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Rebel Nation: Coolidge Ball – Much More than just a Basketball Life

Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Sports
Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Sports

Coolidge Ball remembers that moment when he felt like attending Ole Miss for college was acceptable in his own mind.

No black man or woman had ever played sports for Ole Miss. It was literally uncharted territory that Ball was walking through as he moved toward his decision.

“I was a senior in high school, and I remember a recruiting trip to Ole Miss,” said the Indianola native of a February 1970, Ole Miss men’s basketball game against Kentucky. “(UM assistant coach Kenneth) ‘Cat’ Robbins came down to see me play a couple of times, and he asked me if I would like to come up for a game. I told him I would.”

So he did. He drove up to Oxford with some family and friends for the game.

“Back then they could introduce recruits at halftime,” Ball said.

That meant the name Coolidge Ball would reverberate throughout the Rebels’ five-year-old basketball home, C.M. “Tad” Smith Coliseum. How would that moment go? There was another factor that added to the suspense.

“They had also brought in a white kid from Louisiana they were recruiting,” Ball said. “They had asked me for my stats. I knew what they were going to do.”
Halftime arrived. Ball and the other player headed to the court.

“I walked down onto the court, and it was going to be a moment to see how things would go,” Ball said. “I actually wanted to make that comparison. I thought the response would at least tell me something about whether or not I would be accepted by Ole Miss people.”

“That comparison” was the audible reception he would get as compared to the other recruit.

“They read the other player’s stats out and called his name,” Ball said.

There was applause and cheers. Ball was next, and then it happened.

“They read mine. Coolidge Ball from the Magnolia State,” he said. “The crowd just went wild. Maybe it was because I was from Mississippi.”
And it was also likely because he was a standout high school player who could make a difference for the Rebel program.

“I remember going home that night and somebody in the car saying, ‘Coolidge, you got a better ovation than the white kid did.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I noticed that.’”
He never forgot it either. He also remembered the current Ole Miss players visited with him that night, too.

“Freshmen couldn’t play with the varsity back then (by NCAA rule),” Ball said. “I remember Danny Gunn and some of the other freshmen players coming over to talk to me after their game.”

Ball felt good about things. “I felt I could make an impact, and I wanted to go somewhere I could do that,” he said.
But would that be at Ole Miss?

Sam Lacey was a terrific player for Gentry High School in Indianola in the mid-1960s. He chose to play his college basketball at New Mexico State. Ball and Lacey knew each other from their hometown.

“Sam Lacey, my home boy, had finished high school in 1966 when I was entering high school,” Ball said. “He was a 6-11 guy. His senior year at New Mexico State they were like third in the country behind UCLA and St. Bonaventure. I came along, and Rob Evans recruited me for New Mexico State when I was in high school.”

Evans was an assistant coach at NMSU and had played basketball there. Later, in the 1990s, Evans would become the head coach at Ole Miss.

Ball – and what an appropriate name for a basketball star – was a stellar performer at Gentry High School in his hometown. He was finishing up just about the time of mandated integration of public schools by the federal courts.

Ole Miss had integrated in 1962 when James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss. By the summer of 1970, no black athlete had played for an Ole Miss team.

Ball chose New Mexico State for college, just like Sam Lacey had done. But he left the door open to return.

“I told my mom that if I didn’t like it, I definitely would be coming home,” Ball said.
He stayed in Las Cruces, New Mexico, for a few weeks in the summer of 1970. But he wasn’t comfortable there.

“It was a different world out there in the desert,” Ball said. “I had signed a scholarship paper, but I hadn’t signed a national letter of intent.”
That was important. It meant he could leave and play right away if he wanted.

His hometown newspaper in Indianola, the Enterprise-Tocsin, wrote a story. “Another Sam Lacey,” it said.

Ball was not all that pleased with a headline like that.

“I wanted to be my own guy.”


In July 1970, Ball made a phone call from New Mexico.

“I called Coach Robbins. He was at a camp over at Northeast (Mississippi Community College). I asked him if they had a scholarship left, and he said ‘Yes.’ I told him I didn’t think I was going to stay at New Mexico State. He asked me if I had signed a national letter of intent. I told him I had only signed a scholarship paper, not a national letter.”

Ball came home to Mississippi. He decided to attend Ole Miss.

“Some people thought it might be better to go to New Mexico State because of what Sam had done there,” he said. “He was (a first round) pick in the NBA draft. But I always kept Ole Miss in the back of my mind, because I felt like Ole Miss would be a good fit for me, and I could make an impact on the program here at Ole Miss.”
In August 1970, Ball enrolled at Ole Miss, just like all other student-athletes had done before him who played for the Rebels. Except for one difference. He was black.

Ball knew he was blazing a trail, stepping into uncharted waters, at a place where no one of his race had participated in sports, and most before him never had the opportunity to do so. He knew the story of James Meredith, the path he had traveled, and the door that had been opened by him.

