For many Kentuckians, the best memories of basketball don’t necessarily come with the arrival of the Big Dance.
Often, they’re about the time their team made it to the Sweet Sixteen boys’ high school tournament. Cliff Hagan played on Owensboro’s 1949 championship squad and then for the University of Kentucky and the St. Louis Hawks. He also was UK’s athletic director from 1975 to 1988 so he was there for Kentucky’s 1978 national championship. But Hagan said in 1996: “Nothing compares to that first thrill.”
Some of the thrills came off the court as well.
▪ When Hagan’s Owensboro won the title in 1949, each member of the championship squad, plus Coach Lawrence L. McGinnis and the team managers, received a solid gold wrist watch engraved, “Kentucky Basketball Champions. Owensboro 1949.”
▪ Memorabilia from Wayland basketball star “King” Kelly Coleman is on display at the town hall meeting room in Wayland, population 426. That’s across the street from the Wayland gym, for which there are plans for renovation. The Coleman memorabilia was previously available for viewing in a nearby mini-mart.
Coleman, son of a coal miner, was the star player on the 1956 Wayland Wasps. The team went to the Sweet Sixteen, losing 68-67 in a semifinal game to eventual champion Carr Creek.
In a consolation game, Coleman scored 68 points in a win over Bell County.
The Wayland Historical Society is collecting additional Sweet Sixteen memorabilia from mountain teams to boost its collection, which includes Hindman’s championship trophy from 1943.
▪ Earlington High School won the tournament in 1967. The town in Hopkins County, which had a 2000 census population of 1,649, had the kind of relentlessly proud local citizens that small towns bringing home the tournament crown could convene. When the basketball Yellowjackets won the 1967 trophy, the town’s population was 2,800.
A Courier-Journal article said that when the team returned home, 500 cars were lined up along the Western Kentucky Turnpike to greet the players.
“Out-of-state motorists glared angrily as cars filled with fans blocked traffic on the turnpike,” the newspaper reported.
▪ Mason County has long been noted for its devotion to the Sweet Sixteen, including the 8,000 to 10,000 of the county’s 17,765 residents who came to Lexington for the 1985 tournament.
One estimate held that 5,000 of that contingent attended a pregame party at the Continental Inn given by Maysville businessman Clyde Barbour, who died in 1994. Mason County even brought a blimp, white with inside lighting saying “Mason County Royals” on the side.
The 33-foot-long blimp was apparently cut loose from its steel cable and tether line moorings and disappeared into the clouds early one morning.
Mason County eventually lost in a quarterfinals squeaker to Louisville Doss, 64-63. Mason County would go on to win the championship in 2003 and 2008.
▪ Ernie Epps of the Kentucky School for the Deaf is in a tie for the 10th-most rebounds in one game: 31 against Hustonville in 1971.
Epps, the valedictorian of his class, was recruited by other schools, but he chose to attend Gallaudet University for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C., and he later became a teacher.
In 2008, Epps was inducted into the Gallaudet University athletics hall of fame. “I loved every minute I was at Gallaudet,” he said at the induction ceremony.
▪ The 1983 state finals was Carlisle County versus Henry Clay. It was considered one of the best games in Sweet Sixteen history. It went through three overtimes before Henry Clay’s Greg Bates made the game-winning shot just before0:00 showed on the scoreboard.
You wouldn’t have expected that from Carlisle County, a school in far Western Kentucky with just 265 students.
For Henry Clay coach Al Prewitt, the victory was bittersweet. His wife, Betty, was in the hospital at Saint Joseph, unconscious from cancer. Prewitt and two of his players drove to the hospital and left her something she had watched her husband chase for 30 years: the championship trophy.
Betty Prewitt died two weeks later.
Former Herald-Leader sportswriter Mike Fields, who expertly covered high school sports for 41 years and retired from the Herald-Leader in 2015, contributed information for this report.
Listen to the play-by-play of Earlington’s 1967 KHSAA Boys State Tournament win, as called by Elmer Kelley.