LOCAL FOLKS: Basketball a constant passion for 85-year-old

By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Leon Malone was 6-feet, 4-inches tall in the ninth grade, but he had all the coordination of an octopus on roller skates in the middle of an earthquake.
He’d spent his seventh- and eighth-grade years practicing his technique.
“My daddy, he cut the rim out of a bucket and nailed it up on the side of the house,” Malone, 85, said. “This ball he bought cost a quarter, I believe. That was a lot of money. I’d stay out there for hours, throwing the ball at the rim.”
In the ninth grade, he tried out for New Site High School’s basketball team, which could’ve used someone of Malone’s stature to play center.
“Nope, didn’t make the team,” Malone said. “I didn’t have my coordination. I couldn’t catch the ball.”
Elmore McCoy, father of former state Rep. Billy McCoy, decided to help.
“He was teaching at the school. He wasn’t a coach,” Malone said. “He’d keep me after the other kids went in from recess and made me practice my movements.”
New Site got a new coach for Malone’s 10th-grade year. During tryouts, the players were split into teams for a scrimmage. Malone played with some of the previous year’s starters.
“He stopped the game. He said, ‘That tall man on the wing is wide open.’ He said. ‘You’re supposed to throw the ball to the open man,’” Malone recalled. “They said they would throw it to me, but I think they were laughing behind their hands.”
Pretty soon, Malone was open. The ball came to him. Three years of effort were put to the test.
“That shot, it just went,” Malone said with a smile. “It was like something switched on. My coordination came to me. Mr. Elmore McCoy, he never would give up on me.”
New Site High School didn’t have a gym, so all of the team’s games were away games. It didn’t matter. Malone and his teammates won the Mississippi state championship in 1945 and 1946.
“Back then, they didn’t have classifications. It was an overall championship,” he said. “Big teams played little teams.”
Basketball remains central to Malone’s life. He’s played some type of organized ball for the past 68 years. When Harrisburg Baptist Church’s slowbreak season ended in February, Malone decided to retire from organized basketball.
But he hasn’t given up on the game. In the 1940s, his teammates called him “Slim,” and the nickname still applies.
“They say the secret to exercising for your health is to find something you love,” he said. “I’ve got a stationary bike, but I’d rather take a whipping than ride it. I’ll take the basketball and run around and shoot until I drop.”
His goal is to spend three days a week shooting at the church gym or in his driveway at Natchez Trace Villas, just outside the Tupelo city limits off Highway 145.
“I shoot until I make 100 hoops, not until I shoot 100, but make 100,” he said. “I don’t count layups.
“I’m 85, but I’ve been an 87 percent free-throw shooter. I brag a little bit, but I could always knock it down from the free-throw line.”
Malone said God has blessed him with good health. If so, the Lord probably also gave him a solid helping of perseverance that served him well through those uncoordinated years, when passion far outstripped skill.
“They tell me I eat and breathe basketball,” he said, nodding. “I do love this game.”

scott.morris@journalinc.com