It was not the phone call Nanci Gray was expecting … not while in the car line on Wednesday afternoon waiting to pick up her grandchildren from school.

The news was tragic. Her high school basketball coach, mentor and friend, Jimmy Guy McDonald, had died at age 71.

“I couldn’t believe it. He’s always taken care of himself,” Gray said. “It’s hard to wrap my mind around it.”

Gray, who retired last year after a successful basketball coaching career at ICC, Tupelo, Bruce and Houlka, sat next to McDonald on Nov. 16 at the funeral of another former Houlka coach, Shorty Turner.

“Coach McDonald was wearing a red sports coat. He was Houlka through and through,” Gray said.

Houlka’s school colors are red and black.

“Things happen so fast,” she continued. “You don’t get the time to say goodbye, to tell someone you love them. He’s going to be missed.”

Full-time job

Gray played for four seasons (1970-74) – and four summers, too – for McDonald at Houlka.

“We didn’t take summers off,” Gray said, then laughed. “We were in the gym and he was there coaching everybody up. Coaching was a passion for him, and he got you to have the same passion.”

Gray said the secret to McDonald’s coaching success was the way he motivated his players.

“He knew the right buttons to push,” she said. “He knew how to develop the right chemistry for his teams. Basketball put Houlka on the map, and coach McDonald kept it there.”

McDonald won three state championships (two girls, one boys) and a girls Grand Slam during his tenure.

Fond memories

My professional relationship with coach McDonald began a long time ago.

We crossed paths for the first time in the early ‘80s at a girls state tournament championship game between Houlka and McLain. I was a novice sportswriter covering McLain for the Hattiesburg American. He was the young, successful coach of the Lady Wildcats.

That day, Mae Ola Bolton, the older sister of the famed Ruthie Bolton, led McLain to a close, somewhat controversial win. It was a searing loss for McDonald, one he and I would often reminisce about.

Fast forward to 2019. I’m covering the state quarterfinals doubleheader between host Calhoun City and Ingomar for the Daily Journal in a packed-to-the-rafters gym.

I’m seated in a chair on the baseline between two coaching legends – McDonald on my left and Ingomar’s Norris Ashley to my right. Talk about Mississippi basketball royalty. The two coaches combined to win 3,469 girls and boys basketball games, including 12 state championships and two Grand Slams during 92 seasons.

Now, sadly, one has left the gym for the final time. Godspeed, coach McDonald.

Gene Phelps is a former sports editor for the Daily Journal.

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