It all started for Bailey Howell when he wisely listened to his mother.
“As far back as elementary school when I was playing in a (basketball) game, I could hear my mother holler from the stands `Get that rebound, get that rebound’,” says Bailey. “So that sort of a became a habit.”
It was a habit Bailey never could break, and that was a good thing. Because of his relentless pursuit of missed shots – he simply outthought and outworked bigger stronger opponents – the 6-7 country boy from tiny Middleton, Tennessee set records for Mississippi State that still haven’t been broken 50 years later.
Today, on Bailey’s 75th birthday, which he’ll celebrate in Starkville, where he returned after a 12-year NBA career earned him two championship rings and an eventual spot in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, it’s easy to conclude he’s still among the five best players in Southeastern Conference history.
Nobody else among the long list of stars that have played in the SEC – most notably college basketball’s all-time scoring leader “Pistol Pete” Maravich of LSU, Kentucky’s rugged Dan Issel, Georgia’s high-flying Dominique Wilkins, LSU’s backboard-wrecking Shaquille O’Neal or Auburn’s Charles Barkley – can touch what Bailey did in his three-year, 75-game Bulldogs’ career from 1956-59.
As a high post center with quick first step, impeccable timing and a soft shot, his career averages 27.1 points and 17 rebounds are unrivaled. No other SEC player has ever finished with such a substantial career double-double average.
No other SEC player has ever ranked in the top 10 nationally three straight years in scoring and rebounding. He was the first SEC player to lead the nation in field goal percentage (56.8 percent in 1956-57), and the first and still only Bulldogs’ player to grab 30 or more rebounds in a game (which he did three times).
He also remains as the only SEC player who still holds his school’s single game records for scoring (47 points vs. Union in December 1958) and rebounding (34 vs. LSU in January 1957).
What makes Bailey’s career averages even more impressive are that he played in the non-shot clock era under Babe McCarthy, a coach whose offensive philosophy was to spread the floor and hold the ball once State got the lead.
In Bailey’s senior season when the 24-1 SEC champion Bulldogs were prevented from accepting a NCAA tourney bid, because of Mississippi segregation laws barred state schools from playing integrated opponents, State attempted just 1,453 field goals (58.1 per game).
It remains the third fewest single-season shot attempts total in school history, and that same year the Bulldogs led all NCAA teams in rebounding averaging 40.5. It’s the only time a SEC team has led the nation in that category.
Bailey, of course, had much to do with that.
As the son of a rural mail carrier, Bailey’s 31.2 points per game scoring average (1,187 points in 38 games, then a Tennessee state high school record) had college recruiters beating a path to his door.
He turned them all but one away, even mighty Kentucky and legendary Wildcats’ coach Adolph Rupp, who at that time had already won three NCAA titles. Rupp sent his top assistant, Harry Lancaster, to recruit young Bailey.
Lancaster saw Bailey play, said hello to him after a game and told his parents that Kentucky would send their son a scholarship to sign via the mail.
“Kentucky sent it and they expected it me to sign it,” Bailey says.
But Bailey did something that today you rarely see from such an elite high school prospect. He signed with a school that had never even won a conference title, much less one that made the NCAA tournament field.
Bailey signed to play for Mississippi State, a school that had finished in the top five in the SEC just twice in the previous 24 years since the league was formed in 1932.
“I was from a small town, and I was kind of naïve,” Bailey explains why he opted for State and Starkville. “I didn’t want to go a long way from home. Mississippi State was a real friendly campus (and 137 miles south of Middleton). It didn’t look like a college, because there was a lot of land. It wasn’t built in the middle of a city, like Vanderbilt or Kentucky.
“And a major reason I signed with Mississippi State was Coach McCarthy.”
Babe McCarthy, a State graduate whose college playing experience was as a center for his fraternity Sigma Chi, was 31 years old when he was hired as the Bulldogs’ head coach in 1955.
He gave up a career as an oil salesman to pursue coaching, and he was a junior high coach in Tupelo when State hired him. He was a solid teacher of fundamentals, but his sales skills transferred into him being an excellent recruiter.
“Coach McCarthy recruited me first and visited me more often than all the other coaches combined,” Bailey recalls. “He even sent by Don Blasingame, a second baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals from Corinth, Miss., to come visit me and encourage me to go to Mississippi State. I think he had played for Coach McCarthy in the service.
“Coach McCarthy was ahead of his time in recruiting. He knew how to handle people and he worked hard all the time at recruiting.”
Bailey appreciated McCarthy’s tireless pursuit more than anything, because it formed the basis of his basketball philosophy.
Never quit jumping for a rebound. Never quit moving without the ball on offense. Never quit diving for the loose ball. Never quit defending.
Though there might be skeptics questioning Bailey’s career college scoring and rebounding averages, because he played during an era of segregation, the fact he had NBA career averages of 18.7 points and 9.9 rebounds as a six-time all-star against integrated competition re-affirms his greatness.
And his game all started with his momma’s voice in his head telling him to rebound. He taught himself to do common sense things that most other players never considered.
“When I was scoring a lot in high school, teams began to really pack in their defenses around me so I couldn’t get the ball,” Bailey says. “I wanted to contribute to our team, so I really concentrated hard on rebounding, especially on the offensive boards.
