A new sculpture of Coolidge Ball, a civil rights leader and the first Black Ole Miss athlete, now has a permanent home on campus in the pavilion plaza.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photos Provided by Ole Miss Athletics and Bill Dabney Photography
When The Pavilion at Ole Miss, now known as the Sandy and John Black Pavilion, officially opened in January 2016, alumnus Coolidge Ball was pleased and proud to see the 3-by-5-foot bronze plaque listing his accomplishments and honors from his time at the university.
Ball, a forward on the Rebel basketball team in 1972, ’73 and ’74, was the first Black athlete to play any sport at Ole Miss. He was present at the opening ceremony of The Pavilion in 2016.
“I was surprised,” he said. “Wow! I was so pleased to have my name on a plaque on this $96 million arena.”
So, imagine Ball’s surprise when he learned in March, in the midst of a pandemic, he had an additional honor yet to come.
“Keith Carter called me and told me, ‘We realize you got a bronze plaque, but we don’t think that’s enough,’” Ball said. “He told me there was going to be an 8-foot statue — or however tall it is — and asked me what I thought of that. All I could say was wow.”
Carter was a Rebel All-American basketball player and longtime senior staff member of the Ole Miss athletics department. Since 2019, he has been Vice Chancellor for Intercollegiate Athletics.
“Our university is forever indebted to Coolidge Ball for the courage he showed 50 years ago,” Carter said. “With his strength, humility and kindness, Coolidge provided a beacon of light for our community while setting an example for generations of student-athletes, both on and off the court. We are eternally grateful to Coolidge for his contributions to civil rights and for his leadership for Ole Miss.”
Mississippi physician and sculptor Dr. Kim Sessums of Brookhaven designed the statue, which is located in The Pavilion Plaza. The bronze, life-size likeness of Ball stands on a 4-foot-tall limestone base and includes a historical marker lauding Ball’s civil rights work. The monument to Ball was funded with a gift from Bill and Lee Anne Fry. Because of COVID, the sculpture was unveiled in a private ceremony in May.
“After getting the call to do this, I met with Coolidge and his wife,” Sessums said. “We had some still photographs of him from games, but we had to call around to find video footage of him playing. You know, none of us look like we did 50 years ago.”
They also talked about what sort of stance would be best.
“We decided not to do a classic jumping/shooting pose,” Sessums said. “The guy was such an all-around player. So we decided to do the sculpture of him driving the basketball to create havoc for the defense.”
A native of Indianola in the Mississippi Delta, Ball was recruited by other schools, and even considered attending New Mexico State, but instead accepted the Rebels’ last available scholarship for basketball in 1970.
While at Ole Miss, Ball made the All-SEC Freshman team in 1970-’71. He also received first-team All-American Southeastern Conference honors in ’72 and ’73 from league coaches. Ball was instrumental in helping deliver three consecutive winning seasons, which had not been done since 1936-1938.
After graduating in 1975, Ball spent several years coaching basketball at Northwest Mississippi Community College. He later returned to Oxford, where he continues to own and operate Ball Sign Company and lives with his wife, Ruth.
While eagerly awaiting a glimpse of his statue, Ball said he went over the day it was to be installed to get a sneak peek. Sessums’ work did not disappoint.
“I couldn’t get over it,” Ball said. “I got a glance, and then it was covered until the official unveiling. It was a good feeling just seeing it. It just lets you know people appreciate you.”
Now 69, Ball recalls the first time he saw Ole Miss play basketball in 1970.
“My brother and I and a couple of friends drove up to see them play,” Ball said. “I remember thinking, ‘This team needs some help.’ They introduced the prospective players who were in the stands that day. It was me and a 6-foot-5-inch white kid. They called out our stats, and the crowd cheered for me like I was already on the team. I told my mother I got a bigger ovation than the white kid. I decided that’s where I wanted to be, and I never left.”