Orley Hood on Bailey Howell: Shows how perceptive great sports writing can be

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Elwin Williams

Mary Ann Hood, Orley Hood’s widow, and Bailey Howell, with the new Orley Hood exhibit at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.

Five years ago this week, we held beloved newspaper writer Orley Hood’s memorial service at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame Museum. The place was packed. All seats were taken and people stood everywhere, including on the mezzanine overlooking the arena area.

Gov. William Winter, a huge Orley fan, spoke eloquently, as always. “When I was growing up, I wanted to be Orley Hood,” Gov. Winter, once an aspiring sports writer, told us.

Charles Overby, the great newspaper editor and Orley’s former boss, spoke. Sid Salter, a colleague and good friend of Orley’s, had his say. So did Malcolm White, Jackson’s social chairman and Orley’s pal all those years. Hunter Hood, Orley’s oldest son, spoke as eloquently as any. All talked of Orley’s zest for life, his love of family, sports and people, and his mastery of words, sentences and paragraphs.

Rick Cleveland

For lack of a better term, I moderated. And, in between each speaker, I read from Orley’s columns. That way, Orley had his say at his own funeral. And, as usual, he made good points, made us laugh, made us cry and made us think, which is what great columnists do.

And, at the end, Orley received a standing ovation.

It was, in retrospect, just about as perfect as a funeral can be.

•••

Thursday night, many of us gathered again at the Hall of Fame. Once again, we celebrated Orley, who died Feb. 21, 2014, after a long and brave battle with leukemia. He was 65.

This time we celebrated a new Orley Hood exhibit at the museum. Hap Owen of Communication Arts, one of the museum’s original designers, did a beautiful job with the exhibit, which is just outside the broadcast booth of the museum’s main arena. Owen used some of my words on the display:

Orley Hood, for more than 30 years, was the poet laureate of Mississippi sports. In Meridian and Jackson newspapers, he wrote often humorously, often seriously and always eloquently about Mississippi and our state’s sports heroes. He was a generous supporter of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame where many of his favorite heroes are enshrined.

Orley was a sports editor and sports columnist before moving over to the news and features departments of The Clarion-Ledger. He won many state, regional and national awards for his writing and his sports sections. He was beloved by his readers.

He understood the huge role sports plays in Mississippi’s culture. He understood the importance of heroes and role models – and therefore the Hall of Fame. He understood it because he lived it.

The great writer Willie Morris, who himself wrote eloquently about sports, once said “we write best about what we care about most.”

That was surely the case when Orley wrote about Bailey Howell on the occasion of Howell’s induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1997. In about 550 words, Orley tells us the essence of what Hall of Fame athletes mean in Mississippi and American culture.

It remains the best sports column I have ever read.

•••

Sharpies did not exist in 1961 when Bailey Howell signed Orley Hood’s jacket. Howell signed in India ink.

Orley’s column on Bailey Howell is part of the exhibit. So is the Mississippi State windbreaker Orley’s daddy bought him 58 years ago, the one Bailey autographed in India ink.

Bailey, now 82, made the trip from Starkville for the exhibit dedication. It meant so much to him, he missed the fifth-ranked Mississippi State ladies’ final regular season home game. If you know Bailey, you know that’s saying something. Naturally, everyone wanted to have their photo made with the greatest basketball player in Mississippi history and with the new Orley Hood exhibit. Bailey, as is his nature, smiled in every photo. So did Orley, from the exhibit.

It was a splendid evening. And it is a poignant exhibit, one more reason to visit Mississippi’s sports shrine.