With 33 seconds left, Hazard’s Bob Baker stepped to the free throw line against Clay County in the first round of the 1957 boys’ Sweet Sixteen. According to then Lexington Herald assistant sports editor Billy Thompson, Baker “calmly canned” both to put the Bulldogs in front, 48-47. Nine seconds later one of Baker’s teammates — Linville Wright — put two more freebies through the net and Hazard walked away with a 50-47 victory.
Sixty years later, the game-deciding free throws of a first-round matchup still carry weight, not because they led to a state championship — Hazard lost to Pikeville in its next game — but because of who made them.
Thompson called Baker the “hero” for the Bulldogs. He came off the bench to lead Hazard with 15 points. But he, Wright and teammate Don Smith all earned capes that day.
They were the first black players to ever play in the KHSAA boys’ basketball state tournament, a landmark moment for Kentucky on its grandest prep stage, coming about three years after a decision was handed down in “Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka” and six years before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech that defined the civil rights movement.
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In the moment, though, the Hazard trio’s feat wasn’t treated with much fanfare. Today, it’s surprising to hear that the first black players to reach the Sweet Sixteen were not from Lexington or Louisville, but a small school in Perry County.
“Nobody made a big issue of it at the time but y’know, down through the years it’s grown as a good thing,” said Astor “Cat” Sizemore, who played on that 1957 team (Baker is deceased and neither Smith nor Wright could be reached for comment).
David Cosby was one of three black players to start for Seneca in the state tournament four years after Hazard’s trio broke the color barrier. Cosby, a junior, along with senior George Unseld Jr. and sophomore Mike Redd, led Seneca, which opened in 1957, to the Sweet Sixteen two months before it held its first graduation ceremony in 1961.
Unseld and Cosby were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the state by the Courier-Journal entering the 1960-61 season, unprecedented honors at the time for black players in the still freshly integrated public school system. In an era when blacks and whites still couldn’t watch movies in the same cinema together, those accolades didn’t carry additional privilege.
“There were certain places that black folks weren’t allowed to go,” Cosby said. “I can remember when we went to Lexington to play in the state tournament, there were certain places we couldn’t stay. We went to play Ashland in the Ashland Invitational and Unseld and I both fouled out and played probably 10 minutes in the game.
“That was pretty tough for two 16-year-olds at the time to have to deal with.”
Central vs. Pikeville
Ken Trivette, former executive secretary of the Kentucky Association of Basketball Coaches, recalled a moment earlier in 1957 that he witnessed as a youngster from the bench as his father, John Bill Trivette, coached Pikeville in the Louisville Invitational Tournament.
The Panthers, using an evolutionary “diamond press” defense, met Louisville Central in the semifinals that season. It was the first time Central — the two-time defending national champions in a blacks-only event and a five-time champ in the Kentucky High School Athletic League, an organization for black schools similar to the KHSAA which folded in 1957 — had been invited to play in its city’s preeminent tournament.
Ken said the quality of play was “outstanding.” Central prevailed 80-78 in overtime, and the teams received a standing ovation upon completion.
“What was that ovation about?” Ken said. “Well, it was the quality of the game but moreso probably in the way they managed themselves. The coaches and players on both sides.”
Two weeks later, Central invited Pikeville back to Louisville to participate in a doubleheader at Freedom Hall. All the proceeds went to benefit flood-relief efforts in Eastern Kentucky; Pikeville had lost its gym during the LIT and was forced to play the rest of its games that season on the road.
The rematch, preceded by a tilt between Lafayette and Manual, drew nearly 9,000 fans to the Louisville Fairgrounds. Pikeville took round two, 74-69.
“I’m sure a lot of people in that gym said, ‘Oh, there’ll be the awfulest brawl that’s ever was,’ and some of them were probably wanting it to happen, I’m sure. The racists, the people that didn’t want integration,” Ken Trivette said. “But that’s what good leadership does. (Central’s William) Kean was a great coach and had great control of his kids. My dad was a great coach and had great control of his kids. And they played each others’ hind-ends off.”
Sports have always been on the cutting edge of societal progress, Trivette said, and integration was no different.
“People thought when they would be given the opportunity to play, there would be fights, there would be riots, there would be crowd-control issues, this, that and the other,” he said. “And it didn’t work out that way.”
‘Under our skin’
Riots might not have broken out during games, but the constructs and effects of segregation were still very much suffered by Seneca’s black stars in the early 1960s. Cosby recalled he and his teammates being called every bad word one could possibly throw his way during games.
“We caught a lot of hell and a lot of it was just trying to get us out of the game,” Cosby said. “We saw what was trying to happen. Most of the time, the good players wanted to compete. (Ashland’s) Larry Conley never called me the N-word. ... (St. Xavier’s) Mike Silliman never did that. But most of your players that were just average players, or players that were no good, it was their job to come in, try to get up under our skin so we could get a tech and get kicked out of the game.”
Cosby faced racism not just from opponents, but internally. A brother of one of his teammates phoned his home one night looking for a football.
“(He) basically said, ‘N-----, if you keep the ball over there with you all I’m gonna blow your damn brains out,’” Cosby said. “And my brother, he’s five years older than me and he picked up the other phone. ‘He said, well I’m gonna be at the game with my shotgun, too.’”
Coach Bob Mulcahy, a former player at Lafayette and Eastern Kentucky University, was Seneca’s first coach. He led the Hawks to state titles in 1963 and 1964 before leaving for the college ranks.
After graduating in 1962, Cosby was bitter because he felt Mulcahy could have done more to help relieve racial tension within and outside the locker room. As he’s grown, though, he sympathizes with the circumstances the first-time head coach found himself in.
