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  • Writer's pictureHu Eliot Young

HA Titans and Loyola of Chicago

The transformative power of team sports, a beacon of equality and fair play, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, is on full display south of the border as the Cinderella college basketball team of Loyola of Chicago, a small Jesuit university in the heart of the Windy city, punched its ticket to the Final Four, the ultimate hoops festival this last weekend, with stunning victories in the South regional.

Buzzer beaters in two straight games against higher seed opponents the previous weekend propelled the Ramblers of Loyola of Chicago, with its 98 year old chaplain, Sister Jean, spry and self effacing, onward and heavenward. It was déjà vu all over again, reminiscent of the national championship of 55 years ago, when Loyola upset the reigning champions and brought cataclysmic change to the racial segregation inherent in so many college sports of the era. In 1963, Loyola started four black players, au contraire the implicit yet unstated rule governing college hoops, of playing no more than three black players at any one time.

Mississippi’s governor Ross Barnett went so far as to have a court injunction granted to preclude the Mississippi State basketball team from playing against Loyola of Chicago in the regional semi final because of the supposed slippery slope leading to social "anarchy" which would presumptively follow were people treated as equals.

The Mississippi State players, merely wanting to play hoops against the best and brightest snuck out under cover of darkness after first sending out a decoy team to the airport lest they get served with the injunction and prevented from leaving the state.

In the final game of the tournament, 55 years ago, Jerry Harkness, a player from Harlem, New York, who had sat out a year because he wasn’t good enough (read: of the right colour) to secure a scholarship anywhere in the entire country, hit a jump shot as time expired to send the game into overtime where the Ramblers then dispatched their opponents.

Two years later, a team from deep in the heart of Texas, UTEP, comprised of a racially integrated team including five black starters, beat a team from Kentucky which started five white players. How completely college sports changed thereafter, predicated on the great equalizer of skill rather than skin colour.

The era of racial segregation, where Ku Klux Klansmen still marched to protest integration and protect their own semblance of self inflated importance, resulted in the Ramblers of Loyola of Chicago having to take separate taxi cabs, depending on their skin colour, rhetorical, metaphorical and mercurial Ramblers from American Motors to their game in Houston in 1963. Spectators in the gymnasium were seated on either side of the court depending on their skin colour. The chairman of the University of Houston's board of Governors, Hugh Roy Cullen, had vowed that blacks would never be admitted as students.

But a year after the memorable basketball game, the university rescinded its internal memorandum of agreement and granted the first two basketball scholarships to black Americans.

Now, 55 years later, Loyola of Chicago, the only college in Illinois to have ever won the NCAA basketball championship, (in the only state to have brought forward for national consideration a successful candidate for the US presidency of African American heritage), returns to the limelight, sending another basketball team to the semi finals of the single round knock out tournament. Initially an eleventh seeded team, they have toppled many a higher seeded opponent of the original 68 top college teams and are one of four teams left standing.

Of particular interest for our fair city, is that an Edmontonian is a member of the Loyola of Chicago college basketball team. His odyssey says so much about the majesty of this country and the nobility and heritage of both our city and the province.

Born in what is now South Sudan in 1998, Aher Uguak and his family came to Alberta when he was an infant. They fled the internal insurrection in Sudan. Aher, an amazing athlete, played basketball in junior high at St Hilda's and DS McKenzie and high school at Harry Ainlay Composite. The Titans of Harry Ainlay were city champions during his grades ten and eleven and the Titans also prevailed as provincial champions in both of those years (2014 and 2015). They were the number one team in the province for much of his grade twelve year but fell to Archbishop O’Leary in the city finals and lost in the provincial semi finals to a team from southern Alberta.

Had Ainlay been victorious, it would have been only the third time in the 75 plus years of history of high school basketball in this province that one school had claimed the title three consecutive years. Aher was the sole Alberta representative at the national high school basketball select game sponsored by Biosteel, which is equivalent in many respects to the McDonald’s All America game in the USA. The composition of the team in Aher’s senior/grade twelve year, speaks volumes about the integration and ethnic diversity of our community.

12 players.

If one were to ask (and nobody does because it is irrelevant to the issue of playing ability), the family origins of the teammates who breathed, practiced, slept and played basketball were:

three of black ancestry,

two of East Indian descent,

two of parents both African American and   Caucasian ancestry,

three of Caucasian descent,

one of Asian descent,

one of both Caucasian and Asian ancestry.

It was a veritable United Nations session at practice and play.

To understand and appreciate the bonding and exercise in brotherhood that occurs during the course of years of play together, one only needs to see how these young men continue to interact, years later. (Full disclosure here; my son, Hugo was a teammate of Aher's at Harry Ainlay during those halcyon years and this year, served as an assistant coach for the senior boys' team).

While the basketball team was unsuccessful in accomplishing its goal of achieving a three year consecutive winning streak provincially, it set the table for so many accomplishments of greater consequence.

Harry Ainlay Composite high school can now claim a record that is unique to this province in that its boys sports program won the city and provincial championships in football, volleyball and basketball in the year 2017-2018. This year's basketball team won the city and provincial championships by an overwhelming average of more than 25 points per game, a phenomenal and unprecedented sum. The surnames of the players speak volumes of the cultural diversity and yet, collective integration of the team:

Ajou Ajou, Lars Ishimwe, Brandon Meiklejohn, Ariel Mutraware, Mac Natre, Sabry Philip, Gurbinder Sidhu, Tyler Burbank, Jameson Boston, and Evan Rolfson to name a few.

If you approach George Hoyt, the long time basketball coach at Ainlay, you recognize soon enough that he is not one to mince words, talk platitudes or espouse politically correct banter for purposes of validation. He follows in the footsteps of another former coach, most recently retired city counsellor Brian Anderson who made time and gave of himself to a generation of students.

And if Loyola of Chicago claims the big prize next Monday as a repeat champion of the NCAA March Madness, perhaps Aher Uguak will have a transcendent inspirational story or two to add to the mix for not just Harry Ainlay students past and present but for all sports fans of the city and the next generation of the greater Edmonton community.

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