ROBINSON CREEK - To reconnect with one of the biggest "what ifs" in Kentucky basketball history, one travels back to the area where Todd May first became a hoops folk hero.
Today, May works with his two brothers in the Pike County auto parts business their parents have owned for more than 30 years.
At 44, May has a touch of gray in his sandy hair, but the lanky 6-foot-9 frame that once captured the imagination of Kentuckians with its fluidity on a basketball court still looks in playing trim.
"I ride a bike, walk, do some jogging," May says. "I stay in halfway decent shape."
Before John Pelphrey and Richie Farmer went from Eastern Kentucky high school basketball legends to Kentucky Wildcats icons, May seemed headed for that destiny.
"The perfect body for a basketball player," former Kentucky coach Joe B. Hall says of May. "Absolutely great hands. Could shoot with either hand as well as any big man I ever recruited. His potential, I thought there was no ceiling to what he could do."
May led Virgie High School to the Sweet Sixteen in his final two years, earning Kentucky's 1982 Mr. Basketball title. He acceded to intense local pressure and signed with UK amid statewide hoopla. Then his Wildcats career lasted all of five games.
May gave up on the Big Blue dream and transferred to Wake Forest.
At Wake, he broke a foot and never played.
The player whose potential Hall said had no ceiling finished up his college basketball career as an orca whale swimming in a puddle, averaging 40 points a game for Pikeville College.
"Even now," May says, "sometimes, I still get the old questions. Why'd you leave UK? What happened at Kentucky? What if I'd stayed?"
As the 1970s gave way to the '80s, there was something of an unlikely basketball dynasty at Virgie High School.
The little school tucked away in the Pike County mountains went to the Sweet Sixteen five times in six years between 1977 and '82. Mike May, Todd's oldest brother, was integral to the success in the early part of that run.
A rugged 6-foot-6 post player who went on to become a star at Pikeville College, Mike also did a pretty fair job of toughening up his youngest brother in pickup games on the family's gravel court.
"Back in those days, we didn't have video games, computers, cell phones; and there were three channels on TV," Todd May said. "What else was there to do? We played ball pretty much every day."
By the time Todd was a junior in 1980-81, it was becoming apparent that the youngest of the May boys (the middle brother is Randy) was going to be the best.
Todd led Virgie to the quarterfinals of the 1981 state tourney, where they lost a one-point heartbreaker to eventual state champion Simon Kenton.
The next year, Virgie spent the entire season ranked among the state's elite. State championship dreams ended with a one-point gut wrencher again, this time to future state champ Laurel County in the Sweet Sixteen semis.
"That was one of those games you replay many, many times after it was over," May says now. "We led most of the game. In fact, a guy gave me a picture that shows the scoreboard and Virgie ahead 55-50 with like 2:50 left. We let it slip away."
May ended his senior year having averaged 28 points and almost 18 rebounds. He had high games of 40 points, 32 rebounds and 18 blocked shots. College coaches found their way to rural Pike County to see the phenom.
"Great footwork, great hands," says Wayne Martin, who, in the early 1980s, was head coach at Morehead State. "He was just a scoring machine."
With the high school season over, a state's full attention turned to the college recruitment of Todd May.
Wake Forest and Vanderbilt put full-court presses on him. As it always is with a standout player from the UK hotbed of Eastern Kentucky, it was assumed that May would ultimately sign with UK.
Yet May kept hesitating.
Shy by nature and a boy who'd known nothing but life in rural Kentucky, "recruiting just overwhelmed me," May says now. "I was a little backward, maybe, and I just didn't know what I wanted to do."
There was no such indecision among May's fellow Pike Countians.
They wanted to see the local hero in Wildcats blue.
"I think that was probably the deciding factor," May said. "I guess what it came down to was what most everybody else expected me to do."
The five-game Cat
When May finally pledged his future to his home-state university, he joined a pair of McDonald's All-Americans, forward Kenny Walker and guard Roger Harden, in a stellar UK recruiting class.
Walker, of course, went on to become Kentucky's second all-time leading scorer; a consensus All-American; an NBA lottery pick; a starter in the pros; and an NBA slam dunk champion.
Keep that in mind as you read the next paragraph.
"Todd May could do more things with the basketball than I could," Walker said. "He could shoot with either hand. He could shoot from the outside. He had a feel for the game. I think I was ahead of him athletically, but I had the utmost respect for Todd May."
Off the floor, May's transition from rural Pike County to massive state university was not easy.
"He was shy, but I don't know that he was any shyer than I was," said Walker, a product of small-town Roberta, Ga. "But my teammates sort of looked after me, and I'd go places with them. We couldn't get Todd to go anywhere with us."
Once the season started, Walker was logging more minutes than May. "Physically, Kenny was more ready for college basketball," Hall says. "Todd, with all his skills, needed to develop his upper body."
According to published reports at the time, the fact that another freshman forward was ahead of his son in the playing rotation did not go down well with May's father, Leon.
After five UK games, four in which Todd May had played, he left.
"I can't really, now, can't even remember why I left," May says. "I had been all built up, I was used to playing, I just said 'I'm gone.' It was kind of a rash decision."
The what ifs
If he could live his life again, May suggests, he might not have chosen UK initially. "I was hesitant," he said. "I couldn't put my finger on it then, but there was a reason for that inside me."
Then again, May says now that once he chose UK, he should have given it more time to work.
"Any situation, you have to start out at the bottom and work your way up," he said. "I see that now. I know that. Then, I was a kid, maybe I didn't understand it.
"Athletically, I probably wasn't ready. But, when you're a kid and you're used to playing, I just wanted to play."
Today, May keeps his hand in basketball by helping coach the team at Pikeville High. "The kids weren't even born when I was Mr. Basketball," he says. "Their parents remember me."
Along with his wife, Sandra, May lives in Pikeville. The couple's only child, 20-year-old son Payton, is studying to be an architect.
"So far, he's done real well," Todd May says of his son.
It's fun to speculate on how UK basketball history could have been different if, one, May had stayed and, two, had become the player people thought he could have been when he left Virgie.
Would the 3-for-33 nightmare that befell the Cats in the second half of the infamous 1984 Final Four loss to Georgetown been different if UK had a multi-skilled 6-9 forward who could score with either hand available?
"If he'd stayed long enough to play with Kenny (Walker), oh gosh, we'd have had a tremendous pair of forwards," Hall said.
Might the 1986 Kentucky team - that went 32-4 but lost in the Elite Eight while starting three guards with Walker and Winston Bennett - have won the national title with May on board?
"Todd could have been the missing piece," Walker says. "He'd have given us another scorer, another big player, a big player who could have stretched the floor with his shooting."
Had May stayed at UK, which in the 1980s was known for its rigorous weight-lifting program, would he have gained the upper body strength to reach his full potential?
Would the best competition college basketball could offer - instead of dominating NAIA players at Pikeville College - have allowed him to develop into an NBA player?
"Hindsight," May says, "is always 20-20."
"If it was now, I'd probably make some different decisions," he said. "I'd probably stay at Kentucky."