King Kelly Coleman
Gary P. West
Pikeville was the site of the 1956,15th Regionals, and although Wayland would be the favorite to advance to the Sweet 16, most everyone knew the home team would be tough to beat. Besides that, they were pretty good. Led by H.L. Justice and Howard Lockhart, the John Bill Trivette coached team finished regular season and district play with a 21-7record.
But first things first. Wayland had an opening round game with a strong Betsy Lane team, whose best player was Thomas Spears.They were coached by Tommy Boyd and he knew all about Wayland. He had played for the Wasps. His team had defeated Copper John’s at Wayland back in November, 90-80, and had lost to them 80-66 in the regular season, and then again in the district finals, 84-74. He also knew that the Wasps were not just a one-man team in spite of Kelly’s stats. There was not another player like the King for sure, but Boyd knew Wayland had some other players on the team he had to pay attention to. Do you let Kelly get his and concentrate on the others? Or do you put two or three on Kelly and hope, just hope, the other four don’t beat you?
Elmond Hall came into the tournament averaging 16 points a game. On many teams he would have been the star, the go-to-guy. Hall was underrated and had a knack of rising to the occasion when needed. One of those times would come soon.
Melvin Robinson, Copper John’s 15-year-old sophomore center, hit for 12 a game, while forwards Billy Ray Fultz and Billy Ray Combs scored at just under 10 a game.
In spite of King Kelly Coleman’s staggering individual numbers, Copper John had molded his boys into a pretty good team.
Betsy Lane came out and decided to play their game. They would run. It didn’t work as Wayland won 92-84. Kelly scored 53.
Paintsville was next. What a season they had had, 28 and 2. Some observers thought this might be the end of the road for Wayland. Bryan Hall and Charles Hall were a solid one-two punch and were considered two of the better players in the region. “I talked to some of their players years later and they said when they watched us warm-up they knew they would beat us, “Kelly said. “They said we looked like a rag-top team”.
Final score: Wayland 96, Paintsville 72.
Kelly scored 50.
Meanwhile, Pikeville had moved through their bracket, beating Sandy Hook and Flat Gap. It’s worth noting that Flat Gap’s Osborne scored 64 points in an earlier first round win over Morgan County.
It would be Wayland against Pikeville for the 15th Regional championship. The winner would advance to the Sweet 16 in Lexington. The finals were sold out.
But someone who didn’t need a ticket that was inside the Pikeville gym that night was Adolph Rupp. He was there for one reason, to see one player play basketball.
Gordon Moore was also there. He covered mountain basketball for the Courier-Journal and he made it a point to be at all of the big games. And this was a big game. Moore has said that Rupp called Kelly the best high school player he had ever seen.
Many basketball experts across Kentucky felt like the Pikeville coach, John Bill Trivette was one of the best, and his teams were always good. They were considered well coached and Trivette was one of the early day pioneers of the full court press. It was a rarity for teams in the 1950s to actually practice defense. Pikeville’s press gave them a psychological advantage before a game even started. Combine this with a home crowd on their own court and Wayland, even with King Kelly Coleman, could be in over their heads.
As good as Trivette’s reputation was as a coach, such was not the case with Copper John Campbell. Copper John was the right coach in the right town, at the right time, for the right team, and for the right player. His teams were rumored to have had unorganized practices, with Copper John occasionally reading the newspaper, and even sipping “shine”, while his boys played three-on-three or just shot around. As good as Kelly was, there was no way one player could beat Pikeville at Pikeville. Remember, Billy Ray Fultz and Billy Ray Combs had never played on a basketball team before this season.
Regardless of how he did it or what method he used, Copper John was a motivator, make no mistake about it.
Consider this: Of Wayland’s five losses, three came in November and one in December. Hindman won 70-69, Betsy Lane 90-88 and Wheelwright 73-63, believe it or not all at Wayland. The December loss was at powerhouse Central City. The rest of the year the only regular season defeat came late in the season at Carr Creek. That’s pretty good coaching.
Gordon Moore wrote of the game: “Before a packed house with tense fans howling and hooting on every play, the great Coleman staged the greatest first half of his four years of high school net play. Unstoppable, he racked up 36 points in the first half to give his team a 54-45 halftime lead over Pikeville.”
Although Wayland felt pretty good about their first half of play, Copper John was not very happy about the officiating. The King had three fouls as did center Melvin Robinson. Pikeville had picked up several fouls, but with their aggressive style of defense, it was expected. H.L. Justice fouled out with only 58 seconds gone in the third period. He had scored 10. Darwin Smith soon followed him to the bench after scoring 13. For the game Pikeville was led in scoring by Tommy Adkins with 22 and Howard Lockhart with 20. Fifty-eight fouls were called, and 93 foul shots attempted in the game.
In the third quarter, with 1:29 remaining, for Wayland, the unthinkable happened. The King was whistled for his fifth foul. He had scored eight more in the third and 44 for the game, but he was done. Both teams had lost players in the third quarter.
There was well over a quarter to go, and although Wayland led, few believed they could hang on. Pikeville’s fans were going wild, while Wayland’s sat in stunned silence.
The Wasps’ Elmond Hall picked up where Kelly left off. He was scoring, but so was Pikeville. The Panthers had four starters on the bench from fouls, but sub Hooker Phillips was playing the game of this life. Wayland had a one point lead when Melvin Robinson picked up his fifth with 5:37 left in the game, but Hall kept shooting and hitting. With 39 seconds to go, Wayland was clinging to the lead at the free throw line, as Pikeville lost their sixth player to fouls and would finish the game with only four players on the court.
Elmond Hall finished the game with 25 points, 14 of them coming after Kelly fouled out. Fultz added 14. Copper John knew what he was doing and Wayland won 96-90 in what old-timers call the greatest 15th Regional finals ever played. He won a big one with Kelly on the bench. His coaching ability could no longer be questioned.
The final box score told the story. Each team scored 33 field goals. Pikeville was whistled for 38 fouls to Wayland’s 20. Pikeville hit 24 of 37 free shots while Wayland connected on 30 of 56. The six more made foul shots were the difference.
John Anthony Campbell, Copper John’s son, was 9-years-old in 1956 and he remembers the excitement and tenseness that night, particularly after the game. “We had a state police escort out of there,” recalls John Anthony. “Mom had the trophy in one hand and I was holding her other hand.”
John Bill Trivette’s son, Ken, remembers, “In 1986 we invited Kelly back to Pikeville for the 30th anniversary of that 1956 regional finals. The crowd gave him a 10 minute ovation. They loved him.”