“I wasn’t a great leaper, but I trained myself to jump quick over and over without gathering myself each time I jumped. As soon as my feet hit the floor and if a ball was still live, I’d jump again. If you can hit the floor first and jump again, you have an advantage on someone who has to gather himself before jumping.
“I also learned how to tip a ball to myself to control it or to a teammate.”
By the time Bailey was on State’s varsity as a sophomore in 1956-57, he played his first season with Jim Ashmore.
That year, Ashmore averaged a school record 28.3 points (still the 10th best single-season average in SEC history). Bailey still managed to average 25.9 points and 19.7 rebounds (which remains as the third best single-season average in SEC history), because he began to take a cerebral approach towards rebounding.
“Jim was a great scorer who needed the ball and shot frequently,” Bailey says. “For me, a big guy, the best way to contribute to a team without the ball was to pound that offensive glass. To me, the last thing a player learns how to do is play without the ball.
“So I began doing several things.”
Note to the today’s players. Take notice of what Bailey did, because these are fundamentals now often overlooked.
“I made sure I ran the floor, especially if we had breakaway layups just in case one of my teammates missed,” Bailey says. “I also began a habit of following my own shot after I shot it. I practiced not to be a spectator when I shot or my teammates shot.
“Because you can’t wait until one of your teammates shoots to get to the offensive boards – you have to anticipate a lot – I began studying my teammates. I learned where they liked to shoot from on the floor. Because when they got to their spots, I went to the basket anticipating their shots and understanding what direction the ball might bounce off the rim if they missed.
“Even today, offensive rebounding is a devastating part of the game. A team plays good defense against you, they get force a shot and apparently get a stop. Then, you get an offensive rebound and score, or keep the possession alive.
“The problem in today’s game is that when a shot goes up, I see a lot of big men on the offensive end just turn and start running back on defense. They don’t even challenge to get an offensive rebound.”
Rugged rebounding, combined with an unquenched work ethic and a desire to play with effort every game no matter how fatigued, helped Bailey rise above the norm. He was a two-time SEC Player of the Year, an all-American and a key piece on Boston Celtics’ 1968 and 1969 NBA championship teams.
“I always want to be remembered as someone who came to play every game,” Bailey says. “I prepared to play that way, because I never wanted to let my teammates down. I took pride in being very consistent. Being prepared and playing with consistent effort is what being a pro is all about.”
Though today’s 30-team NBA is athletically superior, the eight-team NBA in which Bailey played was physically more taxing.
“Because teams got the best crowds on weekends, we played a lot of back-to-back Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon games,” Bailey says. “And if we were traveling, it meant you had to catch commercial flights. No team had private jets with food waiting to be served on board like today’s teams do.
“You really had to be mentally tough. Everybody was tired. Sometimes, you couldn’t catch a flight out after a Friday night game and you wouldn’t walk into the arena for the Saturday night game just before gametime. Then you’d go to the next game site, get there at 4 in the morning on Sunday and play a 2 in the afternoon.”
Bailey raised some eyebrows when he retired from the NBA after the 1970-71 season, playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, his fourth pro team. He was just 34 years old, but he figured it was time to move on for several reasons.
“I was used to playing 35 to 40 minutes a game, and I didn’t want to play two or three more years in a situation where I was playing maybe half of that,” Bailey says. “I knew whenever I quit, I was going to have to work the rest of my life anyway, so I figured I should go ahead and get started.
“And my children were starting to reach an age where they needed stability. They didn’t need to keep moving.”
So guess when Bailey and the rest of the Howells went? Back home to Starkville, where they’ve been for the past 40 years.
Bailey finished a Masters’ degree because he thought he might become a coach, but instead he entered the insurance business. He then got re-connected with basketball as a sales representative for Converse for 23 years before retiring.
These days, Bailey’s competitive juices stir on the golf course and he’s a fixture at State basketball games and in the Starkville community. In 1996 when the Bulldogs advanced to the Final Four, he was an invited guest of State’s official travel party, giving him the opportunity to go to the NCAA tournament that was denied him his senior year.
“Bailey’s involvement in our school and in the community has been incredible,” said Larry Templeton, former State director of athletics and a Starkville native who as a teenager got an eyeful of Howell in State’s games and practices. “Even when he played in the NBA, he’d come back to Starkville in the off-season.
“Once Bailey came to our school, he adopted Starkville and that was it.”
Bailey couldn’t have ever predicted that his youngest daughter Anne would marry State graduate Scott Stricklin. Like her dad, Anne happily came home to Starkville in spring 2008 when Scott, who had served in various athletic administrative capacities at Auburn, Tulane, Baylor and Kentucky, was named State’s senior associate athletics director for external affairs. Two years later in May 2010, he was named the school’s director of athletics.
“I guess I’ll never how things would have worked out if I had decided to go to one of those other schools,” Bailey says of the life-changing decision to sign with Mississippi State, “But I can't imagine it working out any better than it did.
“These are down-to-earth people. Starkville is a great place to raise a family. And I got a chance to help establish basketball tradition at a place that didn’t have any.”