By BOB WHITE
Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame
Adolph Rupp wasn’t sure if Bobby Watson was big enough to play basketball for the University of Kentucky, but it didn’t take long for the 5-foot-10 guard from Owensboro to prove to the legendary coach that he could play at that high level.
Watson, who died Jan. 31 at age 86, after a long bout with Alzheimer’s Disease, started at guard on UK’s NCAA championship team in 1951, and he was chosen on the first-team All-Southeastern Conference squad in 1951 and ’52. He was a long-shot artist.
“I had a scholarship offer from Alabama, and I took a visit there, but the coach didn’t come to see me much,” Watson once recalled. “Harry Lancaster (Rupp’s long-time assistant) told me I could walk on at UK and earn a scholarship.”
By the time Watson had reached the second semester of his freshman year, he had earned a scholarship and he was a starter in his last three seasons as a Wildcat. Watson was the fifth UK player in UK history to reach 1,000 points, scoring 1,001 in 96 games.
After college, Watson played basketball in the armed services and one year of pro ball with the Minneapolis Lakers before going to Henderson County High for one year. Then he hegan a 23-year career at Owensboro where he coached basketball and taught science, compiling a record of 539 wins and 169 losses.
The Red Devils, under Watson, won 18 district titles and 14 Third Region crowns They won two coveted KHSAA Sweet 16 championships in 1972 and 1980. He coached two Mr. Basketball winners, Randy Embry in 1961 and Jerry Thruston in 1980.
Watson also was a frequent visitor to the state tournament as a player.
“We played in it in 1947,” he said. “We finished third, losing to Maysville 56-41 in the semi-finals. We had a good team in ’48 with (Cliff) Hagan, but we lost to Maysville 55-45 in the quarter-finals. We thought we were good enough to win it, but we weren’t lucky enough.”
Hagan led Owensboro to the state crown in 1949, scoring a record-then 41 points in the final game against Lafayette. Hagan later joined Watson, 7-foot Bill Spivey and Frank Ramsey on UK’s ’51 national title team.
Watson was voted Kentucky’s Coach of The Year in 1980, and later was inducted into the Dawhares-KHSAA Hall of Fame, the Owensboro High Hall of Fame and the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.
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Recent Thoughts from Billy Reed
“I don’t have plans and schemes
And I don’t have hopes and dreams
I don’t have anything
If I don’t have you.”
-- The Skyliners, 1958
Last Tuesday morning at the Hyatt-Regency in Lexington, this graduate of Henry Clay High, class of 1961, emceed a press conference where the new inductees to the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame, several of them his contemporaries, were introduced before a small audience that consistently most of a few media representatives, relatives of the inductees, and emissaries from Elizabethtown, where the Hall of Fame is scheduled to open next summer.
That night, this same old Blue Devil emceed the Mr. and Miss Kentucky Basketball banquet for the Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation before a crowd of more than 800 at a Lexington Civic Center Ballroom. The guys wore ties; the girls were gussied up in a lovely array of dresses. Tapping into his inner child, the old Blue Devil introduced the candidates by doing his best imitation of an NBA arena announcer (“From Barren County, Wade Cooooooooooomer!”)
And when the long and happy day was over, when he had time to think about it, the old Blue Devil had to wonder: How much has high school basketball changed in Kentucky over the last 55 years? Not just the game on the floor, but all the things around it – the coaches, the crowds, the communities and social activities?
His answer: A lot in some ways, not so much in others.
The 1960-’61 Henry Clay Blues Devils had a very good team coached by Elmer “Baldy” Gilb, who also was an excellent mathematics teacher. It had three starters who went to major colleges to play basketball – Senior Bill Brooks (West Point) and juniors Pres Judy (Georgia Tech) and Frank Harscher (Duke).
But it had no black players because the Fayette County schools were just beginning to put into practice the historic Brown v. Board of Education law passed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1954. It also didn’t have a girls’ team because Title IX was still more than 20 years in the future.
The best team in town was Dunbar, which still was an inner-city all-black school. The Bearcats were coached by S.T. Roach, a disciple of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He refused to let his players react to ugly taunts from the stands or racist officials. He just pointed to the scoreboard and said, “We’ll do all our talking there.”
