Bailey Howell was one of Converse’s most dedicated reps. He drew large crowds when he demonstrated the fundamentals of basketball on the lecture circuit.
The game came easily to him. From the first time he picked up a basketball, to later earning All-America honors in both high school and college, Bailey Howell possessed a gift that very quickly set him apart from his peers. He was a natural on the court, at home within its geometric confines, a player so skilled that at the time of his retirement from the NBA in 1971, Howell ranked among the league’s top 10 leaders in nine statistical categories. But statistics only tell part of the story. Howell, who grew up near the cotton fields surrounding Middleton, Tennessee, never made himself bigger than the team. Regardless of his star power, he was always willing to subjugate his considerable game for the bigger cause. Such characteristics explain how Howell, a six-time NBA All-Star, blended perfectly with Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics, winning two world championships as the curtain closed on arguably the greatest sports dynasty ever.
Howell first gained national attention by setting the Tennessee high school record for points, scoring 1,187 of them for Middleton High School during the 1954-55 season. And while the 31.2 points-per-game scoring average was on display for everyone to see, only those closest to him knew of the dedication required to achieve such success. Yes, Howell made it look that easy. He never seemed out of position, grabbing rebounds by the bushel while powering his way to the hoop, causing even the legendary Adolph Rupp to take notice. But even the naturals have to work at their craft, and Howell was unafraid to put in the hours required to hone his game. In fact, Howell hardly looked at basketball as work at all; when your high school suspends classes during the fall harvest season so that the students can help pick cotton, you have no trouble identifying the difference between amateur athletics and real work.
His desire to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference led Howell to attend Mississippi State University. He had plenty of other choices – Kentucky came calling, as did Tennessee and the University of Mississippi – but MSU proved to be the best fit for the versatile power forward. Like Larry Bird at Indiana State decades later, Howell found himself more comfortable on a smaller campus with a more relaxed atmosphere. And it was at MSU that his virtuosity shone through; in an era when big men were planted firmly around the basket, Howell displayed a guard’s shooting touch from the outside. He was a glimpse into the future of basketball, an offensive anomaly, and his presence on the court wreaked havoc on opposing defenses. Starting at forward as a sophomore – freshmen weren’t allowed to play varsity sports at the time – Howell torched Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats for 37 points, serving notice that he could excel against the best programs in the country.
If the Kentucky game was Howell’s coming-out party as a scorer, then his 34-rebound performance against LSU that same season cemented his reputation as the team’s chairman of the boards. He was the kind of player that had to be accounted for at all times, both offensively and defensively, and teams that didn’t keep him off the glass usually walked off the court with a loss – something that happened 17 times in 1957, then a school record. Just how good was this precocious natural? Howell finished the season by leading the NCAA in field goal percentage (.568), no small feat considering the Bulldogs’ brutal SEC schedule, and was duly honored as the conference Sophomore of the Year.
By 1958, Howell was a Second Team All-America selection. His 27.8 ppg average placed him ninth in the nation, and he was honored as the Southeastern Conference MVP. The success did little to change the humble young man with the deft shooting touch; he continued to work hard and set goals, leading MSU to a 61-14 record over three seasons and capturing the SEC title in 1959. Howell was the first SEC player in history to reach the exclusive 2,000-point, 1,000-rebound club, joining Tom Gola and Oscar Robertson as the only players with that distinction. First Team All-America honors followed his senior campaign, and Howell was suddenly one of the most coveted players in the 1959 NBA Draft.
Urban legend has it that Cincinnati, choosing first, wanted to snatch the 6’-7” rebounding machine to bolster its anemic frontcourt. But unable to reach contract terms prior to the draft, Royals management swung a deal with Detroit, allowing them to take Howell with the second overall selection. He was an All-Star by his second season, the first of six such honors. The Pistons, however, struggled in the win column. During Howell’s five years in Detroit, the team never finished better than second place in the standings. They were also unable to get past the Lakers and into the Finals. It was a frustrating period in Howell’s professional life, but he never complained publicly. Nor did he demand a trade. Instead, he played five solid seasons for the Pistons, appearing in at least 75 games per campaign, while averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds over that span.
Struggling to improve, the Pistons traded Howell to the Baltimore Bullets prior to the 1964-65 regular season. Howell’s two seasons in a Baltimore uniform proved to be even more challenging than the previous five in Detroit; the Bullets struggled despite a talent-laden roster, and the lack of team harmony began to wear on the MSU product. All of that changed on September 1, 1966, when Red Auerbach sent backup center Mel Counts to Baltimore in exchange for Howell. It was a move that helped rejuvenate both Howell and the aging world champions; despite having their string of eight consecutive NBA titles snapped by the Philadelphia 76ers, the Celtics benefited immediately from Howell’s offensive punch. His contributions factored heavily into the team’s championship runs the following two seasons, giving Howell a pair of rings and the perfect capstone to a hall-of-fame career.
Howell would play one more season, for Philadelphia. On September 29, 1997, he received basketball’s highest honor – enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Standing at the podium before a large contingent of family and friends, Howell thanked those closest to him as he reflected on a lifetime of hard work and dedication. He displayed the same humility that he’d carried with him since childhood, and then he walked away, a true southern gentleman, proud of his accomplishments but unwilling to make any bigger deal out of them. To those who know Bailey Howell best, his acceptance speech was as genuine as it was natural – a true reflection of the man himself.