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. He 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 Mississippi athletic teams were not to play against integrated teams. That meant 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 in a 14-day span. They won those games by a total of 85 points. This was before the shot clock. Ole Miss tried, as many did, 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 of the 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 a 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 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 (email@example.com) is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist.