FULLABALOO: Balls to the walls: 50th anniversary of iconic campus statue

The art pieces around Tulane’s campus weave together an intricate story about the culture of the university. From Hank Willis Thomas’ “Truth Tree,” which challenges power and the honesty of the structures that lie behind it, to the historic Newcomb Pottery Garden, exhibits serve to show the school’s rich history in a meaningful way campuswide. No displays, however, exemplify the spirit, tenacity and strength of the Tulane populace quite like “The Balls.”

Nestled between Tilton Memorial Hall and Norman Mayer Memorial, “The Balls” have long stood as a point of pride for Tulane community members. A fixture of the Gibson Quadrangle, Tulane’s precious balls are second only to the “Bead Tree” for the most photographed item during prospective student tours. Interest in “The Balls” showed a marked upturn after its feature in the popular film “22 Jump Street.” Even the movie’s blockbuster cast was starstruck by the enormity of “The Balls.” Jonah Hill is said to have had a life-size re-creation produced for his own home.

While the concrete statue has earned a special place in the hearts of students and visitors alike, the curious past is often overlooked. Unlike other sculptures and art pieces located around campus, “The Balls” were not a piece purchased by Tulane from an acclaimed artist, nor a gift from a generous donor. Though, let the record show that Tulane is exceptionally well-endowed. The origins of “The Balls” go so far back that few faculty members can even recall a time before the stolid gray spheres stood as a symbol of strength on the A-Quad.

Professor of Practice in History Barbara Holt is one of the few faculty members still employed by Tulane to witness the initial impact of “The Balls” on campus.

“One day they weren’t there, the next day they were. To be honest, at the time we didn’t question it much,” Holt said. “The history department, as the authority on all things that aren’t the future or the present, immediately noticed the parallels with Stonehenge. I mean, enormous stone sculptures of indeterminate origin and mysterious purpose? From there, it was pretty easy to conclude this event was also caused by aliens. Then it was the astronomy department’s problem.”

The statue first appeared on campus in 1967, but details as to how and why it arrived here are less clear. The sheer size of the balls, as well as the heaviness of the concrete, clearly indicated to investigators that transporting the sculpture was a difficult undertaking. DNA sampling showed that many people had handled “The Balls” but offered no explanation as to how so many people had gotten their hands on them. 

As time passed, faculty and students seemed to forget there was ever a time that “The Balls” were not a part of the Tulane experience.

“Determining how the statue stayed standing from a physics standpoint was more of my concern at the time,” physics professor Bethany Stevens said. “The whole department brought out rulers, tape measures and other physics instruments to examine the statue. I became so absorbed in looking at ‘The Balls’ as a feat of physics, I never gave much thought to how or why they existed.”

Previous attempts to move the statue proved emotionally taxing to officers who faced lewd remarks about ‘ball-handling’ from fraternity men who stopped to heckle them.

While the history of the statue remains ambiguous, the impact of “The Balls” has been felt by every member of the Tulane community.

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