High School Sports

From chaos, the Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen was born

After Clay County won the first boys’ state basketball championship in 1987 for a team from the Eastern Kentucky mountains since Carr Creek in 1956, Coach Bobby Keith, front right, and and star player Richie Farmer, directly behind Keith wearing medallion, celebrated atop a fire truck as they returned to home.
After Clay County won the first boys’ state basketball championship in 1987 for a team from the Eastern Kentucky mountains since Carr Creek in 1956, Coach Bobby Keith, front right, and and star player Richie Farmer, directly behind Keith wearing medallion, celebrated atop a fire truck as they returned to home.

Across a rollicking century, the Kentucky Boys’ Sweet Sixteen has had a unique hold on the commonwealth.

The Kentucky boys’ high school state basketball tournament — which will celebrate its 100th renewal this March — has twice (1987 and 2004) drawn crowds in excess of 20,000 fans in Rupp Arena.

It featured players — Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, Wes Unseld — who would go on to be enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

It produced a team — the underdog 1928 state runners-up from Carr Creek — of such charm it captured the imagination of Will Rogers.

At its birth in 1918, however, the Kentucky state basketball tournament was more the “Uncertain Seven” than the Sweet Sixteen.

Only days before the first sanctioned tourney, it remained unclear which teams were going to show up at Centre College in Danville to play.

“Six teams have already signed up for the tourney,” the Tuesday, March 5, 1918, Lexington Herald reported. “One (team) has signified its intention to do so. Louisville may join.”

By Friday, March 8 — the day the tournament was to tip off — the Herald reported “Owensboro, the Western Kentucky power, is certain not to be present. Some of the other Western State teams, however, were expected to come in as late entrants.”

That did not happen. Nor did a high school from Louisville show up. Covington, Danville, Lawrenceburg, Lexington, Monticello, Paris and Somerset gave the first “state tournament” a Central Kentucky hue.

A century later, it seems appropriate that uncertainty surrounded that first state tourney.

It was the perception of chaos that created the event Kentuckians have long known as the Sweet Sixteen.

Stopping ‘the ringers’

Kentucky sports history usually records the first state high school basketball tournament as being played in 1918 and won by Lexington High School (now Henry Clay).

At the time, however, the 1918 event was seen as the third state tourney.

In 1916, what was billed as a state tournament was held at Centre. It was won by an undefeated team from the Barret Manual Training High School (later known as Henderson High). The following year, Owensboro won the same tournament.

These first stabs at choosing a state basketball champion apparently stirred resentments. Julian Tackett, the commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletics Association, says, “The story I’ve always been told is that there were a lot of hard feelings coming out of those early (unsanctioned) tournaments about teams using ringers and such.”

To create a fairer state basketball tournament, a small group of educators agreed to convene in April, 1917, while attending a Kentucky Education Association meeting in Louisville. From that gathering was born a new organization to supervise high school sports in the commonwealth. The declared purpose of what became the KHSAA was “to purify athletics and codify basic rules of player eligibility and athletic conduct.”

When Lexington beat Somerset 16-15 to claim the first championship of the KHSAA-sanctioned state tourney in 1918, the Lexington Herald did not declare the local school — as history now does — as Kentucky’s initial state champions.

“This is the first time Lexington has won the tournament (silver) cup, which is given annually to the winner of the state tournament. Henderson won it in 1916, and Owensboro carried it home in 1917,” the paper wrote on March 12, 1918.

For the defunct Henderson City High (closed in 1976) and the very much open Owensboro High, those 1916 and 1917 titles are sort of “ghost championships.”

In the basketball records section of its website, the KHSAA has line scores from the 1916 and 1917 state championship games. The organization explains, however, that “records from 1916 and 1917 (are) not included in composite results as these tournaments were not overseen by the KHSAA.”

Kenneth Davis, an alumnus of Henderson High and an unofficial historian of the school, says he is not sure what has become of the silver cup received for winning that 1916 tournament.

Owensboro Athletics Director Chris Gaddis says “we absolutely claim that (1917) state championship. On our banners, we do distinguish between that one and the four (1949, 1972, 1980, 2015) that we’ve won in the Sweet Sixteen. We acknowledge that the first one was not KHSAA-sanctioned, but we claim it.”

An evolving format

For many who love Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen, there are two main parts of its appeal.

One is that Kentucky awards a true state championship. All schools, regardless of size, compete for one state title.

Two is that the Sweet Sixteen championship that Paul Laurence Dunbar and star Taveion Hollingsworth won in 2016 was earned via the same format — 16 teams chosen from 16 geographic-based regions — that Cliff Hagan and Owensboro surmounted in 1949.

Yet, at least in the early years, the format for the boys’ state tournament was more elastic than one might imagine. There were seven teams in that first KHSAA-sanctioned state tourney in 1918. There were 18 in the 1925 tournament.

Our state briefly experimented with a form of class basketball, too. From 1927-31, Kentucky high school hoops was divided into eight regions. Each region was further subdivided into a Class A (large schools) and a Class B (smaller schools).

Each of the eight regions produced an “A champion” and a “B champion.” The 16-team state tournament was divided into an eight-team “A pool” and an eight-team “B pool.” The A winner and the B winner met to decide the overall state champ.

