STARKVILLE, Miss. (WCBI Sports) – A Mississippi State alumnus has died. Leland Mitchell was a guard on the MSU basketball team in the early 1960s under head coach Babe McCarthy. Mitchell was 72 years old when he passed away Saturday. He was living in Starkville.
A real estate developer with interests in Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee, he was a member of MSU’s M-Club Hall of Fame.
The team defied state law by playing against black players in the NCAA Tournament that season as a part of ‘The Game of Change’. The ‘63 bulldogs unknowingly helped to pave the way for black athletes in the South.
Until this time, the team had been prohibited from participating in the NCAA Tournament because of the possibility of playing a team with black players. However, after being invited in 1963, the team defied state law and devised a plan to sneak off campus to play in the tournament.
Mitchell later said, “We wanted to play. We had just won the SEC championship for the third year in a row and we hadn’t been allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament the past two years. For us the biggest thing was getting the opportunity to play in the tournament because it was something we felt we deserved. It was much more than a basketball game. We were making history. We were ambassadors for the South, though none of us realized it at the time.”
He went on to be drafted by the Dallas Cowboys football team and also was drafted to play basketball by the St. Louis Hawks. He spent the 1967-68 season in the American Basketball Association as a member of the New Orleans Buccaneers.
Biloxi resident Billie Jo White reached out to WCBI today. She says she has been close friends with the Mitchell family for many years. White says Mitchell was a “Starkville legend … a wonderful man and friend.”
Visitation is scheduled for Wednesday, July 10, from 5-7 p.m., at Welch Funeral Home in Starkville. Funeral services are scheduled for Thursday, July 11, at 11 a.m., in the chapel of Welch Funeral Home, and burial will be in Memorial Garden Park Cemetery.