Forty-five years later, these former high school basketball teammates are getting together, some for the first time since that splendid season in 1973. They are black, white and brown – and all graying on top. Most have become successful in life. They have driven into Jackson from Tennessee, Florida, Texas and elsewhere. They greet one another warmly. Handshakes just won’t do. Hugs are the order of the day.
Marcella Singleton has just arrived from Houston and is a little late for the pre-banquet get together. As he approaches the four-foot fence that separates the tavern’s parking lot from patio, a teammate hollers, “Come on, Marcella, just jump over it. That fence ain’t nothing for you.”
Singleton, smiling, studies the fence, pauses, laughs and then walks around to the gate, enters and the hugs begin anew.
“Forty years ago, Marcella would have hopped that fence, graceful as you please, and wouldn’t have thought nothing about it,” says a teammate. “That man could jump out of the gym.”
Today, most of the basketball world would refer to Singleton as the father of Monta Ellis, who went straight from Lanier High School to the NBA where he averaged 18 points per game for 13 seasons for four different professional teams.
When this writer comments that Monta Ellis remains the fastest guy I ever saw with a basketball in his possession, George White, one of those older Callaway players, laughs. “That’s because you never saw his daddy with the basketball. He was Monta before Monta. He could go.”
What brought these men, all approaching Medicare age, back together in Jackson this Memorial Day weekend is a Callaway High School Hall of Fame event. The entire Callaway Charger basketball team of 1972-73 was inducted. And what a team it was. They came together that year, in the early years of integration of Jackson Public Schools, to win 42 games, lose only three and win eight different tournaments, including the Big Eight Conference and State Class AA (the largest in the state at the time) championship.
They are a quite the collection. To name a few: White, the team’s sharpshooter and leading scorer, now a U.S Marshal, who went on to play four years at Jackson State on some of the most successful teams on school history; Karminder Dhaliwal, born in New Delhi, India, the team’s calm, collected point guard and coach on the court, who was also the state high school tennis champion and now owns convenience stores in Monroe, La.; Singleton, also a track star, who was the team’s second leading scorer; Bryan Rodgers, Mr. Callaway, a future baseball All-American at Delta State, who owns a Nashville communications company; and Linell Palmer, a barber who has remained in Jackson and is the unofficial historian of Callaway sports all these years later.
Not present was Bobby Ray, the team’s masterful head coach who died 20 years ago, at age 62, a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s. Ray’s teams won 301 games in 15 seasons at Callaway. He sent more than 30 players into college basketball.
“Coach Ray was not a screamer or a yeller,” Palmer said. “He was a cerebral coach, who made sure you understood what your job was and why you were doing it. He coached to your intellect. We’d work out and then we would go into a classroom and go over printed-out scouting reports. The man could coach.”
Remember, this was just at the cusp of integration. This was 10 years after Medgar Evers had been assassinated just a 10-minute drive from Callaway High. This was just three years after city and state police opened fire on a crowd at Jackson State, killing two students and wounding 12 more.
Nobody knew what to expect with black and whites in the classroom and on the court together for the first time. Jackson Public Schools officials were so concerned that all JPS games were played at a neutral site, the Mississippi Coliseum that year.
“We had no problems, not one,” says White, U.S. Marshal for the Southern District. “We weren’t black and white. We were a team. I don’t remember a single incident.”
Rodgers, one of two white players on the team, had figured to be a starter. Then Dhaliwal, whose parents were both professors at Alcorn, moved to Jackson from Port Gibson. Dhaliwall moved into the lineup. Rodgers moved to the bench.
“I kept that bench good and warm,” Rodgers said. “I had a great seat for great basketball. I’ll tell you, it’s just so wonderful to see all these guys again. This was a special team. That was a special time in all our lives.”
Says Mississippi Association of Coaches Hall of Famer Gerald Austin, who was at Gulfport at the time, “That Callaway basketball team, the one with Dhaliwal running the show, was the best screen and roll team I’ve seen. Bobby Ray was one of the great unsung high school coaches ever. He had so much respect from his peers.”
Those Chargers pressed all over the floor on defense, which often led to layups and fast-break points.
The Chargers defeated No. 1 ranked Gulfport, coached by the legendary Bert Jenkins, to reach the Big Eight Conference championship game, then beat McComb to win it. They defeated Starkville for the Class AA State crown. They won 42 games by an average margin of 18 points. Ray wasn’t one to run up the score. When Callaway had a comfortable margin, he cleared the bench.
If Ray was pleased, he would tell his players, “Guys, I’m just tickled pink.” If he wasn’t pleased, the Chargers would run extra sprints.
Says Linell Palmer: “Nobody was in better shape than we were.”
And, for that memorable season, nobody was tickled pink more often than Bobby Ray.