The game that many credit with turning the Sweet Sixteen into an event of statewide magnitude — undefeated Ashland’s four-overtime victory over Cinderella Carr Creek in the 1928 state finals — was produced under the Class A (Ashland) and Class B (Carr Creek) format.

“I think they had some of the problems then we’d have now in a class setup,” the KHSAA’s Tackett says of the class-basketball era. “Travel can become burdensome because, in our state, same-sized schools are not necessarily that close to each other.”

Following the chaos of the early years and after the brief experiment with two classes ended, what helped one-class basketball gain its foothold in Kentucky was the nature of the teams winning titles in the 1930s.

“There were a lot of small towns that were able to win state championships,” says documentary filmmaker Tom Thurman, who produced “A History of Basketball in Kentucky: Great Balls of Fire” for KET in 2002.

“The Brooksville Polar Bears won the state championship (1939). You had Midway (1937), Sharpe (1938), a lot of little schools like that right in one run. I think that spread the religion, so to speak, that David could slay Goliath in the Sweet Sixteen. And that’s what sustains the Sweet Sixteen, even now.”

Sweet Sixteen timeline

How the Sweet Sixteen has evolved over 100 years:

1917—The body that becomes the Kentucky High School Athletic Association is organized in April in Louisville by a small group of educators who are attending a Kentucky Education Association state meeting.

1917—Eighteen schools initially join the new KHSAA: Anderson Co., Ashland, Carlisle, Carrollton, Clark Co., Covington, Cynthiana, Danville, Frankfort, La Grange, Lexington, Male, Monticello, Morganfield, Owensboro, Paris, Somerset and Stanford.

1918—The first state basketball tournament under the auspices of the KHSAA is held at Centre College in Danville. A seven-team field — Covington, Danville, Lawrenceburg, Lexington, Monticello, Paris and Somerset — compete in a form of “pool play.” Lexington defeats Somerset 16-15 for the title.

1919—The boys’ state tournament moves to the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where it will be played every year until 1942.

1920—Kentucky holds its first girls’ basketball state tournament. Paris defeats Nicholasville 32-10 in the finals, played in the Kentucky Wesleyan gymnasium in Winchester.

1922—The basketball postseason is divided into 16 district tournaments.

1924—The basketball postseason is divided into 18 district tournaments.

1927—A form of class basketball is incorporated. The state is divided into eight regions, each of which produces a Class A (large school) and Class B (small school) champion. All 16 teams then advance to the state tournament where there is also an “A Pool” and a “B Pool.” At the end, the A champion and the B champion meet for the overall state title. The iconic 1928 state championship game in which Ashland (A Pool) defeated Carr Creek (B Pool) 13-11 in four overtimes is played under this format.

1931—Kentucky ends “A” and “B” classes of high school basketball and goes to one-class divided into 64 district tournaments feeding into 16 region tourneys.

1932 —Society turns against females participating in competitive sports, and the Kentucky girls’ high school basketball tournament is discontinued following Woodburn’s 25-20 victory over Paintsville in the finals.

1938—A third-place game is added to the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen. St. Xavier beats Frenchburg 47-17 in the first one.

1942—Lafayette’s 44-32 win over Harlan in the state title game in Louisville’s Armory wraps up the first state tourney held in the Derby City.

1943—Due to World War II travel restrictions, the boys’ state tournament is played for one time only with four sectional tournaments feeding into a final four, rather than the traditional Sweet Sixteen.

1951—Clark County beats Cuba 69-44 in the finals of the first Sweet Sixteen played in the newly opened Memorial Coliseum.

1955—Johnny Cox and Hazard’s 74-66 victory over Adair County in the 1955 state championship game is the first Sweet Sixteen title game shown live on television.

1957—KHSAA sports are racially integrated

1957—Lafayette beats Eastern 55-52 in the finals of the first Sweet Sixteen played in the newly opened Freedom Hall.

1961—Wheelwright’s 72-56 victory over Breathitt County is the final consolation contest played in the Sweet Sixteen.

1975—In response to federal civil rights law, the Kentucky girls’ basketball state tournament is resumed. Butler beats Barren Co. 60-43 in the first girls’ championship game since 1932.

1979—Lafayette beats Christian County in the finals of the first boys’ Sweet Sixteen played in Rupp Arena.

1987—The largest crowd to see high school basketball games in Kentucky (21,283) fills Rupp Arena for the quarterfinals doubleheader of Clay County-LaRue County and Madison Central-Oldham County.

2004—The largest crowd to watch a state championship game in Kentucky, 20,252, in Rupp Arena sees Warren Central deny Chris Lofton and Mason County’s bid for back-to-back state titles, 66-56.

2013—Rather than play the Boys Sweet Sixteen semifinals (Saturday morning) and finals (Saturday night) on the same day as traditional, the semifinals are held on Saturday night and the finals Sunday afternoon. The following year, the Girls Sweet Sixteen also changes its format to a Sunday title game.

2017—The 100th Boys’ Sweet Sixteen will be held in Rupp Arena, March 15-19.


this 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 March 15-19, 2017. The Herald-Leader is getting the party started a little earlier.

Today’s column by Mark Story about the origins of the state tournament is the first article in a series we’ll publish in the newspaper and on Kentucky.com over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season.

Our coverage will examine the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisit memorable games, champions and moments and look at where the event goes from here. We’ll explore the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recall the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.

It all tips off today. We hope you enjoy it.

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