Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Rick Cleveland: March Madness is upon us.

We call it March Madness. For a couple weeks, the NCAA Tournament takes over our TVs, our sports sections and our office talk.

We've had our share of it in Mississippi over the years. Mississippi State famously made the Final Four in 1996. Both Ole Miss and State have made Sweet 16s. Southern Miss won the NIT back in 1987 when people still followed that event. Mississippi Valley State once scared the bejeezus out of No. 1 seed Duke in a first round game.

We probably take March Madness a little bit for granted these days, but we should not – especially in Mississippi. That's because, for the longest time, Mississippi, in its extremely finite wisdom, chose not to take part.

And so it is that the greatest basketball player in Mississippi history never played in March Madness.

“It was the biggest disappointment of my basketball career,” Bailey Howell once told me. “I was never so disappointed. In America, no matter what you do, you have the opportunity to go as far as you can go and be whatever you can be. We were denied that opportunity.”

Howell averaged 27 points and 17 rebounds for his career at Mississippi State. He led his three varsity teams to 61 victories against 14 defeats. Howell scored as many as 47 points in a single game. He once grabbed 34 rebounds in a single game. That's right – 34. Rebounds. Sometimes, even today, teams don't get that many.

When Howell was a senior, the Bulldogs won 24 games and lost one. They were 13-1 in the league, Southeastern Conference champions, which meant an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

They may well have been the best college basketball team in the country that year, but they never got a chance to prove it.

The unwritten law in Mississippi back then was that Mississippi athletic teams were not to play against integrated teams. That meant that Babe McCarthy's best team ever – Bailey Howell's senior season – forfeited its NCAA bid. Kentucky, which State soundly beat in a regular season game, took the Bulldogs' place in a tournament that was eventually won by the University of California, a team that finished 24-4 and ranked No. 11 in the AP regular season poll.

In retrospect, Mississippi State almost surely was the better team. In its last home game of the 1958-59 season, State beat Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky team 66-58. The Bulldogs finished that season with five straight road victories over Florida, Georgia, LSU, Tulane and Ole Miss iun a 14-day span. They won those games by a total of 85 points. This was before the shot clock. Ole Miss, as many did, tried to hold the ball on the Bulldogs in that final game at Oxford. State won 23-16, an unusually close game for the Bulldogs in that magical season.

Those Bulldogs won the Sugar Bowl Tournament, defeating both Maryland and Memphis State by double digits.

“I don't know if we would have won the NCAA Tournament,” Howell told me, “but I know we sure wanted a chance to try. It was a thrill to win the SEC, but it was like we had cold water poured on it.”

Four years later, Babe McCarthy and another Mississippi State team defied the unwritten state law and flew out of town in the middle night to play against eventually NCAA Champion Loyola, an integrated team in a game that became known as “The Game of Change.”

Loyola won. As good as that State team was – and it was very good – it did not have player of Bailey Howell's caliber.

Few did. Howell would go on to be the second pick of the 1959 NBA Draft. The first pick? Wilt Chamberlain.

Howell would go on to score nearly 18,000 NBA points. He was a six-time All-Star. He was a key player on two Boston Celtics championship games.

He might well have been a college basketball champion as well.

Bailey Howell just never got the chance.


Rick Cleveland ( is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.


Anonymous said...

I clicked on this. Not sure why. My head hit the keyboard two paragraphs in. Forget Ambien, I now know how to fall asleep quickly. Thanks Rick for the snooze booze.

PittPanther said...

Mississippi. Sitting its own wrists for over 60 years...

Anonymous said...

Please, Lord, let it be over soon!

Anonymous said...

Rick failed to explain who at MSU made the decision to not go. Was it the coach, president, athletic director? Please identify these fine examples of statesmanship.

Anonymous said...

11:57, it was state law that no public college could play against teams that allowed blacks to play.

Never Heard THIS Story Before! said...

Wait, do you mean that Mississippi has a racial past? Gee, I've never heard that before. If only some sanctimonious journalist would have opened my eyes over the past 50 years and told me (over and over and over and over) that my home state once treated black people poorly, especially since NO OTHER STATE, not in the South and ESPECIALLY not in the North, treated them as anything other than august citizens of the highest caliber.

You know, I wonder how many people know this. Maybe we should all be lectured to again.

And again.

And again.


Anonymous said...

Ahole at 5:08. This is not a lecture about our racial past. It is an ode to one of the greatest basketball players this state has ever seen - and that includes all the hotshots of today. The fact that Bailey Howell didn't get a chance to play for the national championship is part of his story, as it is part of the state's history. But the column - at least to me - is about a guy that could score 25+ points a game when teams played a four corner offense to kill the clock and there were no three point shots. Realize that is probably before your time and therefore you don't give a damn. But some of us do, so get over it. You don't want to read anything about history, sports or otherwise, fine. Just go on to the next post and shut the f**k up.

Anonymous said...

3:35 I believe Rick said it was an "unwritten law" which would seem to mean that it was understood rather than a written law. As such, someone at MSU had to make the call.

Anonymous said...

Giant self loather at 8:19, yeah yeah. My whole life has been stories about how this group or that person was treated poorly through the 1960s because of Mississippi and the Klan and the mood of the times and blah blah blah.

I get it. Holy hell I get it. I don't need to hear it again, and I certainly don't need yet another lecture from a sanctimonious sports guy who is suddenly Mr. Civil Rights when he wasn't writing such smug articles in the 70s.

But I suppose it is the penance that those of us who never did a damn thing to keep anyone down must pay, to be constantly berated by Ex-CL staff and gutless anonymous posters about how terrible "we" were simply because we reside in this geographic area.

I fully expect this to be trotted out again next year. And the next.

Ad Infinitum.

Anonymous said...

9:51 Gutless anonymous posters. Talking about yourself - guess that fits with your playing with yourself. Don't like the column, don't read it. There are some that can read about our history, be it either that part that you get tired of (racial instances in south from 1870s to 1960s) or we can read about Crusades, or Revolutionary War, or Great War without getting our panties in a wad. And we can read a sports history without thinking it is a racial lecture. Grow up ahole.

I can't stop crying over here said...

guess that fits with your playing with yourself.

Oooh! You got me with your rapier-like wit. I'm sure no one in Mrs. Watson's class wants to go against YOU!

A retort truly worthy of the king of the 5th grade playground.

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