Historic upset rooted in values of small-town life; 1952 Graves County team triumphed in Sweet Sixteen

Team photo of 1952 state champion Cuba Cubs. From Kentucky High School Athletic Association  tournament program.
Photo credit: The 1952 Cuba Echo.  This photo came with other photos from KET regarding KET Basketball documentary.
Team photo of 1952 state champion Cuba Cubs. From Kentucky High School Athletic Association tournament program. Photo credit: The 1952 Cuba Echo. This photo came with other photos from KET regarding KET Basketball documentary. Photo credit: The 1952 Cuba Echo

With the Kentucky High School Athletic Association's Sweet Sixteen tournament in full swing, it's appropriate to remember the biggest upset in the history of the boy's tournament.

The story is told in my book, The Graves County Boys: A Tale of Kentucky Basketball, Perseverance, and the Unlikely Championship of the Cuba Cubs. It was a book that almost didn't happen, and it tells a story that probably won't happen again.

A friend asked that I write about her husband and his six-member high school basketball team — the Cuba Cubs, from Cuba, Ky. They won the state championship in 1952 against state powerhouse Louisville Manuel, capping a remarkable run for a school with less than 100 students.

Not knowing the story, I declined. She was persistent, however, and invited my husband and me to meet Charles "Doodle" Floyd, also a member of the team, who was visiting.

All during and after dinner, the men enjoyed talking about coaches, players and games, but toward the end of that evening, their attention shifted to a scrapbook that belonged to the mother of one of the players.

It contained a few of his school pictures, Kodak snapshots of him as a teenager and a number of fragile newspaper clippings from the 1940s and '50s.

That scrapbook started them talking quietly about their childhoods in Pilot Oak and Cuba. Those stories are what caught my interest. As we prepared to leave, I asked them if they would tell me more about their lives before they met Coach Jack Story in 1947. They seemed surprised but offered us a guided tour of their old homeplaces in Graves County and a catfish supper in Mayfield, the county seat.

For a couple of years afterwards, I continued to visit Graves County to talk with its oldest inhabitants about the history of little Cuba. I spent many hours with Mary Lee Story, the coach's widow, and with historian Lon Carter Barton. On multiple occasions, I met with the individual players, their classmates, families, friends and neighbors. Then, very slowly, the stories of their lives began to unfold.

While the contrast between basketball then and now fascinated me, I saw the real story as the changes in the way we in rural Kentucky lived then and now.

Like many in rural areas. those in Graves County during the first half of the 20th century lived simple lives. Hardship and poverty were a way of life. They grew what they ate and made what they needed. Their motto was "Make it do, or do without."

After finishing their chores, children were free to roam, fish, swim, hunt, snack on blackberries or whatever fruit and nuts they found. "No Trespassing" signs did not exist. Adults kept a sharp eye out for each other's children and had the right to discipline any miscreant. They swapped work, called everyone by his or her first name, and knew that a handshake was a contract. No one ever locked their doors.

The outline of the story the Cuba Cubs is similar to the movie Hoosiers. I must admit I did not see the film until much later, but when I did, I loved it. Both teams were rural underdogs with exceptional coaches, both schools won state championships against all odds after losing in the finals the previous year, and both stories transcend basketball.

While Hoosiers is loosely based on the success of the real-life Milan, Ind., basketball team in 1954, it received Hollywood's inevitable embellishment.

The Graves County Boys, on the other hand, is a true story gleaned from hours of listening to real people, seeing real places and learning about real events. I learned best about the joy that a basketball game once brought to an entire community that had supported its team — win or lose — wholeheartedly. It is our story, and it needs no embellishment.

In the years since the Cubs' championship, small schools have been swallowed by larger ones. Today, even the poorest high school in the commonwealth has athletic resources that Cuba High could only dream of. It is not likely that the Cuba Cubs' story will ever be repeated, for it is about a place and a time and a way of life that has gone with the wind.

And that magical kind of euphoria that the Cubs created — that euphoria that does not vanish quickly after the tournaments — has also disappeared from the American scene. It's worth remembering.

Marianne Walker is a retired professor of English and philosophy at Henderson Community College and the author of Margaret Mitchell and John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind.