This article appears in the December 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com. **use this link https://www.loumag.com/subscribe.aspx
The game had been invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith, a teacher at the YMCA training school in Springfield, Mass., and by 1895 balls were dropping into baskets at the Louisville YMCA at Fifth and Walnut streets and the YMHA, the Young Men’s Hebrew Association gym at Second and Jacob. Basketball caught on in the schools — where it was perfect for indoor exercise, and didn’t require as many players as other sports — with the game spilling out from the cities into farm country and the coal fields of the Eastern Kentucky mountains. It wasn't long before basketball was more than exercise; it was town vs. town, with pride on the line.
By the 1920s, Kentucky’s high school basketball tournament was cooking along. Big teams from big towns dominated the early championships, but small schools captured Kentuckians’ imaginations. They came shooting out of the mountains, or dribbling up from Western Kentucky, with fantastic records and often ill fitting uniforms — dead set to take on the city slickers. Carr Creek, which lost to Ashland 13-11 in four overtimes in 1928, played on an outdoor court carved out of a mountainside. Almost all of the best names of yesteryear are lost now to school consolidation: Carr Creek, Wayland, Cuba, Hazel Green … Who today even knows where those places are — or were?
Kavanaugh, one of the early tournament stalwarts, wasn’t a place. Miss Rhoda Kavanaugh started a school in Lawrenceburg that she named after herself. She encouraged sportsmanship, holding an umbrella at games to poke home a behavior point with students or fans who grew rowdy. Decades later, after Kavanaugh was consolidated into Anderson County High, a player came along there named Jimmy Dan Conner. Jimmy Dan was darned good, but his legacy was being named Jimmy Dan Conner — a name that just sounds like basketball in Kentucky, doesn’t it? Like Billy Ray Lickert or King Kelly Coleman. Or Clem Haskins.
Before there was wall-to wall coverage of college basketball on TV, there was Kentucky basketball’s first broadcast voice, Claude Sullivan, detailing Wildcat games on Lexington’s WVLK. Then came Cawood Ledford on 50,000-watt WHAS, which could be heard everywhere in the Commonwealth. Ledford’s voice sounded like college basketball — and many fans can still hear it in their inner, inner ear: “Riley has the rebound, out to Conley … and the Cats are on the run.”
Of course, there’s nothing like being there. Rodney Beck was a UK student in 1957 and present at Memorial Coliseum when Vernon Hatton sank a 47-foot set shot at the buzzer against Temple to send the game into the second of three overtimes, with Kentucky eking out the victory. When the final horn sounded, Beck remembers, “Everybody went crazy except Happy Chandler. Happy dashed out on the floor and put his finger down on what he said was the exact spot where Hatton had shot. Then he called for somebody to bring him a nail and a hammer — and of course, he being the governor, they did it. Happy didn’t move his finger until he drove the nail into the hardwood at the exact spot Hatton had shot.” On the day it opened in 1956, Freedom Hall was the greatest basketball arena ever built. It had odd dimensions, with the floor laid out long to accommodate the Kentucky State Fair’s horse-show ring. But the NCAA staged six championships in Freedom Hall, and the big barn helped coach Peck Hickman skyrocket his University of Louisville teams to national prominence.
Today, players are drawn from across the nation to be a part of what sportswriter Dave Kindred called (and used as a book title) Basketball, the Dream Game in Kentucky. But we’ve always got an eye out, too, for the next wonderfully named hoopster to come down from the hills, or up the street from the playground, to help make the game magic. Photos: Courtesy Suki Anderson