High school hoops still special

A recent call from Ken Trivette of the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame presented both an honor and a challenge.

Trivette suggested I write something about what makes Kentucky high school basketball special as part of a collection of columns from writers around the state to mark the 100-year anniversary of high school basketball. I was able to visit the facility last summer when my former high school classmate, Phil Cox, was part of the most recent induction class. Former Harlan star Wah Wah Jones had been inducted earlier in the process, and there’s a good chance we could have some more with Harlan County ties added soon.

It was a great experience for me, starting with a list of every high school to have a basketball team over the history of the sport listed by region next to the parking across the street from where the induction ceremony is held. The program began with the inductees being introduced as they walked into the facility and followed with those in attendance having a chance to meet the former players and coaches who were being inducted. The program included videos on each inductee followed by speeches.

Being asked to contribute in a small way is quite an honor for someone like me, who has spent thousands of hours in gyms across the state through 33 years of covering basketball. Trying to describe why I like basketball wasn’t quite as simple as you might imagine. For me, it was a little like trying to answer why I like breathing.

My first high school basketball experience, the best I can remember, was soon after my family moved to Browning Acres in 1971, conveniently located across the road from James A. Cawood High School. I could see the lights of the school’s gymnasium from my room at home, beckoning me to a game that would soon become an important part of my life and remain with me through the next 45 years and the years to come.

Even though I love the Sweet 16 experience, high school basketball means much more than just the glitz and glamour of Rupp Arena in March. There were all those nights on the stage at Evarts High School, listening to Jim Blevins introduce the players and talking to former coach Earl Rogers or sitting at Cumberland High School talking to “Big Harv” Creech about the old days of the Baltimore Colts or Walter Dick about Tri-Cities sports history. I remember walking down a creaking hallway and into the old Lynn Camp gymnasium on a cold January night when neither team was very good and Evarts coach David Parks, in his usual perfect comedic timing, asking if I “drew the short straw today.”

Cawood wasn’t very good in those first years, but Dad and I were regulars at the Trojandome and we saw plenty of good teams and players, beginning with Ralph Roberts’ Cumberland Redskins. I can still remember the cool maroon warmups worn by the Redskins and star player Larry Cockrel during the district tournament.

Dad took me to most of the games I saw in the 70s, usually to Cawood but occasionally to Harlan or Evarts. I saw so many teams that are no longer around — Leatherwood, Lone Jack, Henderson Settlement, Richmond Madison, Dilce Combs, M.C. Napier, Virgie, Elkhorn City and many others, not to mention Lynch, Evarts, Cumberland and Cawood.

Cawood started to come around in the mid 1970s when John D. Wilson arrived as coach and players like David Parks and Mike Howard, then Greg Coldiron, Lynn Rhymer, Husky Turner and Will Clem turned the Trojans into regional contenders. Cox arrived at Cawood as a student the same day I did in 1977 and eventually became the school’s biggest star, earning Mr. Basketball honors in 1981.

One of my first interviews as a high school journalist was with the Trojans’ new assistant coach, a guy named Mike Jones, who soon developed into one of the state’s best coaches with over 600 wins in a career that began at Cawood and ended four years ago at Harlan County High School when he was succeeded by his son, Michael, a star on Jones’ Harlan teams in the 1990s that also included the county’s other Mr. Basketball, in Charles Thomas, and other all-staters such as Todd Cox and Casey Lester.

There were also plenty of stars when I began work as a sports writer in the mid 1980s, led by all-stater Nick Sanford, at Cawood, who went on to earn All-American honors under Cox at Lincoln Memorial University. Other stars of that era included Jeff Miller at Harlan and future Harlem Globetrotter Paul Gaffney and Lewis Morris at Cumberland. There were also many great coaches in that era, including Roberts, Jones and Billy Hicks, another member of the Hall of Fame who started at Evarts, his alma mater, then moved to Harlan, then Corbin and then Scott County, where he still coaches and has won a couple of state titles and will be in contention for another this season. You can’t talk high school in the 13th Region without mentioning Clay County legend Bobby Keith, who led the Tigers to a state title in 1987 with Richie Farmer as the star.

It was a great learning experience for me in the early days of my journalism career to be around people like Jones and Hicks, who helped teach me the value of hard work and consistency.

I also met Luther Blanton during that time and spent hundreds of nights traveling with him to gyms all around eastern Kentucky as he kept the scorebook and I wrote the game story. I still stop at Dairy Queen to talk basketball and other topics with Luther, my dad and sometimes former Harlan coach David Davies.

I remember very well girls basketball arriving on the high school level in 1974 when I was a student at Hall Elementary School, a good place to be to see the best girls basketball around with Kim Kelley as the county’s first great player, beginning at Hall, then for five years at Cawood High School and then on to UNC-Charlotte. Lynette Lewis followed, teaming with Kelley and coach Basil Mills as leaders on the 1978 team that won the county’s first 13th Region championship. Lewis went on to the University of Kentucky.

Cumberland won the region twice in the 1980s with John Bond as coach and players such as Monica Owens, Nickie Snow and Amy Morris leading the way. Harlan won in 1987 led by current Harlan County coach Debbie Hoskins Green and Patti Myers, whose daughter, Maci Morris, is now at UK. Harlan won twice in the 1990s led by current Harlan coach Tiffany Hamm under the legendary Doc Gray. The Lady Dragons won two more regional titles the past two seasons with Derrick Akal as coach and Jordan Brock as the star guard. Harlan County, led by all-staters Blair Green and Kaylea Gross, was second the past two years and is the favorite this season. Green will soon join Morris at the University of Kentucky.

Cumberland, with coach Bill Scott and star guard Eddie Creech, made an unexpected trip to the state tournament in 2003 in one of the most exciting runs through the 13th Region Tournament. Harlan County, with Michael Jones as coach and Cameron Carmical, Treyce Spurlock and David Turner providing outstanding senior leadership, gave Black Bear Nation its first 13th Region title last March with thrilling regional tournament wins over South Laurel and Corbin. Watching a local team back in the state tournament, especially a school that I spent several years fighting for on these pages in the heated consolidation debate, was extremely satisfying. The basketball part was great, but being able to see a county come together the way it has over the past decade through its teenagers, may have been even better.

There aren’t many days when someone doesn’t ask me about the Kentucky Wildcats, a program that grows more distant for me as each new group of freshmen stops in Lexington on the way to the NBA. Why anyone would miss a local high school game to sit home and watch strangers wearing UK jerseys baffles me. Give me high school basketball any day.