The Kentucky Kraze

Why in the name of Dr. James Naismith is Kentucky so basketball crazy?

Have you ever thought about that?

One of the big reasons is that it doesn’t take a lot of youngsters to play the sport—five plus two or three more for a team.

We’re talking about the early days of basketball in our high schools.

Every little community across the breadth of Kentucky had a high school and those schools had a team.

Not many had a gym.

Yes, games were played outside in all kinds of weather.

Carr Creek High School in the remote hills of Knott County had our first famous team.

The Creekers had no gym and no uniforms — but let’s skip ahead a little.

In the regional tournament that was played at Eastern Kentucky State College in Richmond, the mountain team was so popular that Eastern faculty members and some Richmond fans took up a collection and bought uniforms for the mountain boys to wear in the State Tournament at the University of Kentucky.

Carr Creek kept on winning until it was to meet a much bigger school, Ashland.

The teams battled through five overtimes before the Tomcats of Ashland finally won 13-11.

But that was just the start.

Both Ashland and Carr Creek were invited to the national tournament which was held at the University of Chicago.

By then almost every Kentuckian was pulling for Carr Creek. At that time, very few radio stations were in Kentucky.

Fans all over Kentucky gathered at the nearest Western Union office to get reports each time a team scored.

The Creekers finally lost but they came back to Kentucky as conquering heroes.

On the way back via rail, the team stopped in Louisville. Judge Robert Worth Bingham, the owner of The Courier-Journal, arranged a huge banquet for the team in Kentucky’s biggest city, which adopted the mountain boys.

Many years later, Morton Combs, who coached Carr Creek to the state championship in 1956 took me to the site of the old school. The outdoor area where Carr Creek played its games, was on a hill side with a creek below.

I asked Morton what happened when the ball went down the hill and into the creek. The last boy to shoot or who touched the ball had to go get it.

Morton said, “That’s why we were such good shooters!”

When many of the schools didn’t have gyms, they would go — during the school day — and practice “ball” as basketball was referred to throughout the mountains.
Also, some of the bigger schools, especially Hazard High, liked to take great players from surrounding schools.

Some schools took it as a badge of honor if one of their players was good enough to play for Hazard High. Johnny Cox of Letcher County transferred to Hazard and led that team to the state championship. He went on to the University of Kentucky and led the Wildcats to the NCAA championship.

Ted Hornback played for little Sonora High near Elizabethtown. When he was the famed Ed Diddle’s assistant at what is now Western Kentucky University, I interviewed him for my state-wide TV show.

He told a fascinating story about his Sonora team playing another little school that had uniforms.

“My mother made a uniform for me out of my overalls.”

When his teammates saw his uniform, they got their mothers to do the same thing for them.

What about basketball for the girls?

Glad you asked.

The first tournament for girls started in 1920, two years after the boys started.

But the girls’ tournaments were discontinued after the 1932 tournament and didn’t return until 1975 when Butler High won.

Public schools stopped playing, but Catholic schools kept the sport alive. Now even the tiniest of schools play.

The success of Adolph Rupp at UK and Ed Diddle at Western added to the popularity of the sport.

When the late Cawood Ledford started broadcasting UK games on 50,000-watt WHAS in Louisville, he contributed greatly to the growth of basketball.

And now that most games are televised, the sky is the limit for “ball.”

One Response to “The Kentucky Kraze”

  1. Jim Hornback

    Dear Mr. Cox,

    Glad to see my Grandfather is still remembered in the press. I enjoy periodically reading your stories about Kentucky Basketball, especially the great players and coaches. My two brother and I loved visiting Bowling Green and WKU when we were kids through high school. We also never tired of the basketball, tennis, track and field and the players my grandfather told us about. We were absolutely captivated by his stories of his life and coaching.

    While playing junior high basketball in Sacramento, CA we had a new player transfer in to school and I showed up to practice with a red WKU Hilltoppers Basketball T-shirt on and was questioned by the new guy where I got the shirt. The new guy turned out to be Keith Smith the son former Hilltopper basketball player Gregg Smith, brother of Dwight Smith. After high school Keith Smith went on to play on scholarship for University of California Berkeley.

    Thank you,

    Jim Hornback