NO SMOKE IN OUR EYES
Hoops and hopes at The Pavilion
BY DAVID MAGEE
The haze could get so thick in the rafters that sitting in the upper rows of Tad Smith Coliseum made basketball games look like a fog machine was running.
These were the days when smoking was still allowed in the hallways that encircled the Tad Pad. With the portals open during games, the smoke rushed back inside the arena, pulled by air draft that sucked up to the rafters. It didn’t have much impact on the fans view of the game since unless Ole Miss was playing Kentucky or Mississippi State most seats were empty through the 1970s.
Only children who thought sitting up high was fun, teens trying to mingle with the opposite sex, or fans who had purchased tickets and did know they could move down lower into unsold, open spaces, sat in the top rows. Ole Miss was never much good, but Oxford residents developed a personal relationship with basketball. It was their winter entertainment, a venue to see the great stars of the SEC while pulling for local favorites like John Stroud, who’s deft scoring touch doubled crowds in the Tad Pad from 2,500 to 5,000 by the time he was a senior.
Looking around you knew where every Oxford family sat at Rebel games. The Bakers were over there. The Lamars were over there. The Threadgills were just above them. The Hendersons. The Dyes. The Fairs, and so on. There were not more than 1,000 season ticket holders in total, with most hailing from Oxford with Memphis, Batesville, and Senatobia, and other fans from the region filling in.
Tickets were so hard to sell in the mid-70s that star football player “Gentle” Ben Williams wrestled a bear at halftime of a weeknight game to stir interest. Williams was the first African American player on the Ole Miss football team and what a star he was, on the field and off. He was named Mr. Ole Miss and was too kind to say no to wrestling the bear. Williams was named after the Gentle Ben bear character from a TV program, so marketing types thought we would be entertained by this halftime charade.
And, we were. I was just 11 years old, and it was a school night, but we begged our parents and went to the game with the promise that we would leave at halftime. Of course, we said, knowing the second half wouldn’t be anything to miss.
In all the years, since starting competition in 1908, Ole Miss had never been to the postseason in basketball all the way through the 1970s. Not one single post-season appearance, and most seasons in that era were losing seasons.
But we learned some lessons from Ole Miss basketball, like how expectations have more do with the joy of being fans than anything else. We’d watch Kentucky come to town, fill the Tad Pad to the rafters, and deliver a knockout blow, while Big Blue fans dissected the action, with none of it ever being enough.
That’s why those first seasons that Ole Miss basketball found life might as well have resulted in national championships, they felt so good. It started when Ole Miss hired an assistant from Indiana, who had worked under Bob Knight. Bob Weltlich vowed to run a “poor man’s Indiana” offense, and he did, installing a cut-screen-cut-screen-cut weave that ran the clock and paired with an aggressive man-to-man defense to make a less talented team more talented.
Stroud had led the SEC in scoring his junior year, 1979, but it was his senior year when the Rebels got a first taste of winning. With hard-nosed point guard Sean Touhy dishing the ball to Stroud and another forward named Elston Turner, Ole Miss scrapped its way to a winning season, earning its first-ever postseason bid.
The NIT, with a first-round game against Grambling, was no NCAA, but the first postseason game for the Rebels after seven decades of competition stirred the fans. The first-round NIT home game against the SWAC opponent sold out in hours. The Rebels won but lost a road game in the second round to a Minnesota team led by a player named Kevin McHale.
Bob Knight came to town when the season had ended to speak at the Ole Miss basketball banquet, a favor to his former assistant, Weltlich. Ole Miss fans were over the top about their first-ever postseason, but Knight urged us to “hang in there.”
It was a humble beginning of winning for Rebel basketball, no doubt, but it was a long way from the days of a wrestling bear to fill seats. That season got me, and others, hooked on Ole Miss basketball, and I have stuck with it, enduring the tough years while reveling in the good.
Fortunately, the modern era has been much kinder than the first 70 years. Ole Miss has made the postseason 20 times in the past 37 seasons (8 NCAA Tournament appearances and 12 NIT appearances). There was even one, breathtaking NCAA Sweet 16 appearance (2001).
Not exactly Kentucky, but much better than the smoky rafters days.
Now, another Ole Miss basketball season is upon us. Most starters are back from last year’s team that won 22 games, plus several notable newcomers should make this team worth watching. The Tad Pad is retired, but the Pavilion is a first-rate arena that can deliver memories.