A few years ago, I found myself in northeast Mississippi, in Hill Country, where tiny towns and communities share rich basketball histories.
I had some time to kill and saw a sign pointing in the direction of Baldwyn, home of the late, great Babe McCarthy. I took the turn and 10 minutes later was there.
At two of three stops I asked the same question: Can you tell me where Babe McCarthy, the great basketball coach, is buried?
Each time, I got a blank stare. To make a long story short, I ran out of time. I never found Babe’s grave.
Younger readers may ask: Babe McCarthy? Who is this guy and why would somebody be searching for his grave?
Here goes: James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy coached his hometown Baldwyn High School team to the Mississippi overall state championship in 1948. Later, he gained national fame as the basketball coach at Mississippi State when he and his Bulldogs challenged the legendary Adolph Rupp and proud Kentucky for basketball supremacy in the Southeastern Conference. Babe’s teams won four SEC Championships in his 10 seasons at State (1955-65). He is best known as the coach of the 1962-63 State team that sneaked out of Mississippi to play an integrated Loyola team in the NCAA Tournament.
Later, Babe won big professionally in the old American Basketball Association (ABA), coaching teams in New Orleans, Memphis, Dallas and Kentucky. He was twice the ABA’s Coach of the Year.
Know this: Babe was a masterful coach. Babe was also a dude. He was a handsome guy with a rich, Hill Country drawl, who could charm the Nikes off Michael Jordan. The Magnolia Mouth, they called him in the ABA.
“Boy, I tell ya, ya gotta come out at ’em like a bitin’ sow,” he once told a player to fire him up.
“Now, boys, let’s cloud up and rain all over ’em,” were his words of inspiration in one pre-game speech.
Once, when I was 14, Babe was coaching the New Orleans Bucs and scouting the great Wendell Ladner in Hattiesburg. He wanted to mix business with pleasure so my father lined him up a round of golf and included me in the foursome. I can’t remember what any of us shot, but I remember Babe had the rest of us laughing for 18 holes.
That night, I was with Babe when he talked to Wendell after the game.
“Wendell, you are fat,” Babe said.
“Aw, Coach,” Wendell replied, “don’t worry. I’m gonna get in shape as soon as the season is over.”
Babe drafted Wendell, and Wendell became an ABA legend until his tragic death in a plane crash in June of 1975, three months after Babe had died of colon cancer.
The two had been a great pair. Once, Wendell crashed into a water cooler diving after a loose ball for the Kentucky Colonels. His injuries required more than 50 stitches, but Wendell returned to the game. Afterward, a sports writer asked of Babe, “Wendell doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear, does he?”
To which Babe answered, “No, but then ol’ Wendell doesn’t know the meanin’ of a whole lot of words.”
So, I know you are asking: Why bring this up now?
Here’s why: On Thursday, Oct. 22, at 2 p.m., a ceremony will be held in downtown Baldwyn at the corner of Main and Front streets. The occasion? The unveiling of a Mississippi Department of Archives and History marker to let all visitors (and townfolk) know that Baldwyn is the home of James Harrison “Babe” McCarthy, one of Mississippi’s greatest sports legends. His grave is approximately a mile from the marker, and I plan to find it this time.
Rick Cleveland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.