Leon Malone stands alone.
And even at age 91, he still stands tall.
Malone is the last surviving member of a New Site boys basketball squad that won back-to-back state championships in 1945 and 1946 – without the benefit of a home court.
“We didn’t have a gym, so we practiced outdoors on a dirt court and played all our games on the road,” Malone said recently. “Everyone else is gone now, but I want to make sure people know their story.”
It’s a story of a team with some players too poor to afford socks but unafraid of hard work in the cotton fields or the basketball court.
“The one thing we all had in common was being poor and having nothing,” Malone said.
He must have seemed like a giant in the 1940s, standing 6-foot-4. Even while steadying himself with a cane these days, he seems no smaller.
“I was completely uncoordinated in the ninth grade,” Malone said. “I couldn’t have hit a hog in a ditch.”
But by the 10th grade, something clicked – and Malone found a sport that would be his lifelong companion.
“I played basketball from 1945 until my last church league game in 2011 at age 85,” he said. “It’s been my exercise program for all these years.”
At New Site, coach Bill Presley had a simple philosophy in those days – “one offense and one defense,” Malone recalled.
The offense? “Move the basketball until a player got open at the spot where he likes to shoot. Never take a shot out of your range. … Coach Presley said if you always shoot from your range you will shoot a high percentage every game.”
The defense? “Full-court press for the entire game.”
It worked. The Royals lost only twice in 1945 on the way to the state championship, then went undefeated the next year. Record keeping being what it was in those days, the team’s overall marks are lost to the mists of time.
“We must have played at least 40 games,” a teammate of Malone’s, Harmon Boggs, told the Daily Journal’s Bill Ross in the 1980s. “If somebody would give us a little gas money, we’d go and play.”
After high school, Boggs went to Delta State to play basketball. Malone went to work.
He manned the train station in Tupelo for a decade, went to Korea with the U.S. Army and then began a 35-year career with Hancock Fabrics that eventually saw him become a company vice president.
His New Site teammates, and his wife, have now all gone on ahead, leaving Malone as the fierce guardian of their memories. Soon, those state trophies and newly framed photos of the 1945-46 teams will occupy an honored place at the school.
“We didn’t have anything,” he said, ”but we could play.”