Big House a reporter’s gold mine

From Mo to Ruthie, state championships have storied past

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By Rick Cleveland

[dropcap]S[/dropcap]uper Bowls are OK. The World Series was fun. The Final Four, every one I covered, was compelling. Sugar Bowls are cool and have the added attraction of always being played in New Orleans.

Every game, every year, is like a 90-minute passion play. Doesn’t matter whether it’s girls or boys, big schools or little ones, opening round or championship game. The Big House is where dreams are realized and dashed.

But the event that has given me the most intriguing columns over a half century of covering sports in the Magnolia State has been the MHSAA Basketball Championships played annually at Mississippi Coliseum.

This is my contention: At Mississippi’s high school basketball championships, you can take your reporter’s notepad, tear out a sheet of paper, make yourself a paper airplane, sail it in any given direction, and wherever it lands you will have yourself a column.

Many are the times I have headed for “The Big House” having no idea what I was would write about, but also knowing there would be plenty from which to choose.

Every game, every year, is like a 90-minute passion play. Doesn’t matter whether it’s girls or boys, big schools or little ones, opening round or championship game. The Big House is where dreams are realized and dashed.

You never know what you will see. But I know I’ve seen plenty.

I first saw Chris Jackson – who later changed his name to Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf play there as a 16-year-old tenth grader who was absolutely magical with a basketball in his hands. I remember writing that night that it was as if the basketball was an extension of him, that he could make it do whatever he wanted it to do. He was faster with the ball than the nine other players were without it. He could jump out of the gym. He could create a shot any time he wanted to for himself or for his teammates. And, oh my, how he could shoot that rock.

He was all that – and, he was coached by one of the best who ever carried a clipboard, the late Bert Jenkins, probably the best of all the remarkable coaches who have won state championships at the Big House.

I saw Eugene and Purvis Short help Hattiesburg win state championships there. Eugene, the older brother, switched from all-black Rowan to previously all-white Hattiesburg Blair at the cusp of integration. Suddenly, so many white kids who had never had a black friend now had a black hero. Eugene was both gifted and graceful. Purvis, the younger brother, had to work harder at it – and, boy, did he. His rainbow jump shots arched toward the Big House’s ceiling before often dropping cleanly through the nets.

The girls have put on some shows as well: Before she won Olympic gold, Ruthie Bolton helped tiny McLain win two gold balls in the Big House.

The late, great Wendell Ladner was a force of nature, so strong and such an explosive leaper, always playing head and shoulders above everyone else. Four of the five Hancock Central starters back then were named Ladner and the coach was a Ladner, as well. They were a show. Wendell would put on a dunking exhibition in warm-ups and then lift up his smaller teammates so they could dunk it, too.

So many more: Randy Hodges, Mike Necaise, Gerald Glass, Othella Harrington, Ronnie Henderson, Big Al Jefferson, Monta Ellis, Erick Dampier, Mo Williams. It goes on and on. Antonio McDyess, Justin Reed and Billy Hamilton (he was as fast on the court as he is on the diamond).

The girls have put on some shows as well: Before she won Olympic gold, Ruthie Bolton helped tiny McLain win two gold balls in the Big House. Victoria Vivians showed off her jump shot and considerable grace there. LaToya Thomas played in the Big House as a Parade All-American before she set the Mississippi State all-time scoring record that even the great Tan White and Victoria Vivians could not reach.

All that said, some of the most memorable, poignant moments I’ve enjoyed at the state tournament were provided by boys and girls whose basketball careers ended in at the Big House: The slightly built 17-year-old girl who somehow sank the winning free throws with no time left on the clock and seemingly no air left to breathe. The 14-year-old freshman boy, playing only because of the foul problems of juniors and seniors, heaving in the winning bucket without having time to think of the ramifications.

For so many hundreds over so many years, the Big House has showcased shining moment after shining moment – all in the chase for a shiny gold ball.

Columnist Rick Cleveland
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Rick Cleveland is a columnist for mississippitoday.org

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