No matter what your profession, there is always that one thing that is “out there” that you can do to take it to another level. It’s just a matter of thinking of it and then going,”Why didn’t I think of that sooner?”
When I was at Ole Miss in the early 1980s Van Chancellor was the head coach of the highly successful women’s basketball team. He regularly sought out young men from campus who had been good high school basketball players to practice against his Lady Rebs.
Who was the first to come up with this practice idea? Legendary former Tennessee Lady Vols coach Pat Summitt started having guys practice against her girls when she got the job in Knoxville in 1974, but she never was sure who was the first to do it. Every school in America copied it, that’s for sure.
Having been a half decent player at Lafayette High, and standing six foot five, the Lady Rebs made me a regular at practices. I would be one of a handful of guys who had played high school ball across Mississippi but was not within a country mile of being good enough to play SEC men’s ball. Charles Barkley was at Auburn when I was at Ole Miss. The thought of me guarding Barkley in his prime, well…that would not have ended well for me.
The Ole Miss Lady Rebels were regularly in the national rankings when I was in school from 1981 to 1985. Their players were highly skilled and athletic. I figured that out quickly and really enjoyed the intensity of the practices. It felt good to challenge them, and appreciate their abilities. I did find that guys who had been hot shot 2nd team all-conference in Vicksburg or somewhere would hear about it and come out thinking they would “show those girls a thing or two.” All-American Jennifer Gillom would light them up with one jumper after another and quick Alisa Scott would “school them” and you could just see the frustration on their face. Nine times out of ten they wouldn’t be back the next day.
Larry Sparks, the interim Chancellor of Ole Miss now, came out several times. He was an accounting major those days who had played church ball at North Oxford Baptist Church for his dad, coach Dwight Sparks. Larry was a very quick guard who could jump out of the gym. He battled the Lady Rebs hard and kept coming back for more.
As a big tall guy, I can remember battling superstar center Eugenia Conner. She was truly one of the most accomplished student-athletes to ever have walked the campus and to have come out of Mississippi. She led Harrison Central High to four straight 2A state championships before earning All-Southeastern Conference four times at Ole Miss. She was first-team All SEC four straight years! Who does that?! She was 261-29 in high school and at Ole Miss. That is amazing.
Eugenia was 6’2” and strong as a bull. I was 6’5″ and strong as a cane fishing pole. I would try to defend her in the post and she would root out a spot near the block and just back me down like nobody’s business. Meghan Trainor has that song “All About that Bass” and Eugenia was all about her base as she’d butt you with her rump and your teeth would rattle. She’d score on you and smile.
She was an exceptionally nice person with a heart as big as a basketball backboard. After playing some pro ball she went back home to the Mississippi coast to help children and the poor and did that until she passed away from a heart attack at the age of 30 in 1994. She went into the Ole Miss Sports Hall of Fame in 2017.
Jennifer Gillom, who I would imagine is the greatest athlete ever to come out of Lafayette County (Lafayette High Class of 1982), was a force for the Lady Rebs and when I wasn’t trying to handle Eugenia I was flying at Jennifer only to see her picture-perfect jumper play “string music” with the net, as the SEC TV announcer Joe Dean used to say on the broadcasts.
SEC women’s basketball was fearsome back then. They only had a Top 20 in those days, not a Top 25 like the rankings are today, and I can remember many times when there would be seven or eight SEC teams in the Top 20. Ironically, about the only time they ever had a breather in SEC play was Mississippi State, and look at State now.
It meant a lot to us guys to be a part of their practices and play a small role in getting them ready for SEC games. Some of us could have played at D3 schools like Millsaps, but we wanted to be at Ole Miss, and thanks to whoever it was way back that thought of having guys practice against the scholarship female athletes, it was our way to keep those competitive juices going a few years after high school ball!
Charlie Adams was born in Oxford in 1962. He was a 1980 graduate of Lafayette High School and a 1985 graduate of Ole Miss. Following a television news career, Charlie has focused on delivering inspirational keynotes, seminars and writings. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.