I’ve had it with publications that print the ignorant opinions about the greatest Kentucky Wildcat basketball players of all time.
USA Today is the most recent newspaper to be guilty.
Knowledgeable people should begin with what I call the Automatic Greats:
Bill Spivey, Dan Issel, Ralph Beard, Cliff Hagan and Alex Groza. Big Al was UK’s high scorer in two NCAA finals. He was the Most Outstanding Player twice and a three-time All-American.
Spivey, Beard and Hagan delivered a total of six national championships. In one of the most dominant NCAA championship performances of all time, Spivey scored 22 points and grabbed 21 rebounds as Adolph Rupp’s Cats defeated Kansas State 68-58 in the 1951 tournament in Minneapolis.
Beard a winner
Beard was a standout on two NCAA championship teams (1948 and ’49) plus a star on the 1946 National Invitation Tournament, champions when the NIT was the equal of the NCAA.
Hagan joined Spivey as a star on the 1951 champions.
Issel is the all-time leading scorer and rebounder for Kentucky, and he accomplished those figures in just three seasons (freshman couldn’t play varsity basketball in those days).
Issel was Rupp’s third choice for a big man during recruiting season, but UK lucked out when Issel became a Wildcat. He was even better as a pro, with Louisville in the American Basketball Association and with Denver in the NBA. When Big Dan retired from the NBA, only Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Erving and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had scored more points.
In their abbreviated pro careers, Groza made All-NBA both of his two pro years and Beard was honored on the second team his initial season and first team the next season.
Hagan was the most graceful player I have ever seen and he had the most beautiful hook shot that was unguardable.
UK vs. the Lakers!
The year that the Lakers (then in Minneapolis) won the NBA championship, the pro team came to Lexington for its preseason practice. John Kundla, a friend of Rupp, coached the Lakers, whose star was big George Mikan. Hagan wasn’t big enough to stop Mikan, but he couldn’t stop Hagan’s hooks. Rupp let me watch every scrimmage and to this day I have never seen better basketball.
USA Today’s pickers chose this top eight: Issel, Jamal Mashburn, Kenny “Sky” Walker, Jack “Goose” Givens, Hagan, Tony Delk, Groza and Cotton Nash.
Givens deserves a special place in UK lore. In the 1978 NCAA final in St. Louis, he was lights out with a career-high 41 points to give the Cats a 94-88 victory over (boo, hiss) Duke.
Spivey was unique
The reason I have always thought so much of the 7-foot-1 Spivey is that no one could guard him, and he could shut down any player of his era, and he was a great rebounder and shooter.
You will notice that I didn’t include Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones on my all-time greats. If he had concentrated on just basketball there’s no telling how good he could have been. Much to Rupp’s chagrin, Wah also played football for Paul “Bear” Bryant and was a pitcher for the UK baseball team. The Southeastern Conference honored him as an SEC Legend in both basketball and football, the only athlete so honored.
Beard, Hagan and Jones all led their high school teams to state championships. Rupp liked to get a player who had played for a state champion. Beard won with Male High, Hagan with Owensboro and Jones with, Harlan.
About the Author (Author Profile)
Earl Cox, Sports Columnist
Earl doesn¹t just write about sports legends, he counts many of them as his
friends. A member of the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, he has been writing
about sports for 60 years. Incidentally, that¹s about how long it’s been
since he¹s cleaned his desk but he knows where everything is.