Melyia Grayson, 45, scores two of her 18 points to lead Hattiesburg High into the state championship game.

Hattiesburg High School, my alma mater (Class of ’70), defeated Lafayette County 56-42 Tuesday afternoon in the Class 5A girls semifinal round of the MHSAA State Basketball Championships.

The Tigers will now play West Jones for the state championship Friday at 6 p.m. at Mississippi Coliseum. Another victory would mean a first girls hoops state championship for Hattiesburg, which has won several boys titles.

Of course, the boys had a huge head start in my hometown, which will be the theme of today’s column.

Melyia Grayson, a 6-foot, 2-inch, 15-year-old sophomore led the way for the Tigers Tuesday, scoring 18 points, pulling down 11 rebounds, blocking two shots and passing out two assists.

Rick Cleveland

You watch her and it becomes even more difficult to believe that back in 1970 girls were considered too dainty to play basketball in Hattiesburg – and, for that matter, in most of the larger Mississippi towns. Girls basketball was played in smaller towns and only in some of those. And even then, they played three-on-three on each end of the court. You surely wouldn’t want your little ladies straining themselves running the entire 94-foot floor, now would you?

My first exposure to girls basketball was covering the Petal Panthers, just across the Leaf River from Hattiesburg. Anybody who really believed girls were too dainty to play basketball surely never saw those Petal girls play. They blew away nearly everybody they encountered. Nancy Easterling, who could have played for a lot of boys teams, probably averaged 40 points per game.

But all Hattiesburg girls did back then was cheer for the boys. There was no girls team. Had Melyia Graham come along in Hattiesburg back then, she would have been just another big girl walking the hallways. That, or she would have moved to Petal.

I wish I could say that it seemed odd to me back then. It did not. It was just the way things were. And, honestly, I don’t know if it would have ever changed had it not been for the federal government, which, despite what many believe, sometimes gets it right.

This is fairly recent history. Mississippi’s sports world changed with Title IX of the Education Amendments Act. Before that, women faced discrimination in virtually every area of sports.

Quick story: This was 1972, shortly after Title IX had passed and everyone in scholastic sports was trying to figure out how it would work. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare dispatched someone to the University of Southern Mississippi for a seminar on what Title IX would mean. The Hattiesburg American, where I worked at the time, dispatched me to USM to cover the seminar.

The woman from HEW told us that Title IX simply meant that, where education was concerned, women would have the same opportunities as men. That would include sports.

In other words, Hattiesburg High and USM, as well as public schools throughout the country, would have to offer young women the same opportunities as young men. Otherwise, they could forget federal funding.

It’ll never happen, I said under my breath. The guy next to me responded: “Why not?”

Because, I said, athletic departments in Mississippi, high school and college, were barely making budgets as it was. They’ll go broke, I said.

“So what?” the guy said. “Obviously, you’ve never had a daughter.”

He had four. One became the starting guard on Hattiesburg High’s first girls basketball team. She was a good one, too. She would have been proud of the Tigers on Tuesday afternoon.

People often ask me what have been the biggest changes in the half century I have written about Mississippi sports.

It’s a tie: Between the widespread integration of sports and the rise of women’s sports.

It is not lost on me that I spent last weekend in Nashville watching the Mississippi State women, the nation’s No. 2 ranked women’s college basketball team, play before huge crowds and on national television in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. If Melyia Grayson continues to work on her game perhaps she can be part of something like that.

And it should not be lost on anyone that Mississippi State didn’t play its first women’s basketball game until 1974, the same year Hattiesburg High began a girls program. Both have come a long, long way.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.