“I think he was put in one hell of a predicament because it was unprecedented,” Cosby said. “… I think that he handled it the best he could during those times. It was all new. When we went to Seneca, we had never been around white people before and white people had never been around us before, so it was a new experience for everybody.”
He appreciated that Mulcahy just wanted to win and didn’t allow color to dictate how he assembled his rotation. During a Seneca Hall of Fame event in October in which Cosby and Mulcahy were both inducted, the latter shared a story of open tryouts during his first season. Black and white players were playing on separate ends of the basketball court.
A player came up and asked Mulcahy if anyone could try out for the team.
“Yeah, if you can play,” Mulcahy remembered. The player responded, “Well I can beat anybody that you got out there.”
Cosby interrupted Mulcahy’s speech at that moment.
“At the time, I could,” he told the crowd with a laugh.
‘Everything has changed’
Since Hazard’s black players took the floor in 1957, athletics have been revolutionized.
“In my high school days, basketball was still a white boy’s game,” Cosby said. “Blacks hadn’t really integrated yet. ... So I think it has evolved now and it’s so open now. There are so many opportunities now that never existed in the early 1960s for black athletes.”
Cosby’s grandson, Aaron Cosby, played Division I college basketball and is currently playing professionally for the Bristol Flyers in the British Basketball League. He likes to think he played a role in opening the door for young men like his grandson.
Mike Redd would go on to win Mr. Basketball as a senior at Seneca, becoming the state’s first black player to earn its most prestigious individual preps honor. Three of the next four Mr. Basketball winners after Redd also were black, including his teammate Wes Unseld, the future Louisville and Baltimore/Washington Bullets star, in 1964. (Redd is deceased. Unseld could not be reached for comment).
David Cosby earned a scholarship to play for the University of Cincinnati a year after George Unseld earned one to play at the University of Kansas. The same season Cosby joined UC, the University of Louisville welcomed its first black scholarship basketball players — Wade Houston, Sam Smith and Eddie Whitehead. Despite the best efforts of Coach Adolph Rupp to recruit the likes of Wes Unseld and Butch Beard to Kentucky, according to former Seneca and University of Kentucky student manager Grover Sales, UK wasn’t able to sign its first black player — Tom Payne out of Shawnee — until 1969.
Hazard continued to figure prominently in the state’s sports integration after 1957. Sam Smith played at Hazard and was the first black player to see the court and the first black starter in U of L basketball history before transferring to Kentucky Wesleyan College, where he helped the Panthers win a national championship. Houston Hogg, who began his career at Hazard before his family moved to Daviess County, was one of the first black players to play a full career for UK’s football team at the end of the 1960s.
Cokie Cox, the brother of former Hazard star Johnny Cox, was in the eighth grade when Hazard consolidated with Liberty High, the black high school. After college he became a teacher at Hazard and was mentored by Ovetta Basey, a black woman who had taught at Liberty.
“She was kind of my momma the first year I taught,” Cox said with a laugh.
Cox said as a youth he didn’t witness any major incidents or hysteria — riots, picketing, racial efficacies, etc. — when the schools consolidated, and once asked Basey how that could have been the case. She described to him a meeting that took place with the incoming Liberty staff, the existing Hazard staff and longtime superintendent Roy Eversole.
“She said he made a statement that kind of stunned everybody,” Cox said. “‘If any of you in this audience have got a problem with what we’re gonna do, find you another job now.’ He was a tough nut.”
Progress has been made, but racial inequalities continue to grab headlines in the 21st century. Cosby, who followed his father into the construction business after his basketball days were done, thinks integration has done a lot in bridging a divide between blacks and whites, and continues to provide models from which both groups can learn and grow.
“You’ve got black coaches, you’ve got black teachers. You’ve got people who grew up around black people, people like yourself that maybe didn’t realize some of these things existed,” Cosby told the Herald-Leader. “In the past, people just accepted these things because their parents told them these things. They had their notions about black people because most of the time they had seen black folks as sharecroppers or slaves. … As people have gotten older and gone to school with other people, I think everything has changed.”
For Cosby, it was basketball — and the ignorance he overcame on the court — that made him feel like more of an equal.
“You took out your bitterness on the basketball court when you won games or proved that you could compete or were as good as your white counterpart. That’s the competitiveness that it taught me. ...
“If you could compete in basketball, which had been segregated, then you could compete in other things in life. You can be the best in basketball. You can be the best in business. You can be the best in this, that. You can be the best in anything you want to try.”
About the Sweetest Century series
Kentucky will celebrate the 100th year of the boys’ state high school basketball tournament when the Sweet Sixteen plays out in Rupp Arena from Wednesday through Sunday this week.
Over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season, the Herald-Leader has published regularly appearing stories on Kentucky.com and in the newspaper highlighting memorable moments from the state tournament’s history.
Our coverage examines the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisits memorable games, champions and moments and looks at where the event goes from here. We’re exploring the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recalling the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.
We’re wrapping up the series this week as part of our annual Sweet Sixteen preview special section in Wednesday’s Herald-Leader and in posts you’ll be able to find all week on Kentucky.com and Kentucky.com/high-school.
And be sure to stay with our coverage throughout the week as new memories are made during the 100th state tournament.
Here are installments in the Sweetest Century series published to date:
March 13, 2017: A year-by-year history of the boys’ Sweet Sixteen
Feb. 15: 2017: Mason County’s Chris Lofton was ‘one of a kind’
Jan. 15, 2017: The team that saved Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen
Nov. 27, 2016: From chaos, the Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen was born