Wilbert Jordan: He was a basketball pioneer
Jordan, who died March 14 at the age of 62 of an apparent heart attack, was the first African American to play a varsity sport at one of Mississippi’s historically white Division I universities. Jordan was recruited from Waynesboro by Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer Lee Floyd to play basketball at USM in 1968.
“I remember it very well,” said Tim Floyd, Texas-El Paso’s head basketball coach and Lee Floyd’s son. “I was 14 at the time. My dad thought that it was time and that it was the right thing to do. We talked about it as a family. It was a transforming thing for my family at the time.
“My dad felt like Wilbert was the right person because of his character and because he had the courage to withstand the scrutiny there would obviously be,” Floyd continued
“Everybody who met Wilbert loved him. He was just such a fine guy, an engaging person. Always had a smile. Always represented the school well; I don’t remember any problems and that was because of the kind of person Will was.”
Ironically, Jordan died on the morning that his alma mater beat Tim Floyd’s UTEP team in the semifinals of the Conference USA Tournament. Afterward, Floyd and USM’s Donnie Tyndall both spoke of Jordan in glowing terms.
The truth is, Jordan was a much better student and citizen than he was basketball player. He had been the valedictorian at all-black Riverview High School in Waynesboro. As a basketball player, he was a slender, left-handed, 6-foot, 2-inch guard blessed with quickness and leaping ability. He defended well and played with great effort, but he was not a skilled shooter, nor ball-handler. He averaged four points and three rebounds per game in the 69 varsity games he played for USM.
On the other hand, he was much more than a shooter or ball-handler.
“Life is a series of firsts and Wilbert was a first in Mississippi,” Tim Floyd said. “It was also a first for my family. In my coaching career, I have looked back on that time as one of my father’s finest moments. To this day, I am incredibly proud of what he and Wilbert did.”
Lee Floyd was a 1991 inductee into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His USM teams won 247 and lost 146 during his two different stints at USM. Lee Floyd, also a UTEP Sports Hall of Famer, was close friends with UTEP coaching legend Don Haskins, who led then-Texas Western to the 1966 NCAA title, starting five black players against Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky Wildcats.
That game is often credited for jump-starting the desegregation of basketball in the Deep South. But Lee Floyd and Wilbert Jordan had much to do with it in Mississippi.
Jordan, an outstanding student, earned his Bachelors and Masters degrees in biology from USM and went on to earn his law degree from LSU. As a lawyer, he specialized in environmental issues and also served as an assistant district attorney and assistant attorney general at city and state levels.