by Doug Ireland

With every induction class of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, we’re reminded what sets the best above the rest.

Sure, talent is a big factor. Hardly the only one.

Those who join the party for the annual LSHOF Induction Celebration, recently finished for 2024 over three fabulous days (Thursday-Saturday June 20-22), always get an up-close perspective.

They see that what sets these sports heroes apart begins with, oddly enough, humility.

The living legends know how lucky they’ve been. To avoid or overcome injuries. To have found the right places and times, the best opportunities for their excellence to emerge.

They have deep appreciation to those who helped them along the way, in life and in competition. They love their families and friends, coaches and teachers, colleagues, and fans.

Many are deeply faithful, and share that conviction.

It all pours out during those three days and nights in Natchitoches – along with a visit to Alexandria and Four Seasons Bowling Center for the annual BOM Bowling Bash. This year’s theme was “Yacht Rock” with the sports legends donning captain’s shirts and caps for the two-plus hours of fun.

Fun is a centerpiece of the Induction Celebration. It’s most apparent in four straight events Friday and Saturday: the bowling event, followed by Friday night’s Rockin’ River Fest presented by Rapides Regional Medical Center; Saturday morning’s Saints’ & Pelicans’ Junior Training Camp on the Northwestern State campus, supported by Natchitoches Regional Medical Center; and the Saturday Round Table Luncheon presented by the Tiger Athletic Foundation and hosted by Fox Sports Television announcer Tim Brando.

The indelible memories blossom Saturday evening as patrons rub elbows with the inductees in the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and Northwest Louisiana History Museum at 800 Front Street in Natchitoches. Along with the 10 inductees on hand to enter the Hall in 2024, guests got an extra thrill when LSU women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey arrived for her first induction event since her own enshrinement in 1990 – the youngest-ever to be so honored, at age 28, for her great playing career at Hammond High and Louisiana Tech.

Then came the main event, the ceremony itself. After the national anthem, a parade of Hall of Famers followed with the stirring Walk of Legends, with nearly 30 past inductees crossing the stage at the Natchitoches Events Center, followed by the Class of 2024.

Then, something unprecedented happened. The Walk had to pause.

It’s been a cornerstone of the ceremony for over two decades. Some of the biggest names in state sports history – think Shaq, Peyton and Eli, Phil Robertson just for starters, with superstars like Deuce McCalister, Warrick Dunn, D-D Breaux, David Toms and Paul Mainieri among the other prime timers – have stepped into the Walk of Legends spotlight, with triumphant music from the baseball movie “The Natural” in the background. They got thundering ovations at their inductions. Another who did in 2019, Peabody basketball coach Charles Smith, drew rousing cheers when he took his turn in the 2024 Walk of Legends, four months ahead of his induction in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in October.

Nobody has ever before gotten an extended standing ovation. But nearly 200 people rose up to cheer 88-year-old Wilbert Ellis, an icon at Grambling State University, and a pillar of Lincoln Parish and beyond. They kept going for about a half-minute, so much that announcers Lyn Rollins and Victor Howell wisely chose to pause and let the moment breathe. It was pure beauty, adoration for a service-filled life which earned Ellis the state’s second-ever Louisiana Sports Ambassador Award for how he’s represented us around the Boot and far beyond.

His fellow Class of 2024 inductees joined the cheers. They had shared company with Ellis since early Thursday afternoon, beginning with a press conference and the La Capitol Kickoff Reception at the museum, and their admiration and respect was apparent.

A stirring ceremony followed. Each inductee was interviewed on stage after a video tribute was played. Rollins and Howell were well-versed and set the stage for the stars to shine with passion, emotion, and laughter.

Sportswriter Bobby Ardoin set the tone as the first to be enshrined. He immediately got choked up thanking his parents for adopting him. He followed with some self-depreciating wisecracks and observations that drew applause. It went from there, with much the same pattern, deep emotion, one-liners, expressions of gratitude, and at times, challenges to all in attendance to step forward to make the world around us better.

There was mild disappointment when Saints’ hero Drew Brees was inducted by video, in an interview recorded earlier in the week. He said he and his family were on a two-week vacation in Japan, and reflected on his career in New Orleans. Another A-list inductee, MMA fighting legend Daniel Cormier of Lafayette, was also absent, but not for a vacation. He was called to duty a few days earlier by ABC Television to fill an unexpected void on the commentator team for a big UFC card last Saturday in Saudi Arabia, and in his interview shown last Saturday, profusely expressed how thrillled he was to go in with such a wonderful group of inductees, how disappointed he was that he couldn’t be in Natchitoches, and said the honor was as great as any he will ever receive.

Every one of the 10 in the house – Ardoin, Seimone Augustus, Perry Clark, Ellis, Ron Higgins, Frank Monica, Kevin Jackson, Kerry Joseph, Ray Sibille and Tom Burnett – drew laughs and claps from the near-record crowd of 812 (10 shy of the 2016 audience) at the Natchitoches Events Center. Ellis had everyone enthralled throughout his turn on stage, getting two more standing O’s.

After Augustus capped the inductions in style, the Legends Lineup wrapped it up, with the Class of 2024 and the past inductees coming back on stage. Among them: 97-year-old rodeo giant T-Berry Porter of Leesville alongside two-time Super Bowl champion Gary Reasons, Eddie Robinson III, Alexandria’s Marie Gagnard and Pineville’s Sheila Thompson Johnson, two-time Olympic medalist Hollis Conway, five-time Olympian Danielle Scott – and Mulkey.

You can watch a replay of the LPB coverage of the Saturday night festivities by visiting LaSportsHall.com. On Thursday evening, July 11, LPB will air a two-hour recap of the Induction Celebration, and it will be available on LPB.org afterward.

Spectacular doesn’t quite do it justice. So let a 10-person group from Shreveport provide testimony about LSHOF 2024.

Enjoying Sunday lunch at Merci Beaucoup Restaurant on Church Street, they were greeted by proprietor Ron Corkern, who asked if they were in town for the Hall’s festivities. They were, and admitted they came to see Brees, and not seeing him in person was a letdown.

“But then,” said Corkern, “they started talking about how fantastic the night was, the museum, the ceremony, all the great stories from the inductees, seeing the past inductees, in such a classy showcase. They said they were coming back next summer, and wouldn’t miss it in the future.”

Bookmark next June for your up-close-and-personal Hall of Fame experience.





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