Just seconds remained. Louisville’s girls led Pontotoc 36-35. The State Class 4A Championship was the prize. Fans on both sides of Mississippi Coliseum were yelling themselves hoarse. Pontotoc had the ball, holding for the last shot.
Your dutiful reporter glanced up in the Louisville cheering section and there was Biggersville coach Cliff Little stomping his feet, clapping his hands and hollering “DEE-fense” right along with the Louisville fans.
Earlier Thursday afternoon, Little’s own Biggersville team had lost 53-38 to powerhouse Ingomar for the Class 1A championship. Most coaches, having lost the biggest game of the year several hours earlier, would have been long gone from the Big House, probably crying in their beer. You didn’t have to be an intrepid reporter to know there’s had to be a story here.
Back to the game: Pontotoc, playing for the last shot, looks to have a winning layup until Louisville’s MVP, Jacylin Houston, bounds in, leaps high and blocks the shot out of bounds. Seconds later, the final horn sounds and Louisville has won. And now Little really is crying — big ol’ tears of joy.
And, yes, there is a story here. Got a couple minutes?
Fourteen years ago this week, East Webster defeated Durant for the State 1A boys championship. It was Little’s first state title as a coach. He has won four more since. Mitchell McCurry, now the Louisville coach, scored 36 points for East Webster that night.
Turns out, McCurry was much more than Little’s star player and tournament MVP that night 14 years ago. He was more like Little’s son. Still is.
Back to Thursday night: As soon as McCurry had the opportunity amid the postgame celebrating, he trotted over to the sidelines where he and Little shared a long embrace, both in tears. Again, Little has won five of these state championships, including two (boys and girls) last year. It’s difficult to imagine any of those meant more than watching McCurry win his first.
Asked about the relationship, Little said this: “I’m not sure I have the words. Mitchell was just such a special, special kid.”
McCurry was a special player, too. Little moved him up to East Webster varsity when he was an eighth grader and he was a key player then. But it was more about what was going on off the court than on it that drew the coach and player so close.
“My father was never part of my life,” McCurry said. “I lost my mother when I was young and my grandmother, who I lived with, died when I was seven.”
For much of his younger life, McCurry lived with other relatives and even with friends of his family. Little, he said, was like the father he never had. “Coach Little showed me true, genuine love. He taught me how to love again. Not that I wasn’t loved, but he taught me how to feel it.
“Coach Little inspired me to be a coach. I saw the way he cared for his players — not just me but all of us. That’s how I want to be for my players. I want to be there for them, just like he was for me and my teammates.”
When the final horn sounded Thursday night, Little embraced Johnthan Banks, another of his former East Webster players. Yes, that Johnthan Banks, the one who became a football All-American at Mississippi State and then played five years in the NFL. In that state championship game 14 years ago, McCurry and Banks scored 56 of East Webster’s 65 points.
Ever since McCurry and Little have remained close. They talk often, and not just about basketball. The Littles were there when McCurry’s first child was born. McCurry has attended all four of Little’s state championships since he helped win the first one.
Said McCurry of Little, “I wouldn’t be here if not for him.”
Said Little of McCurry, “I’m so proud of him, I…” He didn’t finish. He couldn’t.
He didn’t have to.