When it comes to the question of the greatest era in Kentucky high school basketball, it’s hard to find anyone who will disagree with the answer of the 1960s. The case for that era will get stronger Saturday with the induction of Lexington native George Wilson into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
Wilson was an integral part of the Dunbar Bearcats teams from 1961-64, with his hard-working demeanor and overall competitiveness. But listening to him describe it, good fortune played a big part in him even making the team.
“It worked out pretty good. I wound up playing junior high ball, but then I got lucky and was called up to play varsity,” Wilson said this week of his start at the segregated black high school. “Personally, I didn’t want to play varsity, because I felt like I wasn’t going to get to play. But then I got lucky and was starting in the ninth grade.”
Wilson burst onto the scene quickly at Dunbar after transferring from St. Peter’s High School. Nearly 70 players showed up at tryouts for the few spots on the varsity roster. And being in an area overflowing with quality players, talent alone was not enough to be on an S.T. Roach-coached team.
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Hustle helped Wilson earn a spot on the varsity as a freshman.
“Those who happened to be there with George (Wilson) realized quickly he was a special caliber young man,” Robert Brown, a teammate of Wilson from 1963-64, said. “Believe me, everyone didn’t get to play much at all on the varsity in the ninth grade.”
Physicality and fundamentals were building blocks for those Bearcats teams — and necessities with a team that undersized.
Starting at center at only 6-foot-4, Wilson bought into the team values quickly. Early concerns over upperclassmen not liking him taking away their minutes or shots promptly turned into guys wanting Wilson to be more aggressive.
Those who happened to be there with George (Wilson) realized quickly he was a special caliber young man.
Robert Brown, a teammate of Wilson from 1963-64
One of the team leaders at the time, the late Austin Dumas, was big in that area. “He said, ‘Look you need to shoot the ball.’ After that I felt that I had the green light,” Wilson said. But it was Dumas who was responsible for the biggest play of the season Wilson’s freshman year.
When Dunbar trailed Breathitt County by a point in the 1961 state tournament semifinals, Dumas made a miracle shot from beyond mid-court to win the game. The shot resonated hard with the predominantly white crowd in Memorial Coliseum.
All-black schools had long fought for the right to participate in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association’s state tournament and were allowed in during the 1950s. Dunbar became the first all-black team to reach the finals.
“I think that might have been a turn in basketball,” Wilson said. “Because at that time, the crowd — even with us being an all-black school at that time — had converged over.”
I think that might have been a turn in basketball. Because at that time, the crowd — even with us being an all-black school at that time — had converged over.
George Wilson, Dunbar center from 1961-64
If Dunbar’s victory was a turning point for black athletes in Kentucky, more evidence came in 1963. That was the first year that the All-State Tournament Team featured more blacks than whites. Wilson was one of the players to receive that honor as the Bearcats again reached the championship game.
“You have to understand that in ’63, Dunbar had to beat Charlie Taylor of Owensboro, we had to beat Clem Haskins of Taylor County and Dwight and Greg Smith of Princeton Dotson in order to play Seneca for the championship,” James Berry, a teammate of Wilson from 1962-64, said. “That was about four of the top five teams that you had to get through, and Seneca was number one.”
That was the year that black talent really rose to the top, Wilson said, and he was right there with the best of the best. Wilson and Dunbar lost to Seneca, which was led by 1963 Mr. Basketball Mike Redd and 1964 Mr. Basketball Wes Unseld, in that year’s finals. That run was part of the reason Wilson will join Unseld, Redd, Haskins and Dwight Smith in the Kentucky hall of fame on Saturday.
The runner-up finishes in 1961 and 1963 were the closest Dunbar got to winning a state championship. The school closed in 1967. Wilson also received All-State First Team honors in 1963 and 1964.
I give a lot to credit to my teammates, too. They didn’t like shooting, so that means I had to shoot the ball a lot.
George Wilson, Dunbar center from 1961-64
Following his high school career under 2012 Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Roach, Wilson had the pleasure of playing for another great coach in his lone collegiate season in 1965. He played under a man he called a legend in John McLendon at Kentucky State. McLendon, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, went on to coach in the ABA for the Denver Rockets, becoming the first black head coach in any professional sport.
After Wilson left school to get a job, basketball continued to be a part of his life through his children. His oldest son eventually went on to play for high school rival Haskins in Western Kentucky.
Now in his retirement, Wilson’s concern is the kids at the Dunbar Community Center. Wilson, 70, is the current chair of a board made up of many Bearcats alumni who host a basketball league for kids ages 5-12.
The same gym that was filled with sellout crowds to see the Bearcats in the 1960s now plays host to families watching their young ones. And now, working at the same place where he made a name for himself in high school has given Wilson many opportunities to reminisce on his glory days.
“I give a lot to credit to my teammates, too. They didn’t like shooting, so that means I had to shoot the ball a lot,” Wilson said laughing. “But really, it did work out good for us. I played with some good guys. We had some good times and it was a good run for me.”
Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame Inductions
When: Reception 5:30, ceremony 7:30
Where: State Theater, Elizabethtown
Tickets: $30. Call (270) 765-5551 or (270) 234-8258
Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame
The Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame considers 2018 the centennial year of the Kentucky boys’ state tournament. It will induct 100 members of its “Centennial Class” that year. On Saturday in Elizabethtown, 17 new members of that Centennial Class will be honored. So far, 82 of the 100 have been revealed:
Boys’ coaches: Pearl Combs, Hindman; Stan Hardin, Fairdale; Billy Hicks, Scott County.
Girls’ coaches: Donna Moir, Sacred Heart; Randy Napier, Perry Central.
Boys’ players: Ralph Richardson, Russell Co.; Harry Todd, Earlington; Tom Thacker, Covington Grant; Jim Rose, Hazard; Dwight Smith, Princeton Dotson; George Wilson, Lexington Dunbar (the original); Jeff Lamp, Ballard; Darius Miller, Mason Co.; Bobby Turner, Male; Gene Rhodes, Male; Donnis Butcher, Meade Memorial.
Girls’ players: Carly Ormerod, Sacred Heart.