“This was only eight years removed from James Meredith enrolling to me enrolling,” Ball said. “My decision was pretty much based on the ovation, the applause, and the support I got out there that night when Ole Miss played Kentucky on my recruiting visit. If you have your coaches, teammates, and fans supporting you, I wasn’t worried about anything else.”

Ball quickly admits his time at Ole Miss was good and that there were no problems with anything concerning his race.
“I got treated just like any other 18-year old freshman on campus,” he said. “It was just a great fit for me.”


Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Sports
Photo courtesy of Ole Miss Sports

There had been a 46-year gap since an Ole Miss football team played in the Sugar Bowl in 1970 until it returned on January 1, 2016. It had been that same number of years since Coolidge Ball enrolled at Ole Miss to play basketball inside Tad Smith Coliseum to the opening of the fabulous new Pavilion at Ole Miss in January 2016.

When the new facility, which is only a few thousand seats short of being the equivalent of most NBA arenas but with all the amenities and glitz of one of those spectacular buildings, opened early this year, it was Ball who was honored with his own plaque at the entrance.

Ole Miss knew he had done something special by becoming the first black student-athlete to enroll, and his alma mater wanted to make sure he was remembered.
Ball was recruited by all the SWAC schools in Mississippi, except, he recalls, perhaps Alcorn. He was also recruited by Delta State, and Mississippi State, which he said got on him late.

“A lot of schools called and asked about me,” he said, mentioning that recruiting was much different nearly 50 years ago.

But in the end, Ball ended up at Ole Miss, where many felt he would not be comfortable or fit in for obvious reasons.

“Some people found out I was coming back home to go to school at Ole Miss, and they’d say, ‘Are you nuts?’”

Ball laughed at that. He told them then what many hear even today.

“I’d say ‘Have you been to Ole Miss?’ and they’d say, ‘I haven’t, but I’ve heard.’ And I would tell them they needed to visit to find out for themselves.

“And I asked God to direct me where I needed to go. In my mind, it was Ole Miss. He was leading me. I chose Ole Miss. And it was good for me to go out to New Mexico State first because that clearly made up my mind to come back home and go to Ole Miss.”

James Meredith and Coolidge Ball have talked through the years.

“About my sophomore year, he was visiting here. We walked around campus, and they were filming us together,” Ball said. “The first minority student and the first minority student-athlete. I admired him for what he did, and he congratulated me on being here also.”

Coolidge Ball is an artist. This spring he went back home to Indianola. He went there to speak at Gentry High’s athletic banquet. And he took the people there a gift, too, a collage of his work worthy of hanging in the gym. A little something for the new kids to know more about the old days.

Ball said he believes the fact that he was a basketball player made a difference in how he was treated at all the places he played the game in college.

“When you’re a good athlete, other people have respect for your ability. I got treated well everywhere I went.”

Ball was later joined by black student-athletes Dean Hudson and Walter Actwood on the Ole Miss basketball team. In football Ben Williams and James Reed, as well as others, chose Ole Miss to become members of that storied program.

But it was Ball who blazed the trail.

He had a stellar career at Ole Miss. He scored 1,072 points during his three varsity years; the Rebels had three consecutive winning seasons for the first time in more than 30 years, and he was named team captain and earned team MVP honors.

Ball still lives in Oxford with his wife, Ruth, and they enjoy it when their children, Anthony and Telitha, visit them. Telitha lives in Desoto County. Anthony lives in Arkansas and has two young sons, Mason and Marion.

Today Coolidge Ball continues his work as an artist, a sign painter, and a graphics expert. He travels to arts and crafts shows as well as horse shows and other events to sell his products.

Sometimes he’s even recognized as a former Southeastern Conference basketball player since many of his travels are in the south.

“I remember one time in Decatur, Ala., at a horse show, I told them I would not be there on Saturday but would be there on Sunday,” he said.

They found out he was honored the day before at his alma mater with an induction into the Ole Miss Athletics Hall of Fame.

“They called me down to the middle of the arena at the show, introduced me, and read the information on me from the brochure,” he said.

“People were coming up and saying things like, ‘Coolidge, I’ve been knowing you all these years, and I didn’t know you were a college basketball player at Ole Miss. You didn’t even tell us.’ I’d say, ‘Yes, that was me.’ Now, some of the Kentucky fans knew me. You know they keep up with basketball better than most fans do.”

Now, with the plaque located at the entrance of the Pavilion at Ole Miss, more people will know that and be reminded of it from now on. Even his own family.

“I’m thankful for it,” he said. “I took my grandkids by there and showed it to them. They’re excited about it. It’s a warm honor, a great feeling, to have something like that. And I thank Ole Miss for it.”

Those thanks certainly go both ways. – RN

By Jeff Roberson – Contributing Writer
As published in the May/June 2016 Rebel Nation Magazine

Don’t miss an issue of Rebel Nation Magazine™. The November/December 2016 issue hits stores and subscribers beginning Nov. 5. Subscribe online at www.rebelnationmagazine.com or pick up a copy at a store near you.



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