CLASS OF 2014: RUTHIE BOLTON REFUSED TO LOSE

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Today begins a series of features about the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014. I’ll begin each piece with a personal remembrance of the inductee. I consider myself most fortunate to have covered all six. We will go in alphabetical order.

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My first thought when I think of Ruthie Bolton: She’s right there with Walter Payton for sheer grit and competitiveness. Maximum effort, all the time: That’s what you got with Ruthie. What she achieved as the point guard for Team USA in the 1996 Olympics remains one of the single most impressive athletic performance I covered in more than 45 years of sports writing. She scored, she distributed, she guarded, she got seemingly every loose ball, and she was the engine that enabled that U.S. team to win Gold.

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Ruthie Bolton, the 16th of 20 children born to Rev. Linwood and Leola Bolton in tiny McLain, went on to national and international basketball fame.

 

In high school, Ruthie mostly played in the shadow of an older sister, Mae Ola, who went on to star at Auburn. Mae Ola was the highly recruited player, sought after by schools all over the nation. After leading McLain to a state championship as a senior, Ruthie followed Mae Ola to Auburn but not as a prized recruit. In fact, Auburn coaches tried to talk her into going to junior college first to develop her skills.

Nevertheless, Ruthie quickly became a starter and a key player at Auburn and eventually blossomed into one of the nation’s elite players.

She scored 1,176 points and dished out 526 assists, leading Auburn to three SEC Championships. After college, she was again under-valued at the next level. She had to pay her own way to Team USA tryouts across the continent.

But she went on to a 15-year professional career, both internationally and in the WNBA.

She was part of 10 U.S. National teams, including two (1996 and 2000) that won Olympic gold medals. Her performance in the 1996 Atlanta Games is the stuff of legend.

Bolton started every game at point guard for the 1996 U.S. Olypic team, averaging 12.8 points per game. But it was her overall performance — defense, running the offense, diving for loose ball after loose ball — that made her the heart and soul of that Olympic team. In the gold medal game, she was called on to defend Brazilian star

point guard Maria Paula Silva — known as Magic Paula. Silva was averaging 16.5 points per game beforehand. She was 1 for 8 and scored just seven against the Americans. Her one field goal came when Bolton was taking a breather.

Afterward, a reporter asked Bolton how she was able to stop Magic Paula.

“What did I do?” Bolton said, breaking into a smile. “I was in her pants, that’s what. I was all over her. If she had gone to the bathroom, I was going with her.”

One of Bolton’s five steals was a clean, mid- court theft from Brazilian superstar Hortencia Oliva. Bolton flicked the ball away from Oliva, went hard to her knees to retrieve it and then shoveled a perfect pass to Sheryl Swoopes for an easy layup.

When Bolton left the game with 8:16 remaining, she exited to a standing ovation from the Georgia Dome crowd of 32,997.

Afterward, Ruthie tearfully dedicated the performance to her late mother and gave her gold medal to Mae Ola, whose career had been cut short by injury. That 1996 Team USA Olympic performance led directly to the creation of the WNBA. After playing professionally mostly in Europe, Bolton was able to earn a living playing the sport she loves in the USA. She was “franchise player” allocated to the Sacramento Monarchs of the original WNBA and eventually became the first player from that franchise to have her number retired.

In 2011, Bolton became the first Auburn player inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Earlier this year, Bolton was inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

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Next: Doug Cunningham.

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For tickets to the July 25 induction banquet or the July 26 Drawdown of Champions, click here.

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