Basketball has changed a lot since Loyola of Chicago last appeared in the NCAA basketball tournament.

So has culture.

It's hard to imagine a basketball team sneaking out of town in the cover of darkness to play in the tournament.

As I write this on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s death and with the passing of the March Madness season, it's appropriate to reflect on where we were and where we are.

Jim Crow laws were dominant in the South in the 1950s and 1960s as different organizations tried to keep segregation as the status quo and part of the pulse of Southern life. The prevailing winds were separate and unequal.

In 1958-59, Mississippi State was 24-1 and the Southeastern Conference champion but could not go the NCAA tournament, where the Bulldogs could have been the favorite for the national title. MSU couldn't participate in the tournament because of an unwritten policy that Mississippi teams could not play against teams that had black players.

The Bulldogs won two straight SEC titles in 1961 and 1962 but again sat home because of the policy.

MSU coach Babe McCarthy promised the team that if it won in 1963, he would do everything in his power to get them to the NCAA tourney.

MSU did and then came the tricky part.

First, Missisiippi State president D.W. Colvard, courageously going against the grain, decided that the team should go to the tourney and persuaded the board of education to approve that in defiance of Gov. Ross Barnett, a staunch segregationist.

Intimidation followed even threats by legislators to reduce funding for the university.

The Bulldogs were matched in the Mideast Regional against Loyola of Chicago, which had four black starters.

The governor issued an injunction to prevent the team from leaving Mississippi and the drama intensified.

McCarthy was driven out of state while reclining on the floorboard of a car to escape notice by the posse. Without telling his wife where he was going but to pack a bag for him, Colvard slipped out of state. Colyard, a person who was described as the "straightest of straight-arrows" was on the lamb.

The team was hustled out of Starkville on a private plane in the cover of darkness just ahead of law enforcement officials with the injunction.

Loyola had its own issues when it played Southern teams. Black and white players had to travel in separate cabs and stay in different hotels or motels.

Before the game on March 15, 1963, there was a historic handshake between Loyola captain Jerry Harkness, an African-American, and MSU captain Joe Dan Gold. That handshake prompted enough flashbulbs that resembled a fireworks display.

But hen the game began, the racial barriers melted. It was just basketball. It was more  than a contest. In a documentary, it was described as a "Game of Change."

Several of  the Mississippi State and Loyola players became friends afterward.

Loyola won the game and went on to win the national title.

Mississippi State won the cultural conflict.

Survey the college landscape today, and especially of the makeup of that great MSU women's team, and you see part of the result of the cultural shift.

Sports, as it has been at junctures in society, was an agent of change.

Those racial barriers that poisoned our society for decades have not gone away. There are still significant challenges.

But as we reflect on Martin Luther King's message, we can appreciate the baby steps and the courage of those who dared to take them.

Sports editor David McCollum can be reached at dmccollum@thecabin.net. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd