We honored the remarkable life of Mississippi sports legend Bailey Howell this past weekend in a fundraiser for Sunnybrook Children’s Home in Ridgeland.
The original idea had been for the event to be a roast. Wiser heads prevailed. I mean, how do you roast Bailey Howell? Answer: You can’t, unless you make things up and Bailey’s life has been too well-lived to inject fiction.
Nearly six decades later, his numbers at Mississippi State still numb the brain: 27 points per game, 17 rebounds per game and those are for his career, not just one season. In the NBA, there were nearly 18,000 points, more than 9,000 rebounds. And yes: six-time all-star, two-time NBA champion.
As each speaker pointed out, those statistics are just numbers. Bailey Howell, the person, is far more than numbers. He is goodness, personified. He strives to make his part of the world a better place, as is evident in his active 44 years on the board of directors at Sunnybrook, which provides a home and a structured home life for children who otherwise would have none.
But back to sports. If you were to write the sports history of Mississippi, Bailey would be a chapter unto himself. And even as we were honoring him on a balmy Saturday night, more chapters were being written. I know this for a fact. Between speakers at the Howell tribute, I was checking twitter. Mississippi athletes were everywhere.
- At Rio, Tori Bowie of little Sand Hill in Rankin County wins the Olympic silver medal in the 100 meters. She began her track and field career at Pisgah High School where there was no track, much less starting blocks.
- Again, at Rio, Sam Kendricks of Oxford leads qualifiers in the pole vault. Who would have ever thought this possible when he first used a converted high jump bar to make his first vaults for his daddy’s Oxford track team?
- Still again, at Rio, former Hinds Community College national champion Joe Henderson leaps 27 feet, 6 inches to win the gold in the long jump. Laurel’s Ralph Boston surely approved. In 1960, Boston leaped 26 feet, 71/2 inches to win the gold at Rome.
- In Minneapolis, Fulton’s Brian Dozier, the former USM baseball star, slams his 25th home run of the season and the 100th of his Major League Career. It is Dozier’s 17th home run since June 25. Nobody — nobody — in the Major Leagues has hit more.
- In Los Angeles, Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott makes his Dallas Cowboys preseason debut a most memorable one. He completes 10 of 12 passes (two were dropped) for 139 yards and two touchdowns. Yes, it’s preseason, but already Dak has NFL front office people scratching their heads and asking, “Now how was it that Prescott lasted until the fourth round?”
Remember, all this was happening during a two-hour window on one Saturday night in August. And I am sure I am leaving someone out.
Let’s close with this story I told at Saturday night’s tribute to Bailey Howell. Recently, at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Induction Banquet, Rudy Tomjanovich, the famous Rudy T, showed up to honor Larry Smith, the Alcorn State and NBA standout, who had played for Tomjanovich in Houston. Tomjanovich is a five-time NBA All-Star and coached the Houston Rockets to consecutive NBA Championships.
Tomjanovich, Smith and I were chatting at the reception when Tomjanovich spotted Bailey Howell across the room. Tomjanovich had the look of a five-year-old seeing Santa Claus for the first time.
“Hey, that’s Bailey Howell,” he said. “I didn’t know he was here. He was my first hero. He’s the reason I got into basketball. When I was a kid, I wanted to be Bailey Howell.”
Rudy Tomjanovich, five-time NBA All-Star, two-time Coach of the Year, couldn’t wait to have his photo taken with Bailey Howell. In Mississippi, we understand. We understand heroes. And we fervently hope today’s heroes will strive to have the social impact Bailey Howell has had.
Rick Cleveland is a syndicated columnist and historian at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. His email address is email@example.com.