Mark Story: Kentucky hoops legends offer theories on why our state's production of top basketball players has declined so

July 14, 2014 

I never attend an event such as Saturday's Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame induction in Elizabethtown without feeling a sense of Paradise Lost.

Looking around the room filled with native born Kentucky hoops stars, from 83-year-old Frank Ramsey to 28-year-old Chris Lofton, it was impossible not to wonder why the commonwealth no longer produces high-level basketball talent like it once did.

So far in the 21st Century, our state has turned out one genuine NBA star (Rajon Rondo), one genuine college star (Lofton) and a strong Class of 2008 which featured Scotty Hopson, Shelvin Mack and Darius Miller, all of whom have made it to the NBA.

For a state with Kentucky's passion for basketball, that's not an abundant production of substantial basketball players.

"There's no question, it's not like it used to be," said Al Prewitt, the state championship-winning, former Henry Clay High School coach. "I can't explain it, but there's not the talent there used to be coming out of the state."

Kentucky seems to produce fewer elite basketball players with each passing decade.

The 1960s yielded the commonwealth's golden era with truly great players being turned out all around the state. Louisville produced Wes Unseld, Mike Redd and Ron King. The rest of the state yielded Tom Thacker (Covington); Jeff Mullins (Lexington); Clem Haskins (Campbellsville); Butch Beard (Hardinsburg); Jim McDaniels (Scottsville); Jim Rose (Hazard); Clarence Glover (Horse Cave); Greg and Dwight Smith (Princeton); Mike Casey (Shelbyville) and Dave Cowens (Newport).

In the 1970s, the production of top-level college prospects seemed to recede to the cities — but Lexington and Louisville were strong. Our city turned out Jack Givens, James Lee, Vince Taylor, Dirk Minniefield and Melvin Turpin, while The Ville yielded Wesley Cox, Robert Miller, Darrell Griffith, Bobby Turner, Jeff Lamp, Lee Raker and Jerry Eaves.

By the '80s, our state still produced multiple McDonald's All-Americans, players like Rex Chapman and Allan Houston, Winston Bennett and Tony Kimbro. The commonwealth also turned out a 7-foot-2 center, Felton Spencer, who played in the NBA.

The 1990s were not quite as impactful. Our state's best homegrown players were Derek Anderson, Greg Buckner and DeJuan Wheat. Scott Padgett and Dan Langhi were good college players who cashed NBA paychecks. J.R. VanHoose was a high school legend who became a solid college player.

As the 21st Century progresses, Kentucky's talent production seems to be getting leaner. From 2010-14, the state of Kentucky has had only seven players make the Rivals 150 (and three of them moved here from out of state while in high school). Over the same time, Tennessee has had 20 such players, Indiana 30.

What gives?

Ramsey, the former University of Kentucky and Boston Celtics star, pointed a finger at school consolidation. When he was starring at Madisonville in the 1940s, Ramsey said there were 13 different high schools in Hopkins County.

"So there were 13 teams for the district tournament," Ramsey said. "Back then, 130 guys got to dress out for the tournament. Well, now, there are three (high) schools in Hopkins County. That means 30 guys (play varsity basketball). Well, some of the kids don't develop as players until they are juniors or seniors. All of them get weeded out. They give up."

Jack Givens, who starred at Bryan Station in the early 1970s, believes Kentucky's hoops talent pool is diluted because there are now so many more options that compete for young people's interest and time.

"Back when we were coming up, we didn't have anything else to do (but play basketball)," Givens said. "We couldn't sit inside and play video games all day. We couldn't go to the mall. We didn't have cars. We didn't have all the choices kids have now days. We just had to go to the park (to play ball). I think that contributed to us having great basketball at that time."

I think there is some merit in both theories, but I'm also guessing there has been substantial school consolidation in other states, too. I know there's now lots to do for kids everywhere.

Many hope the dearth of top basketball players being produced in Kentucky is cyclical. If so, it's a cycle starting to feel more like a drought of Biblical proportions.

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