Besides keeping score for the Blue Devils, the old Blue Devil also was covering high school sports for The Lexington Herald-Leader at the wizened age of 17. Some around the newspaper were surprised that he actually went to Dunbar to cover the Bearcats in person. In those times, white reporters just didn’t do that. But the old Blue Devil, then young and naïve, figured that the best team in town deserved coverage as good as anybody else.
On Tuesday, George Wilson said, “Coach Roach respected you for doing that and he pointed it out to us.” Today a semi-retired recreation director, Wilson was a Bearcat mainstay in the early ‘60s. Only 6-foot-3, he played center because of his quick leaping ability and his fierce pursuit of rebounds. Now he’s a member of the Hall of Fame class of 2016, and that made the old Blue Devil happy.
He has sweet memories of those coming-of-age times.
“Take my hand, take my whole life, too
But I can’t help
Falling in Love With You”
-- Elvis Presley, 1970
On Friday nights, after filing his game story for the next day’s paper. the intrepid young reporter would drive his ’54 two-tone green Chevy to the Henry Clay gym to catch the end of the sock hop. Such a dance got its name because, in order to dance, everybody had to take off their shoes to keep from scarring the polished gym floor.
He had helped some of his classmates start a band known as the Torques, which featured the aforementioned Brooks on guitar, and doggone if they didn’t sound just like the some of the famed pop groups of the time. At least, that’s what the aspiring sports writer thought as he finally worked up the nerve to ask a girl to slow-dance.
About the only respectable physical activity for girls in those days was cheerleading, and the girls – no boy cheerleaders, are you kidding? – still had on their uniforms, which consisted of heavy blue wool sweaters with an HC emblem, heavy wool white skirts, bobby sox and black-and-white saddle shoes.
To this day, the old Blue Devil can’t imagine anything sweeter than taking a girl in your arms, heart beating wildly as you drew her close enough to smell her sweet perfume and feel her softness, as the disc jockey spun a 45 rpm record of some tune like, oh, “Twilight Time” by the Platters or “Twelfth of Never” by Johnny Mathis.
For a 17-year old boy, even one with glasses and a flattop that had to be treated with regular applications of grease, that may not have been heaven, but it was close as a mortal soul is likely to come.
And so it was across Kentucky, in the little towns with names like Inez and Carr Creek and Mayfield, and in the big cities of Louisville, Lexington, and Covington-Newport. High school basketball, along with the State Fair and The Courier-Journal in Louisville (circulation in all 120 Kentucky counties) was one of the few things that bound all Kentuckians.
The dream of every kid who ever laced up a sneaker was to make the Boys’ State Tournament (remember, there was no girls tournament until 1976), also known as “The Sweet Sixteen,” which alternated between the University of Kentucky’s 11,500-seat Memorial Coliseum and Louisville’s massive Freedom Hall, which also was the site of six NCAA Final Fours from 1958 through ’69.
The Hall of Fame inductees tried, often unsuccessfully, to describe what it meant to make the Sweet Sixteen. Many were the sons of coal miners, farmers, or factory workers. They had to work hard to earn the right to play basketball. They worked to please their coach, certainly, but they also were aware of what the State Tournament meant to their communities.
So when they earned the right to play in one of the Commonwealth’s great basketball cathedrals, when they took off their letter jackets and suited up in their school colors, when they caught that first glimpse of the vast arena and heard their fans singing their school song, well, it was just something, that’s all. How do you put a dream into mere words?
“There are places I remember all my life
Though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain.
--The Beatles, 1965
They say that high school basketball began to change, usually for the worse, somewhere in the 1970s. Consolidation in rural Kentucky killed off a lot of the little country schools with the colorful names and traditions. Integration in the major cities changed the dynamics of the neighborhood schools. Not all the results were negative. Nevertheless, community and neighborhood pride, always the bedrock of high school basketball, was changed forever.
But while the nature of boys basketball was shifting and changing, an exciting new dimension arrived with Title IX, the federal mandate that athletic teams fielding boys teams must all provide girls with equal facilities and opportunities. And so did girls who liked to play ball finally have an option other than cheerleading.
The positive results of Title IX were on display again Tuesday at the Mr. and Miss Kentucky banquet. The girls seemed happy to show off their non-athletic side for a change. But mostly, they impressed with their poise and confidence.
