(Editor's note: This column first appeared in Lexington's KyForward.com.)
By Steve Flairty
One of the first times I heard the phrase “Greatest Show on Earth” was at the Kentucky High School Basketball Tournament. The announcer expressed that hyperbole during the introduction, but for me way back in the 1970s, awash with rural state culture and the popularity of hoops, I didn’t consider it as hyperbole.
It WAS the greatest show, and the district and regional tournaments beforehand were part of the show, and playing them helped give all schools some hope of “going to state.”
Mom and Dad followed the Pendleton County Wildcats when my brother, Mike, and I were starting school. They went to most home games and sometimes road ones; we often tagged along except when Grandma Flairty babysat us. Mom grew up in Pendleton, and Dad in Campbell, so Mom won the battle for the team which received their most attention. Only an occasional Campbell game was added for good measure.
Mom hated her Wildcats making turnovers, and often blamed it on “those showing-off plays.” When the Wildcats played in tournaments and our parents couldn’t go because Dad was working, Mom listened to the games on the radio in the kitchen as she did housework at our home in Claryville. She never cussed much, but when the Wildcats messed up, she’d occasionally spew forth the manure word, and we understood that she got a pass on that since it was her team involved in the act of disappointing.
Later, I became a bigger fan of my alma mater, Campbell County High, but we were usually mediocre…but I always had hope that the Camels would pull a bunch of upsets and go downstate, though we didn’t.
While in college at EKU, I went to Louisville a few times to watch tournament games, and after graduating, the principal of the first school where I taught, Trapp Elementary, invited me to attend the state tournament with him several times.
My tourney experiences became more real when I taught the ’80-’81 school year at Clark County High and served as the assistant girls’ coach to a very good team (not because of me). However, we lost in the semi-finals in an upset to Marshall County on the EKU court in Richmond. That smarted a lot, especially since we were the favorite to win the championship.
For me, as other Kentuckians I’ve known, the March high school excitement and its memories are a part of our social fabric—and often a family affair. I recently asked some friends, both fans and active participants, about their special remembrances of tournament time. I found the responses to be heartfelt.
Billie Jo Chaplin, Butler, Kentucky, grew up in a family that embraced high school tourney time, both as fans and players.
“I am always proud to say that Daddy and two of my nephews all were regional champs and got to make the prestigious trip ‘down to state,’” she said. “My daddy, Jim Belcher, was a member of Campbell County High School 1946 regional champs, coached by Mr. L.E. Woolum. My brother, Keith Belcher’s two sons, Keaton and Kane, were on the 2005 Pendleton County High School regional championship team, coached by Buddy Biggs.”
Keaton and Kane later played college basketball, with Keaton at Belmont and Kane at Pikeville. They later coached together on the Pendleton County staff.
Another family connection to hoops came from Billie Jo’s mother’s side.
“Mom’s first cousin, Billy Ray Lickert, was on the state championship team from Lexington Lafayette somewhere around 1958 and went on to play at UK for the great Adolph Rupp,” she said.
Not unlike so many Kentuckians engaged in agriculture, the feeling that tournament time deserved some sacrifices rang true in Billie Jo’s case. “Being raised in a family that was not only farmers but also milk haulers, vacations were rare to our family,” she noted. “But somehow, Mom and Daddy always made time to go to the boys’ state tournament each year. They never missed a year attending the ‘Sweet 16’ and collected every tournament program from 1946 to 1999.”
Jim Belcher was inducted into his school’s athletic hall of fame a few years back, with Keaton Belcher accepting the award for family and, said Billie Jo, “The 1946 tournament program went to the podium with him.”
Lawrence Weill, who now lives in the western part of the state in Kuttawa, recalls his account of youth adventure while attending Owensboro High during his senior year and celebrating his school being in the Sweet Sixteen.
