By the time Coolidge Ball was wrapping up his high school basketball career at Gentry High School in Indianola, he was being recruited by some of the biggest programs in the country, including Arizona State, New Mexico State, and of course, Ole Miss.
New Mexico State, in particular, seemed to have the edge.
Ball’s childhood friend Sam Lacey, who was a basketball star in his own right at Gentry in the early ‘60s, was four years ahead of him and was just finishing up his college career with the Aggies, who were No. 3 in the nation during Ball’s senior year.
All of these schools had solid programs, scholarships to offer and a chance for Ball to star on the national stage.
But there was one thing Ole Miss had that none of the others were able to compete with - a crowd of thousands of cheering fans on their feet during an introduction of a visiting Coolidge Ball at halftime of a rival game against Kentucky.
“It was a packed house in there,” Ball told The E-T during an interview this week.
Fifty years after becoming the first African American student-athlete to play any sport at Ole Miss, Ball is set to be honored with a life-sized bronze statue in the north plaza of the Pavilion on the university’s campus.
"Coolidge Ball is a trailblazer whose lasting legacy at the University of Mississippi is reflected in how he braved uncharted territory and, in doing so, helped to move the university and our state forward," said Chancellor Glenn Boyce in a statement this week. "As the first Black student-athlete to enroll here, Coolidge opened the door of opportunity for countless other student-athletes. This statue is a well-deserved and fitting honor that ensures his courage will always be remembered and celebrated by our university and our fans."
It's safe to say that halftime experience stuck with Ball for the remainder of this senior year in high school.
It was something neither he nor his family was expecting.
“They introduced me at halftime, at Ole Miss,” he said. “There was another visitor from Alexandria, Louisiana that came to visit Ole Miss. He was a white kid. At that time, they could introduce you and give your stats and where you were from and all that. They got my stats, and they got his stats, and it really shocked me, because I got a bigger ovation than the white kid did.”
The Ole Miss campus was just eight years removed from the protests that surrounded the enrollment of its first African American student, James Meredith.
Ball, who was around 10 at that time, said he was still keenly aware of what transpired at the university just a few years earlier.
It wasn’t just the roar of the fans that impressed Ball.
“The freshman players came by, just to chat with me and talk with me, and they told me they would love to have me,” he said. “That makes you feel a lot better too, when you feel like you're wanted. I just took all of that in and embraced it.”
It was something he talked about with his family on the ride back to Indianola, where Ball already had a storied high school career that included 1,800 points, All-Delta Athletic Conference nods from 1968-70 and All-Southern and All-State honors in 1970.
“We were talking about it on the way home, and they said, ‘Coolidge, they like you there at Ole Miss. I’ve never seen a guy who got an ovation like you did from the crowd.’ After that, the rest is history,” he said.
Ball would go on to spend the summer out in Los Cruces, working out with the Aggies and playing pickup games with some of the team’s former and current players at the time.
He stayed there until August, but he still had not signed a letter of intent.
“I decided, “This is not where I want to be. This is not me. My heart is at Ole Miss,’” he said. “I called the coaches and we talked. I told them I had not signed a national letter of intent. I could go anywhere I want to.”
Ole Miss had just one scholarship left to offer, and he took it.
“I embraced the moment,” Ball said.
That he did.
He went on to score 1,072 points during his varsity career, according to Ole Miss Athletics.
He was All-Southeast Conference in 1972 and 1973, and he earned second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press those same seasons.
He was also an All-SEC Freshman during the 1970-71 season.
During his sophomore year, he netted 16.8 points a game, with over 10 rebounds averaged and a team-high in assists with 42.
He scored 30 points on two separate occasions that year, against Vanderbilt and LSU.
Ball was inducted into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Ole Miss Athletics Hall of Fame in 1991.
And after a virtual ceremony this spring, Ball will be immortalized in bronze on the campus he helped to change in so many ways five decades ago.
“It was a good run, and I’m just so grateful to Ole Miss for doing this,” Ball said. “I never dreamed there would be a monument in my honor.”
After a four-year stint as an assistant coach, Ball returned to Oxford in 1979 and started Ball Sign Co., which he has operated since then.
He and his wife Ruth reside in Oxford and have two children, Telitha and Anthony.