Editor's Note: This column by Steve Flairty first appeared in KyForward.com.
Starting with my youthful years, I’ve enjoyed learning about well-known basketball players, especially ones connected to Kentucky.
In the sixties, I admired players such as Louie Dampier, Cotton Nash, Larry Conley, and Mike Casey, all who played for Kentucky. I also liked others from schools around the state: hoopsters such as Westley Unseld and Butch Beard (Louisville), George Stone (from Covington but played for Marshall), and Clem Haskins (Western Kentucky). Looking even further back to the fifties, I became aware of John Turner, from Newport, who was an All-American for Louisville, and I was pleased to discover that he was the brother of one of my in-laws.
Just recently I learned of another Kentucky-born player of the past, Joe Fulks, who played a couple of years for Murray State (then known as Murray State Teachers College) in the early forties and later, beginning in 1946, starred professionally with the Philadelphia Warriors of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), a precursor of the National Basketball Association (NBA). He became a Hall of Famer and is generally considered a pioneer in the use of what is today commonly called the “jump shot.”
The life story of Fulks is a fascinating, rags-to-riches one, though it ended tragically in 1976 when he was shot and murdered, reportedly by his girlfriend’s son in a dispute over a handgun.
Alcohol was involved. Fulks was only 54.
Fulks was born on October 26, 1921, in the western part of Kentucky in Marshall County. His family was dirt-poor. Patrick Sauer, in his article in Vice Sports referencing John Christgau’s book, Origins of the Jump Shot, described a part of his upbringing like this:
The Fulks (family), like most families in the area, were penniless. According to Christgau, Joe’s school only had two basketballs; practicing at home meant pretending to dribble a sock stuffed with rags, toilet paper, or sawdust. His father, Leonard, drank, and the family was always on the margins. Joe was a shy, sullen kid, and a nearly fatal black widow bite caused him to withdraw even more. Shooting baskets alone on a ramshackle hoop became his refuge from everyday hardship. It’s a familiar basketball story right through to today.
He played high school basketball in the tiny hamlet of Birmingham, a place, incidentally, that later disappeared when the Tennessee River was dammed by the Tennessee Valley Authority to create Kentucky Lake. His family moved to Kuttawa, in Lyon County, where Joe played at the local high school his senior year, graduating in 1939. There, he became known as the “Kuttawa Clipper” and led his school to its only trip to the state tournament. According to The Kentucky Encyclopedia, the 6’5” Fulks “practiced his long arcing jump shots by tossing bricks through outdoor basketball goals in schoolyards.”
He received a college basketball scholarship to nearby Murray and after playing two years, followed the lead of many other young American men during World War II and enlisted in military service, choosing the United States Marine Corps. He became a part of a U.S. touring basketball team and, showing magnificent skills, pro basketball scouts took notice.
Fulks signed with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1946 and in his first year, led the league in scoring. He would later hold the single-game NBA record of 63 points in a game until Elgin Baylor broke it in 1959. In retirement, he was recognized as one of the ten members of the “NBA Silver Anniversary Team,” though in time—and sadly — some of the glitter passed regarding his amazing career.
Alcohol, as reported, was not his friend.
I talked to former Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham, who grew up in the area where Fulks honed his ball playing craft as a youngster, often in solitude. The future judge also embraced the mystique surrounding such a local hero. He recalled these occasions from his childhood:
“Joe’s parents lived about five houses up the hill from us in Old Eddyville. One day his mother took me inside and showed me all his trophies. There was a framed cartoon from the Philadelphia Enquirer that I will never forget. It showed Joe throwing basketballs into a cement mixer. They were building a new arena in Philadelphia and the message of the cartoon was that Joe was drawing such big crowds that he was actually building the new arena.
“Sometimes, long and lanky Joe would come visit his dad who worked at the prison and was a commercial fisherman. We boys would be playing basketball out in my backyard on a gray, cold winter day. We’d see his dad and Joe walking down the river road near my house toward the river. We’d stop play and simply stand in silence and watched until he was out of sight. Then, we would resume play. We all knew who he was. And no one spoke. Just stood there in silent awe and watched. And then, only after they had passed out of sight, we would resume the noisy din of play, not ever mentioning who we had just watched pass our way…a silent tribute from boys at play.”
After Fulks retired in 1954, he worked for the GAF Corporation in Calvert City, in Marshall County, for 20 years. He followed that career by becoming the recreation director of the Kentucky State Penitentiary at Eddyville, close to Kuttawa.
The death of Joe Fulks presents a tragic ending to such a story of inspiration that demonstrates how a poor boy from Kentucky could overcome much and become a national person of note. We all wish a happier ending.
In Christgau’s afore-mentioned book, he describes in detail the events leading up to and after the shooting. It’s not pretty and I’ll spare the details here. But I’ll share the author’s sad comments on Fulks and his roller coaster life ride.
On some modern calendars, Veterans Day is subtitled “Remembrance Day.” In 1996, Remembrance Day came on a Monday, and early that morning a band of clouds drifted down from the Great Lakes and darkened the skies of western Kentucky. At noon the temperature dropped suddenly and a light snow fell. When the clouds finally passed, the sky turned a bright blue, but a chill remained in the air and the small cemetery in Briensburg, Kentucky where Joe Fulks was buried went unvisited on Remembrance Day.
That weekend the NBA had celebrated its 50th Anniversary by publishing a list of the fifty greatest players in league history. Joe Fulks was not on the list. That 63 point night in Indianapolis had been the high water mark of his fame. From that point on his reputation had receded as slowly as those Tennessee River backwaters, whose rise and fall seemed to mark the design of his own life. On Remembrance Day of 1996, his scoring and his magic shot were as forgotten as his home town of Old Birmingham, which long before had disappeared beneath the waters of Kentucky Lake. Even the stone that marked his grave was a poor reminder of his basketball glories.“
Joseph Franklin Fulks,” the simple inscription read, “Corporal, US Marine Corps.”
Article sources: The Kentucky Encyclopedia; commons.wikimedia.org; sports.vice.com; The Origins of the Jump Shot, by John Christgau (book)
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. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #4,” was released in 2015. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.”