Knott County: Enduring magic of Carr Creek

Tiny Knott school occupies special place in state hoops lore

mstory@herald-leader.comAugust 28, 2005 

  • Knott County Ten things to know about Knott County: * County's birth: Formed in 1884, the 118th of Kentucky's 120 counties in order of formation. *Named for: James Proctor Knott, governor of Kentucky at the time of the county's conception. * Population: 17,582 (2004 U.S. Census Bureau estimate) Rest: * Demographics: 17,348 whites; 136 blacks; 114 Hispanics; 33 Asians/Pacific Islanders; 11 American Indians. * County seat: Hindman (144.7 miles southeast of Lexington) * 2004 U.S. presidential election: Kerry 4,685; Bush 2,648. * Favorite son: Hindman native Carl D. Perkins, a legendary political figure in the mountains, represented Eastern Kentucky in the U.S. Congress from 1949 until his death in 1984. * No Old Man River: Knott is the only county in Kentucky that does not contain or border a river (source: Kentucky Encyclopedia). * A Fire Down Below: The Steven Seagal film of that name was partially filmed in Knott County (as well as other Eastern Kentucky counties). * Alice Lloyd: The college in Pippa Passes in Knott County is named for a social reformer who helped found the college in 1923.

This column was originally published on Aug. 28, 2005.

CARR CREEK -- In life, one's enthusiasms should dictate one's travel itinerary.

If your love is English literature, at least one visit to Stratford on Avon is a requirement.

If baseball is your thing, the monuments in Yankee Stadium are must-see.

And if your passion is basketball in Kentucky, at least once in your life you owe yourself a visit to ...

... Carr Creek.Of all the enchanted names that fill this commonwealth's basketball past -- Brewers and Cuba; Inez and Hindman; Corinth, Sharpe, Kavanaugh -- no school has retained more appeal through history than Carr Creek.

The name evokes what still may be the single most famous high school basketball game ever played in Kentucky:

In the 1928 state championship game, little Carr Creek -- with 18 boys in the school, an outdoor court (no gym for games or practices) and no basketball uniforms (early in the year, the team played in bib overalls, according to the legend) until the state tournament -- took heavily favored Ashland to four overtimes before losing.

The name "Carr Creek" still evokes what may be the single most famous high school basketball state tournament ever played in Kentucky:

In 1956, the Elvis of Kentucky high school hoops -- Wayland's legendary King Kelly Coleman -- set records for most points (68) in a Sweet Sixteen game; most rebounds (28) in a state tournament game; and most points in a four-game state tourney (185).

But the state champion was Coach Morton Combs and Carr Creek.

"As precious as this sounds, it's the place people still believe in," says Tom Thurman, producer of the 2002 KET documentary on the history of basketball in Kentucky.

Oracle of Carr Creek

Traveling into Kentucky's basketball past, what you're not prepared for is how physically beautiful the trip will be.

The old Carr Creek High -- which now houses a social services facility -- sits halfway up a mountain. It looks down on Carr Creek Lake.

The view is gorgeous.

Next door to the old school is a living pipeline into the basketball past.

Morton Combs is 92 now. His wife, Dale, says the coach's health hasn't been quite the same since he had a nasty bout with a staph infection after heart surgery a few years back.

Combs' hearing isn't what it once was but, as they say, his mind is sharp.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon, he is able to converse with visitors about his own basketball legacy.

In 1932, Combs was a senior for the Hazard High team that was facing Male in the state championship game. With some 20 seconds remaining in a tied game, Hazard took and missed a shot.

There ensued what history records as "a wild scramble" for the rebound. Combs got it, stuck it in the basket and gave Hazard a state title.

"That was a long time ago," he says, when asked what he recalls about hitting a shot that decided a state tournament.

But the memory is not that distant. At one point, Combs opens a drawer in his living room, pulls out a yellowed newspaper clipping and hands it to a visitor.

It is a team picture of the 1932 state champs.

In 1956, the state tournament hero became a state championship coach. Carr Creek beat Central City, Allen County, Wayland and Henderson to capture what would be the famed school's one and only state championship.

One Carr Creek player, Freddie Maggard (father of the late-1980s-era UK quarterback of the same name), hit game-winning shots to beat both Central City and Wayland.

As a boy, "I had a foam ball and an oatmeal box that I cut the bottom out of," Maggard says. "It was Carr Creek; what else was there to do? At night, I just kept shooting the ball at that box."

Will Rogers' favorites

There were also the stories of 1928.

That Carr Creek team did not even have uniforms until fans in Richmond raised money to buy them after the Knott County school won the regional title.

After its state tournament run, Carr Creek was invited along with Ashland to a national high school tourney in Chicago.

With eight players who were all related, Carr Creek won three games (Ashland won the tournament) in Chi-town and became the rage among the nation's newspaper columnists.

One who took a turn at telling the story was a writer who never met a man he didn't like.

Will Rogers.

But by 1956, Carr Creek had some reason to feel snakebit. The little school had returned to the state tournament in 1930, '31 and '48 -- without winning the title.

In 1955, Morton Combs says his team might've been the best in the state, but it lost in the 14th Region tourney to eventual state champ Hazard and Johnny Cox.

But in the '56 state tourney opening round, E.A. Couch (whose son Joey also would play football at UK), hit a pair of free throws to take tourney favorite Central City into overtime.

Maggard then won the game.

In the semis against King Kelly and Wayland, Carr Creek's Jim Calhoun "held" Coleman to 28 points (and 28 rebounds).

Given that the King averaged 47 points a game as a senior, it really was a hold.

Meanwhile, the guy who grew up shooting a foam ball at an oatmeal box again buried the game-winning jumper.

"Top of the key both times," Maggard says of his game-winners. "But you know what? The ball just happened to find me. Any of the other guys would've done it, too. We were a team. The Carr Creek Indians won; not Freddie Maggard."

After overthrowing King Kelly, getting by Henderson in the finals was almost a relief.

It was the third year in a row that a mountain team captured the Sweet Sixteen (following Inez and Hazard).

No 14th Region team has won one since.

This March, it will be 50 years since Carr Creek ruled Kentucky for the one and only time.

But coaches are funny.

Even in their 90s, it seems the losses hurt more -- and linger longer -- than the victories feel good.

Ask Morton Combs about the '56 state title, he tells you, "If we'd had better luck, I think we could've won the state tournament two, three or four times. I still think about that."

Not a local fascination

Of course, every school's history is special to those who lived it.

What makes Carr Creek unique is the draw it holds for people from other parts of Kentucky.

Documentary filmmaker Thurman, who grew up in Shelby County, figures the enduring fascination is mostly about 1928.

"When you have a team that can't even afford their own uniforms, it's the ultimate underdog story," he says.

"Think about the basketball stories that become legend: They always involve the state winners. But Carr Creek in 1928 was such a powerful story, it didn't matter."

A few years back, four high school basketball lovers from Hardin County -- none of whom had any connection to Knott County -- traveled halfway across the state just to see the place that lived so vividly in their minds.

"The 1956 state tournament was the first one I ever saw and it was one of the most colorful ones ever played," says one of those four, Kenneth Tabb (who happens to be Hardin County clerk). "To get to go in the gym there at Carr Creek, and meet Coach Combs, it was just wonderful."

Thirty-one years after the little high school in Knott County closed its doors for the final time, a longtime educator from a neighboring county walks in the Carr Creek gym Wednesday in the company of a Herald-Leader writer.

"I got chills," says Ira Combs, former athletics director at Perry Central High.

If you grew up loving basketball in Kentucky, you owe yourself one trip to Carr Creek.

To feel the chills for yourself.

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