At its best, basketball provides young people with the tools necessary to succeed out there in the Real World – an understanding of leadership, sacrificing for the good of others, being unselfish. And girls need those tools and skills every bit as boys because college admission counselors and future employers value them.
As the old Blue Devil made the introductions, he was keenly aware of the change in musical taste. The introductions were made against a backdrop of rap or hip-hop. Given the choice between a heavy dose of that or a root canal, the old Blue Devil would take the dentist every time. But the kids seem to love it, and allowances must be made in the name of harmony.
The old Blue Devil wants to believe that the change in musical taste did more than anything to kill sock hops. How do you dance to that stuff? Now, after games, kids apparently go to malls to “hang out.” They all are addicted to their smart phones, which enable them to take “selfies” and text-message friends who might be standing 10 feet away.
But, to be fair, the old Blue Devil’s generation spawned its share of ridiculous addictions. Such as Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” And cars with whitewall tires and no mufflers. And the Mickey Mouse Club with Annette Funicello. Ah, Annette. Be still, my heart.
Some schools still have big crowds and some don’t. Some have girls teams that are more successful and popular than the boys. But the popcorn still smells the same everywhere. The legends are still remembered and revered. The coach still is a respected member of the community, although his standing has been undermined by the summer-league coaches who get tied in with “street agents” who are only interested in exploiting the kids.
The highest recruited players now are too often whisked out of state to attend “academies” that are little more than farms teams for the colleges. This hurts the quality of the high school game, which always has been star-driven. It also hurts the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star series, because now there are fewer stars to compete for the No. 1 jersey that goes to Mr. and Miss Kentucky Basketball.
At Tuesday night’s banquet, those honors went to Carson Williams of Owen County and Erin Boley of Elizabethtown, respectively. His selection was considered an upset because a lot of experts really liked Quentin Goodin of Taylor County. But no matter; they’re all winners. Williams is going to Northern Kentucky U., Boley to Notre Dame, and Goodin to Xavier.
Other finalists are going to Bellarmine, Coastal Carolina, Mississippi, and other noted schools. The challenge for Kentucky educators is to get them to come back home when their careers are over, no matter where they go. The Commonwealth needs their leadership, intelligence, and character. We need them to become educators, entrepreneurs, bankers, and community leaders.
A special award was presented to Mike Fields, who last year retired from The Herald-Leader after covering high school sports for almost 40 years. If anybody ever builds a Mt. Rushmore for Kentucky journalists who did the most for high school sports, Mike’s face should be chiseled on it. The same applies to Earl Cox and Bob White of The Courier-Journal.
“Hello, can you hear me?
I’m in California dreaming about what we used to be
When we were young and free.
I’ve forgotten how how it felt
Before the world fell at our feet.
-- Adele, 2015
The old Blue Devil decided he feels good about the present and future of high school basketball. Much fun as it is to reminisce with old-timers about “the good ol’ days” and legends such as new Hall-of Fame inductee Tom Thacker of Covington Grant, today’s kids work just and hard and care just as much as the Hall of Famers. And that’s quite admirable, considering the distractions they have that didn’t exist in the “golden era” of high school basketball, the 1940s through the ‘70s.
Old and young alike also can be proud that high school basketball accepted integration long other elements of society, and that its acceptance of Title IX, however grudging it may have been in the beginning, has changed the lives of countless young women who have gotten from basketball and other sports the same positive lessons that boys were getting for years.
The old Blue Devil wished that all the old-timers who were at the Hall of Fame press conference could have been present at the Mr. and Miss Basketball banquet. The young people were as handsome a bunch as you can possibly imagine. The old-timers would have studied their freshly scrubbed faces, shining with hope and radiating with excitement, and seen an approximation of themselves at that same point in their lives.
The Mr. and Miss awards were presented by Joe B. Hall, the only native Kentuckian in the last 86 years to coach the UK Wildcats. Although in his mid-80s, Coach Hall is young at heart. He looks at the young people and doesn’t think about hip-hop or selfies. He sees kids whose love of the sport had taken them to a special plateau in their loves.
Mostly, he sees hard-working and talented young Kentuckians who futures are as high and bright as the stars above. Same as it’s always been in the state known as Basketball Heaven.