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Remembering the Lady Rebels’ coach who once ate light bulbs

Updated November 19, 2022 - 8:20 pm

If you go deep on a Google search, it’s possible to find the only known photograph of Jim Bolla, the former Lady Rebels coach whose life was celebrated Tuesday on campus, in which he was not sporting a flattop.

It shows Bolla playing basketball for his hometown Pitt Panthers during the 1974 East Region championship game in Raleigh, North Carolina. Bolla, who was 70 when he died Oct. 21, has long hair and long sideburns. He appears to be hacking at Tom Burleson, North Carolina State’s 7-foot-2-inch center.

The great sky walker David Thompson is standing in the foreground. The picture was taken before Thompson suffered a serious head wound while falling after leaping for an offensive rebound. Pitt was leading at the time.

By the time Thompson returned to the bench with his head wrapped in a bandage, Pitt was losing big, and N.C. State went on to win the national championship.

But that hardnosed Pitt team remains beloved to this day. Nine of the first 11 players were from Pittsburgh, including longtime Las Vegan Keith Starr, the sixth man.

“He was our enforcer,” Starr said of Bolla, who rarely spoke of his basketball career when guiding the Lady Rebels to the nation’s No. 2 ranking during the program’s glory years. “He set strong-ass picks and wore kneepads on his elbows.”

Starr was quoted in a Sports Illustrated story on that Pitt team that had future NBA All-Star Billy Knight but lacked a true center. Wrote SI’s Curry Kirkpatrick: “Presently the hulking, light bulb-eating Jim Bolla plays the pivot, hatchets the enemy for 10 minutes, then gives way to Lew Hill, a slender 6’6” transfer from Ferrum Junior College …”

I must have spoken to Bolla, the big man with the kind soul, more than 100 times over the years. He never once mentioned dining on 90 watts of incandescence.

Starr thinks he knows where the story came from.

“Mickey Martin was one of our teammates, and he was on a flight — his first flight ever — and he was really nervous,” he said with a laugh that would have reverberated off the walls of Pitt’s cozy Fitzgerald Field House. “Bolla went and sat beside him, and all he talked about was eating light bulbs.”

Maybe it was true, Starr said. Maybe it wasn’t.

“But it sure took Mickey’s mind off flying.”

Around the horn

■ If you have wondered why the Bishop Gorman football team is so good on special teams, it might be because that’s where Gaels coach Brent Browner excelled during his playing days at Northern Iowa.

In addition to being a starting defensive back, the speedy Browner blocked several field-goal attempts, including one against Ball State in 2001 that led to one of the biggest wins in UNI history.

At a youthful appearing 43, Browner still looks fast enough to rush an unsuspecting kicker. He attended Northern Iowa on a track scholarship and ran in the prestigious Drake Relays while still in high school, finishing second in the prep division with a time of 10.72 in the 100-meter finals.

■ The Golden Knights’ new ECHL affiliate is the start-up Savannah (Georgia) Ghost Pirates, whose rivals in the ECHL South include the Florida Everblades and Greenville Swamp Rabbits.

A raucous sellout crowd of 6,876 packed Enmarket Arena for the first home game in Ghost Pirates history. To nobody’s great surprise, the pregame festivities included a Las Vegas-style video, light and sound pregame show.

■ The Kansas basketball team’s inability to abide by the rules prevented former UNLV interim coach and now Southern Utah head man Todd Simon from coaching against Jayhawks counterpart Bill Self, who was sitting out the final game of a school-imposed four-game suspension Friday.

Self’s exile nearly proved catastrophic. Simon and company trailed by one point with 40 seconds to play Friday night before the reigning national champions pulled away for an 82-76 win.


■ Local sports betting and talk-show host Dave Cokin combined headlines on and off the field in making a recent observation about a certain pro football quarterback in Tampa Bay:

“Brady should divorce some of his receivers. Seven drops today,” mused Cokin on Twitter when people still liked to work there.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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