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Clinton Gymnasium at William Carey University in south Hattiesburg survived Hurricanes Camille and Katrina, which destroyed much of south Mississippi. But the 54-year-old gym apparently will not survive the tornado that smashed through Hattiesburg and Petal Saturday.
It was never a colossal building by any means, seating only about 1,300. But believe this: Memories far out-numbered seats in the historic arena, which served as home to some outstanding teams, players, coaches and games.
“Oh gosh, so many memories,” said William Carey men’s basketball coach Steve Knight, a Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer and the winningest coach in Mississippi college basketball annals. “I’m afraid that’s what we’re going to be left with: memories.”
Knight was sleeping in his Oak Grove home in the pre-dawn hours Saturday when his 21-year-old daughter, Lindsay, a junior pre-med student at Carey, phoned from the campus where buildings were torn apart and cars were overturned and thrown this way and that. Lindsay told him she was OK, but the campus was not.
Knight hurriedly dressed and made the 15-minute drive to the campus and entered Clinton Gymnasium just as the sun was rising.
“Look up,” Tracy English, his assistant coach, told him.
“So I did,” Knight said. “I saw the sky.”
The tornado killed four people. Hundreds of homes were damaged. The storm caused multiple injuries, including that of a Carey soccer player who lost three fingers when a door slammed shut on her hand.
This one is personal for the writer. I grew up in Hattiesburg where we were often told we were tornado-proof because the city sits at the fork of two rivers, the Leaf and the Bouie. So much for that myth. This past weekend’s tornado was the second killer in the last four years for the Hub City area.
It’s also personal because of Clinton Gymnasium, where I used to attend the late Coach John O’Keefe’s summer basketball camps as a child and young teen. That was long before the gym was updated with air conditioning, and we often had to mop the sweat off the floor during breaks.
Clinton Gymnasium was also where, as a teen reporter, I covered some of my first college basketball games, working for the Hattiesburg American. That’s where I chronicled the great Mike Necaise, the left-handed whiz from Hancock County, who scored more than 2,000 points and was drafted by the NBA Seattle SuperSonics. No telling how many points Necaise would have scored had there been a 3-point line back then.
That’s where I covered the memorable Belhaven-Carey games we used to call the Holy Wars. It was Baptists vs. Presbyterians and there were two sure things: a prayer before the game and a brawl during it. Belhaven’s Charlie Rugg, another Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer, and O’Keefe, were two hoops masterminds, and their players competed against one another as if their mothers’ lives were at stake.
Clinton Gymnasium is also where Paul Covington, still another Hall of Famer, used to bring his tall and talented Jackson State teams to play against Carey, several years before widespread integration in Mississippi. The Hattiesburg Short brothers, Eugene and Purvis, played at Clinton and they always got a scrap from O’Keefe’s Crusaders.
John Stephenson, the former Major League catcher, succeeded O’Keefe as Carey’s coach and also coached some fine teams and players. The late James McDade, who later became an acclaimed UCLA law professor, broke many of Necaise’s records.
Knight, a coach’s son, has achieved so much at Carey and in Clinton Gymnasium since becoming head coach 35 years ago at age 25. He passed Alcorn’s legendary Davey Whitney as Mississippi’s winningest college coach in 2010.
Knight was the NAIA National Coach of the Year in 2014. His teams have won 623 games, the large majority in Clinton. His current team, now homeless, is 13-4 and nationally ranked.
Knight was in meetings all Monday morning. No doubt, much of the discussion was about where his teams will practice and play the remainder of this season.
“Several area schools have reached out to us,” Knight said Sunday. “We’re going to figure it out. It’s not going to be easy, but we will somehow get it done.”
Meanwhile, Knight and others are still searching for several items, including Mike Necaise’s framed jersey No. 24, which were sucked out of the gymnasium to who knows where. Here’s hoping they find that jersey, a tangible reminder of one of those Clinton Gymnasium legends.
More on the tornado.