“Well, one of my dreams has always been, on a Sunday morning, to be coming home on a fire truck, riding through Shelbyville with my finger up in the air: ‘We’re number one!’”
— Arnold Thurman, 1966 Shelby County state champs
If basketball has more to do with dreams than any other sport, and a convincing argument can be made that it does, surely it has something to do with the jumping.
The other sports are ground games. Oh, I know baseball has its home runs and football has its leaping catches. But essentially they are based on scoring by gaining territory.
But basketball is all about leaping, soaring, reaching for the stars. It’s the stuff of dreams, in other words. By defying gravity, basketball players defy the constrictions that may have been placed upon them by the circumstances of their birth and their family’s means.
The sport goes wrong when money becomes more important than dreams. That’s why basketball at the high school level endures in our neighborhoods, our communities, and our hearts. There is no hero like a high school hero because there is nothing like sharing noble endeavors with family, friends, and neighbors.
The Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame, which soon will be open to the public in Elizabethtown, was built with money and materials, certainly, but mainly it was built with love. In Kentucky, the essence of the game is about the values that last a lifetime – teamwork, discipline, unselfishness, and education.
Many wise individuals have noted that basketball has such a hold on the hearts and minds of Kentuckians that it becomes almost a religious experience. It is fitting, then, that the Kentucky High School Hall of Fame be located in an ancient church that was renovated in order to showcase the essence of the game, Kentucky-style.
On Friday, July 21, a private showing will be held for state and community leaders, the media, and donors. But that evening, the public is welcome to attend a cocktail reception at the Historic State Theater in Elizabethtown, followed by a showing of the movie 32,” advertised as “A Kentucky Basketball Story: Where It All Began,” followed by a question-and-answer session with Hall of Fame representatives.
On Saturday, July 22, the Hall of Famers of 2017 will be inducted at a 7 p.m. ceremony, also at the Historic State Theater. This will complete the inaugural Hall of Fame class of 100 players and coaches, designed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Boys State Tournament in 2018.
Many sociologists have tried to figure out why basketball is so revered in Kentucky. One reason, surely, is that the commonwealth always has been a poor state as measured by various socio-economic indicators, and basketball is a sport that doesn’t a lot of room or equipment. So hoops can be affixed to garages and telephone poles. All you need from there is a kid with a pair of sneakers, a ball, and a dream.
Nets come in several varieties – or not at all. They may be made of nylon or chain links. It makes no difference. When a ball drops cleanly through, not touching any rim, it’s “string music,” as the TV analyst Joe Dean had it, in the imagination.
Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, the most popular shots were layups or two-hand “set” shots. The 1950s brought the jump shot, courtesy of Joe Fulks, the member of the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame who introduced it to the National Basketball Association.
Today it’s about getting to the rim for dunks or firing three-pointers from imagination’s limits. The game has changed, certainly, but the essence remains the same, especially among those players who play for the sheer love of it. The average high school player, the vast majority who never entertain dreams of NBA millions, still sees basketball as one way to getting a college education – and education is both the coin of the realm in America and the hope of its future.
Basketball taught me Kentucky geography. I learned the difference between Mayfield and Maysville. I learned the difference between Owensboro High and Daviess County High. I learned that the rural schools always pulled against the city schools.
Mostly I learned to use my imagination.
My goal was nailed haphazardly to the back of the garage at 338 Mentelle Park Extended in Lexington. The court was dirt when the weather was dry, a mosh pit when it rained or snowed, and it was hard to get a true bounce on the dribble.
Shabby? I suppose. But to me it was the University of Kentucky’s Memorial, then the home of the Wildcats and the Boys State Tournament. As dusk turned to darkness on chilly winter afternoons, I worked diligently to emulate Cliff Hagan’s hook shot, Johnny Cox’s one-hander from the corner, or Vernon Hatton’s slashes to the hoop.
The same scene was playing out in backyards and on playgrounds in all parts of the commonwealth. Only the heroes were different. In the coal mountains of Eastern Kentucky, boys dreamed of being a scoring machine like the immortal “King Kelly” Coleman of Wayland High, and on the inner-city playgrounds of our cities, African-American youngsters were trying to emulate the showmanship of Dunbar High’s Julius Berry or the all-around virtuosity of Covington Grant’s Tom Thacker.
In those days, girl’s basketball, highly popular in the 1920s, had virtually disappeared from the Commonwealth. But it came back in 1972, when the federal government passed the landmark Title IX legislation that mandated public schools to support girls’ teams at an equal level to the boys’.
Today it’s impossible to think about high school basketball in Kentucky without acknowledging how much our culture has been enriched by Hall of Fames such as Geri Grigsby, Donna Murphy, Lea Wise Prewitt, Erin Boley, and many others.
Of course, the landscape has changed remarkably over the years. Many of the small schools – the ones with legendary and romantic names such as Inez, Carr Creek, and Brewers – have disappeared, victims of consolidation. Today many of the best players leave their high schools to play at “academies” designed to put them on the fast track to the big-time colleges and the NBA. The list of coaches who can be accurately described as “legends” has dwindled to a precious few.
Go to your neighborhood high school on a game night. Listen to the pep band playing. Smell the popcorn popping. Watch the cheerleaders take the floor during timeouts and entertain with what has become a sport within a sport. It’s still much the same now as it was in decades past. Times may change, but the essence of the game remains pretty much the same.
When the Kentucky High School Hall of Fame officially opens in a couple of weeks, visitors no doubt will be drawn to the players who made it big in college or the pros: Wes Unseld, Rex Chapman, Darrell Griffith, etc. But with all due respect to them, they are no more important, in the larger scheme of things, than the great players and coaches who stayed home to become educators, lawyers, doctors, judges, government officials, and business leaders.
Some of these former players even were major players in the commonwealth’s social upheavals.
Besides recognizing the achievements of girls’ players and coaches, the Hall of Fame also celebrates integration. In 1957, all-black schools became eligible to play in the KHSAA Boys’ State Tournament for the first time. In 1961, Dunbar High of Lexington became the first all-black school to play in the championship game. And in 1969, Louisville Central became the first traditionally black school to win the state championship.
Once again, it can be argued that basketball, more than any other sport, has contributed to the American civil rights movement. It could be partly because basketball is an intimate sport. It’s impossible to hide a person’s skin color in a basketball uniform, and the crowd is close enough to the action to see the players’ expressions. In basketball, the jersey a player is wearing becomes the only color that matters.
I’m sure it’s a wonderful thing to be an NCAA champion. I’m sure it’s wonderful to be a lottery pick in the NBA draft. But the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame isn’t really about that.
It’s about jumping and reaching for the stars. It’s about riding a fire truck down Main Street the morning after the state championship has been secured, waving at the guy who owns the hardware store, the teacher who made you learn algebra, the policeman who found you when you got lost.
That’s not only the essence of the game; it’s the essence of being a Kentuckian.