Like most other sports played in Mississippi, basketball sometimes seems a minor sport compared to football. Since the mid-twentieth century basketball has been known as a city game, and Mississippi’s relative lack of urban centers, along with football’s powerful hold on the state’s sporting culture, has made basketball less clearly identified with the state. Mississippi lacks the kind of intense basketball culture found in such rural states as Indiana, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. Still, basketball has a significant place in the state’s sports history.
For many years Mississippi basketball displayed a tendency toward informality or at least local eccentricity. For example, Nick Revon made all-state junior college teams playing for Hinds Junior College in 1948 and 1949 even though he was still in high school. A few years later James “Babe” McCarthy made a jump rare in major-college sports when he went from coaching Tupelo Junior High in 1953–54 to coaching Mississippi State University (MSU) the following year. McCarthy went on to a successful career coaching in the American Basketball Association. Teams used the irregularities associated with limited finances to their advantage. For years the Jackson State University Tiger basketball teams played in a gym known as the Snake Pit, a venue so hot and crowded that the home team always had a profound advantage.
Many of the state’s successful coaches have retained their positions for decades. Charles Rugg coached basketball at Belhaven College from 1963 to 1995; Orsmond Jordan Jr. coached at Murrah High in Jackson from 1970 to 1994; between 1950 and 1989, Bert Jenkins coached for eleven years at Gulfport Junior High and twenty-eight years at Gulfport High School; Bonner Arnold coached at Northeast Mississippi Junior College from 1948 to 1974; and Dave Whitney coached at Alcorn State from 1969 to 1988 and again from 1996 to 2003. All are members of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Mississippi’s women basketball players have in many ways been more prominent than the men despite the paltry attention given to women’s sports between the 1920s to the 1970s. In 1999, Sports Illustrated published lists of the fifty greatest athletes in the history of each state: the first four basketball figures in Mississippi were Coach Margaret Wade of Delta State and high school, college, Olympic, and professional star players Lusia Harris-Stewart, Ruthie Bolton-Holiefield, and Jennifer Gillom. Mississippi’s women’s basketball teams have achieved far greater glory than their male counterparts. Delta State won national championships as a member of Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women in 1975, 1976, and 1977 and at the Division II level of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1989, 1990, and 1992. Mississippi University for Women also won the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women’s national title in 1971, while Rust College’s women’s team took the NCAA Division III championship in 1984 and the women of Phillips Junior College in Gulfport recorded National Small College Athletic Association championships in 1985 and 1986. The Mississippi State University women’s team reached the NCAA final game in both 2017 (after defeating the University of Connecticut to end its 111-game winning streak) and 2018. For their part, the state’s men have won only a single national championship—the Bearcats of Rust College won the National Small College Athletic Association championship in 1977. The pinnacle of men’s basketball success came in 1996, when MSU’s team reached the NCAA Final Four and lost in the semifinal game. In addition, the University of Southern Mississippi’s men’s team won the National Invitational Tournament in 1987. The University of Mississippi men are the only squad in the Southeastern Conference never to have won a regular season championship.
Racial segregation in sports persisted longer in Mississippi than in most other southern states, as leaders first refused to allow teams from the state to play against integrated teams and held out even longer before allowing African American players on the state’s once all-white teams. The unwritten policy of refusing to play teams with African Americans came about in 1955, when Mississippi’s legislators and educational leaders reached a “gentlemen’s agreement” after Jones County Junior College played an integrated California team in the Junior Rose Bowl.
The policy meant that even though MSU’s men’s basketball teams won Southeastern Conference championships in 1959, 1961, and 1962, they did not participate in the NCAA’s national tournament. The Bulldogs (as they became known in 1961) again took the conference title in 1963, and in the wake of the crisis over desegregation at the University of Mississippi, MSU coach Babe McCarthy and school president Dean W. Colvard quietly pushed to accept the invitation to the NCAA tournament. Legislators and members of Mississippi’s Board of Trustees of the State Institutions of Higher Learning were divided on the issue, and Gov. Ross Barnett chose not to become involved, but state senator Billy Mitts and former state senator B. W. Lawson filed a last-minute lawsuit in Hinds County Court that resulted in a judge’s order forbidding the team from leaving the state. An odd comedy ensued in which McCarthy and other coaches left the state earlier than planned to avoid sheriffs who might be enforcing the injunction. To avoid having players arrested, the starters and other important players hid in a dorm while freshmen, some reserves, and the trainer went to the airport. The entire team ultimately participated in the tournament, losing to the racially integrated Loyola of Chicago team, 61–51. Not long thereafter, state officials quietly did away with the prohibition on competition against integrated teams.
The awkward and contested desegregation of public schools meant that Mississippi’s traditionally white universities and colleges began recruiting African American players only in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In the fall of 1968 Wilbert Jordan Jr. became the first African American to play for a previously all-white team when he joined the freshman squad at the University of Southern Mississippi.
A debate about the greatest basketball player from Mississippi would likely include Lusia Harris-Stewart (Delta State); Bailey Howell, Red Stroud, and Erik Dampier (Mississippi State); Gerald Glass, Country Graham, John Stroud, and Peggy Gillom (University of Mississippi); Purvis Short and Lindsey Hunter (Jackson State University); Clarence Weatherspoon, Nick Revon, and Wendell Ladner (Southern Miss); Dot Easterwood Murphy (Mississippi University for Women); Lorenzen Wright (University of Memphis); Antonio McDyess and Mo Williams (University of Alabama); Ruthie Bolton-Holiefield (Auburn University); Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (Chris Jackson) (Louisiana State); Sam Lacey (New Mexico State); Spencer Haywood (University of Detroit); and Monta Ellis and Al Jefferson, who went from Mississippi high schools to successful careers in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The epicenter of Mississippi basketball would certainly be Jackson and the surrounding area. An incomplete but still representative survey of sixty recent NBA players with Mississippi roots shows that at least sixteen attended high school in Jackson, including four at Murrah High, four at Jim Hill High, and three at Lanier High. The Jackson Coliseum, known as the Big House, is the home of the annual Mississippi High School Athletic Association basketball tournament, an intense competition with boys’ and girls’ teams playing in six divisions.
- Basketball-Reference.com website, www.basketball-reference.com
- Chris Dortch, String Music: Inside the Rise of SEC Basketball (2002)
- J. Russell Henderson, in The Sporting World of the Modern South, ed. Patrick Miller (2002)
- Charles Martin, Benching Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of the Color Line in Southern College Sports, 1890–1980 (2010)
- Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum website, www.msfame.com