What is it about basketball that gets Kentuckians so worked up?
That is a question that basketball teams in the football-mad Southeastern Conference have never understood. Down through the years UK has trampled other SEC teams – but have you studied UK’s record against conference teams this season as they prepare to play the SEC Tournament in Atlanta?
All Kentuckians (I think) love basketball. The game has been first in the hearts of our state’s fans from the Jackson Purchase to the West Virginia line and from Northern Kentucky to Lake Cumberland.
The main reason for the popularity of the game from the very start was that no matter how small a high school was, even if it didn’t have a gym and had to play outside in the mud or even show, at least its boys and girls could play – and win – against the biggest schools in Louisville and elsewhere around the state. And remember this, our girls got to play as early as the boys did, back in the 1920s.
The first boys’ State Tournament was held in 1918. The girls started in 1920. Often a man coached both teams and one, Hazard’s Pat Payne, won state championships for both boys and girls!
The State Tournament for girls stopped after Woodburn, a small school in Warren County, won consecutive championships in 1931 and 1932 and didn’t start again until 1975 when a big Jefferson County school, Butler, won the title. Catholic schools, especially in Louisville and in Northern Kentucky, kept girls basketball alive all those years.
The boys’ game from the very start was popular and no matter how small each community’s school was, Kentuckians couldn’t get enough of ball (to this day, most mountain people just say “ball” when they talk about hoops).
Rupp and Diddle
Adolph Rupp, a Kansas native, came to UK from Illinois in 1930. Ed Diddle, a strapping native of, Adair County who became a member of Centre College’s Praying Colonels who upset mighty Harvard in 1922, became the coach at what then was Western Kentucky State Teachers College. Both Western and UK won so many games that both coaches became members of the Naismith Hall of Fame. Their success made the game even more popular in our high schools. The best thing was that small schools could win. Remember these: Millersburg Military Institute, Heath, Corinth, Corbin, Midway, Sharpe, Brooksville, Hazel Green in Laurel County, Inez (twice!) Hindman, Harlan, Breckinridge Training, Maysville, Brewers, Cuba, Hazard, Earlington and, last year, Shelby Valley, a consolidated Pike County school that took the place of small schools. With just under 600 students, Shelby Valley is no giant.
Kentucky always has had one class for boys and girls basketball, but so many big Louisville schools were dominating the boys’ sport that a move was underway for classes.
From 1958 to 1964, five Louisville schools took all the big hardware home. The Louisville domination started again in 1969 when Central won. Male then won back-back, Shawnee, Central and Male won three years in a row.
The outcry for classes was louder than ever. But Bo Davenport’s Edmonson County team won in 1976 and the tournament as fans loved it was saved. Nine more titles were won by Louisville schools, but enough non-Louisville teams have prevailed that the tourney now seems safe in its current format.
The early gyms
What few gyms Kentucky schools had in the early days often were so small that the free throw lines were used as mid courts. Others had protruding running tracks that prohibited shots from the corners. Hotel ballrooms also were used as gyms. The University of Louisville once played in the Brown Hotel Ballroom.
Rupp, Diddle arenas
Remember Rupp and Diddle? This week the girls are playing for all the marbles at WKU’s Diddle Arena. Next week the boys will be in the spotlight at UK’s Rupp Arena.
What a history! We have enjoyed the game those two great men boosted and now we honor their legacies once more.
One bad thing
The only thing I don’t like about our game is that the home floor has so much to do with which team wins.
The late Frank Litkenhous, from whom I bought the Litratings for The Courier-Journal, had the home advantage all figured out. He said the home floor was good for 10 points in basketball and in football the home advantage was one touchdown, (six points).
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.