RIP: Leland Mitchell, a hoops ambassador
Posted on: July 09,2013
By Harriet Laird
MSU alumnus and “Game of Change” guard Leland Noyal Mitchell, 72, died Saturday [July 6] at his residence in Starkville. A real estate developer with interests in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, he was a member of Mississippi State’s M-Club Hall of Fame.
Mitchell, played basketball at MSU under Babe McCarthy during the early 1960’s and was an All-Southeastern Conference honoree in 1963, a season in which the university lost to eventual national champion Loyola University Chicago in the NCAA regional semifinals. That game ranks among MSU’s and the state’s finest hours both in athletics and racial reconciliation. Until this time, the team had been prohibited from participating in the NCAA Tournament because of the possibility of playing a team with African-American players. However, after being invited in 1963, the team defied state law and devised a plan to sneak off campus to play in the tournament.
Mitchell later said, “We wanted to play. We had just won the SEC championship for the third year in a row and we hadn’t been allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament the past two years. For us the biggest thing was getting the opportunity to play in the tournament because it was something we felt we deserved. It was much more than a basketball game. We were making history. We were ambassadors for the South, though none of us realized it at the time.”
He went on to be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys football team and also was drafted to play basketball by the St. Louis Hawks. He spent the 1967-68 season in the American Basketball Association as a member of the New Orleans Buccaneers. It has been said that “Leland was one of the best basketball players ever produced by the State of Mississippi.”
Visitation is scheduled for Wednesday [July 10], from 5-7 p.m., at Welch Funeral Home in Starkville. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday [July 11], at 11 a.m., in the chapel of Welch Funeral Home, and burial will be in Memorial Garden Park Cemetery.
As a small child, I remember walking the gravel road behind my grandmother’s house with Uncle Leland. He was throwing rocks and I was kicking rocks as we walked. As I held his big hand, looking up at this huge man with his soft spoken voice, he taught me how to spell Mississippi as we walked down the road. It is funny what you remember as a child.