Coolidge Ball, Jennifer Gillom head to Hall

On the eve of the arrival of Houston Nutt's first Rebel football team, it's basketball that takes center stage. Two former Ole Miss players will be enshrined into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in Jackson.

Coolidge Ball and Jennifer Gillom are the latest two Ole Miss entrants, joining four others in tonight's ceremony who starred athletically in Mississippi and beyond as members of the Class of 2008.

I saw Coolidge play once or twice when I was a kid. I've enjoyed getting to know him as a friend after both of us relocated to Oxford since college.

I'm actually from Jennifer Gillom's Ole Miss era, falling in age between her and her older sister, Peggie.

This has to be quite a night for Ball. (Who among us hasn't thought that was one for the all-name team for a hoopster?). Having interviewed him for stories and also from conversations with him ranging from Ole Miss sports to Oxford High games when his own kids were playing, his story is amazing to me, all things considered.

He arrived at Ole Miss from Indianola in the fall of 1970. Archie Manning, from neighboring Drew, was a senior when Ball arrived on campus. The Rebs, loaded with seniors, were one of the favorites to win the football national championship.

The baseball Rebels, one of the nation's top programs, had been to the College World Series the year before and would go again in two years.

Inside Tad Smith Coliseum, Ball and his teammates practiced in relative obscurity. Hoops was little more than a blip on the radar screen as far as emphasis and interest. But Coach Cob Jarvis and staff were trying to change that. Ball's recruitment and addition to the program were signs of that change. Bringing in scoring machine Johnny Neumann from the Memphis prep ranks was another, although he didn't stick around long.

The Rebels had success while Ball was here; no postseason play but three straight winning years his sophomore through senior seasons. The NCAA only allowed freshmen to become eligible for varsity competition during Ball's college career, changing the rule after his first year. So in just three years he climbed into the 1,000-point club (1,072) and was named All-SEC a couple of times.

His play helped elevate Ole Miss' basketball status, but his enrollment as the first black student-athlete at Mississippi's capstone university was far more significant.

Someone had to be first. Ball, a soft-spoken, personable man, was a perfect person to navigate the obviously uncharted waters.

He basically helped pave the way for future stars like the Gillom sisters. Current Ole Miss assistant and former Lady Reb hoops star, Peggie, came along first. Then Jennifer.

The highest annual award for a Mississippi women's college basketball player now carries the Gillom name. The building that's home to Ole Miss soccer, volleyball, softball, rifle, and indoor tennis does as well.

Perhaps it's ironic, or appropriate, that tonight's induction of Jennifer into the Hall comes just a week before the start of the Beijing Olympic Games. It was in 1988 that the Lafayette County native won a gold medal as a member of Team USA at the Olympics in Seoul.

She scored 2,186 points (second in UM women's basketball only to sister Peggie's 2,486) in a fabulous Ole Miss career as the Lady Rebels became one of the nation's top college hoops program, advancing to the Elite Eight twice while Jennifer was here but falling just short of the Final Four.

When the WNBA began back in 1997, Jennifer was one of the original 16 players assigned to the league's first eight teams. Next summer she will be enshrined into the prestigious Women's Basketball Hall of Fame.

Coolidge Ball and Jennifer Gillom. Two of Ole Miss' most prominent and important student-athletes from the last three decades of the 20th century. Tonight they will again be recognized and honored for all they did and continue to do as Mississippi natives and alums of The University of Mississippi.

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