Bill Ballard likes to say he has an angel on his shoulder.
That angel was never more apparent than the time Ballard nearly killed an elderly woman.
As a 16-year-old, Ballard and a friend went squirrel hunting in his hometown of Ozark, Ark. Not finding their quarry, they decided to test their skills on an abandoned home. Each was going to shoot through an already broken window pane.
Ballard, now 85, had no doubt he could hit the target from a distance, but before shooting, he decided to take a look inside the building. He was startled to find a gray-haired woman sitting in what would have been his line of fire.
Ballard ponders what would have happened had he taken that shot.
He’s convinced he never would have gone into coaching, never would have had the chance to mentor players, never would have developed the lifetime friendships he now cherishes.
“I have had an angel here for a long time,” Ballard said, gesturing at his shoulder, before his voice began to falter. “And one of them you saw a picture of a while ago.”
The photo that had been projected on the screen at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock Bailey Alumni Center showed Ballard with Juanita, his wife of nearly 40 years. Juanita passed away about a month before the Nov. 5 breakfast ceremony where Ballard announced the Bill and Juanita Ballard Endowed Student Scholarship.
Ballard had another announcement for 14 of his former basketball players who played for what was then Little Rock University in the early to mid-1960s. Ballard paid for their Trojan Lettermen’s Association memberships.
“It’s really nice being welcomed back, and guys, today is your official welcome home party,” Ballard told his former players and their families who were in attendance.
The university’s breakfast in honor of Ballard and his players featured speeches and greetings from Chancellor Joel E. Anderson, Vice Chancellor for Advancement Bob Denman, and Athletic Director Chasse Conque.
Conque spoke about the importance of relationships in sports and how they can last a lifetime. Even so, Ballard spending time with the players 50 years after his coaching days is “really special.”
“It’s really remarkable the bond you all have,” Conque said.
In 2013, Ballard started getting together with his former Trojans twice a year for golf, dining, and camaraderie.
They have all lived long enough to truly appreciate the value of friendship, Ballard said.
“The first time when we met, what impressed me the most was how much they love each other,” Ballard said. “And I was able to just sit back and enjoy that.”
They still call Ballard coach, and after all these years, his influence and the friendships remain strong.
“It really has meant a lot,” Ballard said. “It means more now than it would have (if they got together) five years after they graduated.”
Ballard thinks a lot about the seemingly random events that changed the course of his life and the lives of those with whom he came in contact.
One of his pivotal moments occurred when he picked up a newspaper and read that Little Rock University was starting a basketball team, and it needed a coach. The institution, previously a junior college, ended its basketball program in the mid-1950s.
Ballard applied, and at the age of 30, he not only became the university’s head basketball coach in 1960, but he also held the position of athletic director until he re-entered the military in 1965. He eventually decided not to return as coach.
But he did return to the university — and continues to be one of its biggest fans.
Ballard has watched UALR grow from an enrollment of about 1,700 when he was coaching to about 12,000 today. He marvels at the Jack Stephens Center, a far different experience than his era, when players traveled to games in personal cars.
He stays involved, often attending games. He wants others to do the same.
Ballard is grateful — grateful for the opportunities that influenced his path and the people those opportunities brought into his life.
He realizes things could have worked out very differently.