(Note from Rick Cleveland: One of grandest compliments a columnist can receive is when a reader asks about a column written years and years ago. Recently, a reader of this website learned of Orley Hood’s ongoing battle with leukemia and asked me if there was any possible way to find a column Orley wrote about Hall of Famer Bailey Howell and a jacket. Here it is: Orley at his best about one of the best who ever lived. This was written in October of 1997.)
For a week now little boy memories have washed across an old boy’s vision, crystal clear, 20/20.
I can see myself sitting on the edge of my childhood bed, handmade by my father.
I can see my daddy on my old wooden desk chair, leaning forward, straining to catch every inflection, every nuance, praying silently over every free throw, his body in Vicksburg and his soul wherever it was Mississippi State happened to be playing basketball.
I can hear Jack Cristil’s voice on the radio, the timbre rich and deep, playing sweet soul music on those nights when Babe McCarthy’s boys took to the hardwood.
It was a long time ago, before the Beatles, before Neil Armstrong, before Otis Redding tried a little tenderness, before James Brown got himself a brand new bag.
He was my first hero, Bailey Howell was, visiting my room 25 times a year, carried through the winter darkness by radio waves from Starkville and Knoxville and Lexington.
His hopes were my hopes, his goals my goals, his pain my pain.
When he went down in the paint and posted up and took the pass from Kermit Davis, I was with him, taking that drop step, kissing the ball gently off the glass.
When he took that deep breath at the free throw line and focused on the rim and gently bent his knees and released his shot, I was the ball, spinning, searching for the net, striving silently, the butterflies waging war deep within.
It wasn’t life and death.
Somehow, it was more.
It was little boy dreams.
He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., this week, still tall and elegant and unassuming, 60 years old now, the hair gone a bit gray, but the step still lively, the gliding movement common to athletes.
He was a superstar before that hackneyed phrase was turned on two-bit banjo hitters.
The numbers have been there all the time.
It took Pete Maravich to break Bailey’s Southeastern Conference career scoring record. Twenty-seven points a game. Seventeen rebounds. Night after night, season after season, outrageous numbers by any standard, much less attached to Babe McCarthy’s deliberate strategies 40 years ago.
But the great players are much more than numbers, statistics piled on top of one another, the sum of the years in its driest form.
The great player in basketball or banking or insurance does it by force of will and effort.
The great player doesn’t take days off.
The great player doesn’t give in to fatigue, doesn’t shift to cruise control, doesn’t give half a tug even when half a tug is all that’s required.
It was the spring after his first year in the National Basketball Association. The alumni had gathered back on campus in Starkville to play a game of basketball against those who had taken their place. Bailey was back. Daddy said we had to go. We’d never forgive ourselves if we didn’t.
We made the long drive on bad roads and went straight to the bookstore on a sunny day.
Daddy bought me a windbreaker with “Mississippi State” inscribed on the back.
At the old gym, later named for Babe McCarthy, 5,000 fans rattled their cowbells, cheering the past and the future at the same time.
The old guys beat the new guys. Bailey Howell scored 39 points. It wasn’t a fair fight.
Down in the locker room Daddy pulled out a pen filled with permanent India ink and Bailey Howell signed my jacket.
All these years I’ve kept that windbreaker stored in plastic. Last year I gave it to my 10-year-old. I told him how important it was to me. I told him about Bailey. I told him it was the only autograph I’ve ever gotten.
That it was the only one I ever wanted.