Opinion: Lucas Williamson continues Loyola’s fierce fight for social justice
Loyola Chicago guard Lucas Williamson is on the phone, and the player who best represents the continuation of the basketball program's tradition of fighting for social justice is asked about growing up in Chicago. Were there times when Williamson was concerned about his own encounters with police?
His voice calmed and Williamson started his answer with the name many will know, and should, if they don't. That name is Tamir Rice.
"There are things that happen to you when you grow up that you don't really think about until 10, 12 years down the road," Williamson told USA TODAY Sports. "Things that happened to you that could have had totally different outcomes. Look at Tamir Rice. I can't help but think about how that could have been me."
Rice was 12 years old when he was killed by a police officer in Cleveland in 2014. He was carrying a toy gun.
Williamson and his Ramblers teammates are, again, almost 60 years later, and only a few years removed from another tournament run, one of the best stories in the Sweet 16. They play Oregon State on Saturday.
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But as good a story as the Ramblers are on the court, they are, in many ways, a better one off of it, a generational one.
Williamson is the narrator and also co-writer of a new documentary film "The Loyola Project." It details the 1963 Loyola championship team that broke racial barriers by starting four Black players.
At the time there was an unwritten rule among coaches that no more than two Black starters (three at the most) could play simultaneously in a game. That team remains one of the great, but perhaps least known, moments of athletic protest from that time.
One of the stars of the 1963 team, Jerry Harkness, said he feels close to the current Loyola squad because they are continuing the fight he and his teammates started decades ago.
"I'm so proud of these players," Harkness told USA TODAY Sports, "because they are fighters like we were."
Harkness has Zoomed with both the current Ramblers, and the 2018 Final Four team, telling those players about the racism he and teammates faced which included death threats, being spat upon, and staying in segregated hotels.
"They were amazed at how we had to endure all of that," said Harkness.
The project represents the latest evolution in Williamson as one of the social justice leaders in college basketball. Before this, he wrote essays on the subject for the student newspaper, and held team Zoom meetings with the team to discuss those same issues.
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What the documentary will likely show, and what life definitely does, is how time is a circle. There’s a sort of racial Groundhog Day aspect to America. While massive progress has been made since that 1963 team dominated the sport, many of the things that team fought then, like police brutality and attacks on voting rights, are still being fought now.
"We move forward with civil rights, and then we take major steps backwards," said Harkness. "We never seem to quite get there."
"We love a good sports story, and we were initially drawn to the 1963 Loyola saga on that level," said Patrick Creadon, director of the documentary, in an interview with USA TODAY Sports. Christine O'Malley, the film's producer, is the other half of the husband and wife team that created the project.
"But as we got further into making the film, we realized that the story goes far beyond the basketball court," Creadon said. "I feel like now we’re making a completely different film than the one we started making in 2019. “The Loyola Project” is a fascinating — and sometimes painful — look at life in America in the early ‘60s as seen through the eyes of… Lucas Williamson … I'm not sure what’s more remarkable: how much has changed since 1963 or how much hasn’t changed. Lucas and his involvement in the production has helped us uncover a much deeper and more meaningful understanding of the story."
"Going into the project I think I had a general idea of what life in our country was like for Black Americans," said Creadon, who is white, "but only from what I’ve seen and read and absorbed during the course of my life. I really didn't understand the depths of what the 1963 team had experienced. After working closely with that team I was able to reach a much deeper understanding of what the Black players went through. It was brutal, and astonishing that they were able to put all that hate and racism aside to still become national champions."
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