassmen — with 1,472 points and 1,017 rebounds, second in the school’s record book.
He helped Loyola to a 74-12 record and three postseason appearances, including two trips to the NCAA Tournament, in his three seasons.
Harkness still marvels at Hunter’s competitiveness. He credits Hunter’s ability to start a fast break by whipping the ball up the court out of the post for many of his own points.
Hunter would rib his teammates about not getting the ball enough on a team that loved to press, but he starred in games against the best opponents.
“He didn’t get the credit he really deserved,” Harkness said. “It didn’t bother him. If it did, he never let out. He should have been the most valuable player in the Final Four. Everybody knows that from the stats and everything. We said it but he didn’t talk much about it. But the guy just kept getting better and better.”
Hunter played basketball during a turbulent time. Black players were refused service in restaurants, turned away at hotels, taunted with racial epithets during away games and received letters from the Ku Klux Klan.
Loyola was a rare team to buck the unwritten agreement among coaches not to play more than two black players at the same time.
The Ramblers beat Mississippi State, 61-51, with 12 points and 10 rebounds from Hunter. The game was without racial incident, and the photograph before tipoff of Harkness and Mississippi State’s Joe Dan Gold shaking hands became iconic.
“I knew it was important to win, to show superiority on the court and to make a statement that we can play with anybody,” Hunter told the Tribune in 2018. “I felt when we ran up the scores on teams that were all white that it was a statement. I was conscious of it.”
In July 2013, Hunter and his former teammates were invited to the White House commemorate the 50th anniversary of their national championship. Harkness laughed remembering how Hunter carved out a space before President Barack Obama entered the room to ensure he would be standing next to the first black president in photographs.
Those Ramblers remain the only team from Illinois to win an NCAA Tournament title.
The team was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
Nicknamed “Big Game,” Hunter went on to become a Pistons second-round pick in the 1964 NBA Draft. He played 24 games in the NBA for the Baltimore Bullets in 1964-65 and played another six seasons in the American Basketball Association, in which he was a two-time All-Star in 1968 and ’69.
His No. 41 jersey is retired by Loyola.
“We are heartbroken to learn of Les’ passing,” Loyola athletic director Steve Watson said in a statement. “The Loyola family has lost a true legend, who was a major part our NCAA championship team in 1963. Les was an accomplished basketball player but was even more valued for the person he was off the court. We offer our heartfelt condolences to his family, friends and former teammates.”
Harkness recalled Hunter’s love for life.
“He was a great dancer,” Harkness said. “He loved to dance. He would do the mashed potato and the twist, and we would stand around in a circle and clap for him.”
Hunter met his wife, Betty, with whom he had two daughters, in high school.
“I remember he would take her photo out of his wallet to show me so many times, I got tired of it,” Harkness said. “He’d say, ‘Let me show you a picture of Betty.’ I’d say, ‘I just saw it yesterday!’ ”
In some ways, the teammates grew closer over the years, visiting each other’s families and going to places they couldn’t safely have gone with white teammates in the 1960s. They visited Hunter and prayed with him two months ago as his illness became more severe.
“We had some great times,” Harkness said. “I truly believe that our link with sports was spiritual, the way we all came together. The team just fit in just right. Les played a key part in that.”
Funeral arrangements are pending.