“A group of us boys organized dribbling a basketball from Owensboro to Freedom Hall,” explained Weill. “We had a rental truck, sandwiches, water and sodas, and two basketballs, one of which was run over by a semi enroute. We were accompanied by a couple of parents in escort vehicles flashing yellow lights and we dribbled all night, down US 231, onto the Western Kentucky Parkway, up the Kentucky Turnpike, and into the stadium just in time for our game. We were announced over the PA system and we ran onto the floor and picked up our last dribbler so he could dunk it.”
Maybe that’s why it’s sometimes called March Madness.
At the risk of telling my age, I had the good fortune, while coaching middle-school girls’ basketball a couple decades back, to have some wonderful young women on my teams. The best leader and perhaps the most talented was Maisha Thomas (now married and is Maisha Jack).
After her group won an eighth-grade championship, she played on Sweet Sixteen tournament teams all four years at Clark County High School and also garnered a “Kentucky Female Athlete of the Year Award” while there.
Maisha recalls, with some dismay, her part in the 1989 state finals against Clay County in overtime.
“I was a sophomore who only averaged 30-something per cent at the free throw,” she said. Her memories of the deciding event are so vivid she tells it in present tense: “I get fouled with no time on the clock; we are down by one point; and we are in the bonus. I have a one and one.”
Then things got a little hairy.
“I’m at the line with their players calling me inappropriate names,” she continued. “All of a sudden, their coach runs on the floor and it seems mayhem occurs. Timeouts are called, the game is delayed, and my teammates are trying to give me pep talks, not knowing it’s making me more nervous. My coach calms everyone on the bench and proceeds to tell us the plan ‘after Maisha makes these shots.’ Well, I go to the line and actually hit the first one.”
Tie game, at least another overtime, but the second shot, well. “My biggest regret,” she continued, “is missing the second shot because that would have ended the game, won the championship, and there would not have ever been two more overtimes.” But there were, and Clay County carried the trophy home.
Maisha went on to have a stellar career playing in college at EKU, a good career in Atlanta as an educator, and a great family. She’ll never forget high tournament time in Kentucky, though, and wonder what might have been.
Doug Sallee, Richmond, who taught and coached basketball at both Clark County and Madison Southern high schools, remembers moving to Winchester as a child and following the powerhouse Clark County, a team which graduated five starters who later played in college. They were rated No. 1 in the state for most of the 1969 season.
Sallee recalled going to the state tournament in Louisville.
“When we got to Freedom Hall,” he said, “my seats were two rows from the baseline in the cheering behind the coaches’ wives…an amazing experience for a sixth-grader.”
Sadly for him and others from Winchester, the Cardinals were upset by small-town team Maytown.
As an assistant for Clark in 1983, Sallee told of what happened to the Cardinals after a huge send-off to Rupp Arena for the Sweet Sixteen with a police escort. Somehow, the bus took a longer route and arrived late.
“When we finally fought through the traffic and got to Rupp Arena,” remembered Sallee, “we had to scramble and rush to change and go through our pre-game talk to get out on the floor in time.”
Coming out on the court, his players looked up into the stands and saw a 17,000-fan “sea of red and white,” mostly because both teams had those as team colors. His team lost, but he called it “my all-time athletic thrill.”
Heather Whyte looks back at her freshman year at Tates Creek High with bittersweet memories.
“I remember the general feeling of the freshman class was that we were an annoyance to the upper classes,” she said. “This, until the tournament. We were 250 extra voices, and we were loud. The excitement of the games, the comradery, and the joy of cheering on the Commodores was the best introduction to high school.”
A friend, Cheryl Wuertle, said she especially liked working in Lexington’s Fayette Mall at tournament time because it “always seemed like the people from the small towns were having a great time whether their teams won or lost.”
That might have been because they were making long and lasting hoops memories, and that’s a pretty good thing.
Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of six books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and five in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. His new book, “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” has recently been released and is available for purchase here. Flairty is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, as well as a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Read his past columns for excerpts from all his books. him at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend him on Facebook.