Yet as the Kentucky boys’ state basketball tournament prepares to tip off for the 100th time, its rich lore has also been filled with a very different kind of hoops hero. Sometimes, destiny has given the most unlikely of players the role of deciding state championships.
There might never have been a more unexpected hero than Clay County sophomore reserve Eugene “Boxhead” Rawlings in the 1987 state finals.
Four seconds were left in overtime when Rawlings went to the foul line to shoot the front end of the bonus. Clay County was leading Ballard 74-71. A made Rawlings free throw would clinch his school’s first state championship.
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Gathering his players around, the venerable Clay County coach, Bobby Keith, employed a tried and true motivational ploy: Keith instructed his team on what to do “after Box makes these free throws.”
“When he said that, a feeling of peace came over me,” Rawlings recalled this month. “I was conditioned, whatever Coach Keith said, I believed. If he said I was going to make ’em, I figured I would make ’em.”
As the husky, 6-foot, 210-pound Rawlings began his free-throw routine, the din from 19,000 fans in Rupp Arena surrounded him. “All I could hear was the ball bouncing,” Rawlings says. “For me, there wasn’t any other noise.”
Just as Keith predicted, Rawlings drilled two free throws and Clay County claimed the first state championship for a team from the Eastern Kentucky mountains since Carr Creek in 1956.
“It was just an amazing feeling,” Rawlings says. “It still is.”
For all the brilliance of Clay County star Richie Farmer in that 1987 finals — 27 points, including Clay’s final nine of regulation plus the overtime bucket that put the Tigers ahead for good — there would have been no return of the state title to the mountains if not for Rawlings’ unexpected contribution of 10 points and six rebounds.
Before the finals, Rawlings had not scored one point in the 1987 Sweet Sixteen.
He had, however, gone with Clay assistant Larry Sizemore to Tates Creek High School’s gymnasium during the tourney to work on his foul shooting.
Just in case.
Each of the next two seasons, Clay County returned to the Sweet Sixteen with Rawlings as its starting center. Many wondered how a guy who looked like anything but a basketball player could be so effective defending and rebounding against far taller players.
Rawlings credits former Clay County assistant William “Red” Campbell with teaching him how to use his heft as leverage against taller foes.
Another factor that made Rawlings a Sweet Sixteen folk hero was his nickname. “Boxhead” was acquired, Rawlings said, when youth football coaches ordered new helmets that were too small to fit him.
One of those coaches took one of the boxes the new helmets had come in, cut eye holes into it and slapped it on Rawlings’ head.
“He said ‘You don’t need a helmet, you ol’ Boxhead,’” Rawlings said. “From that moment on, that ‘Boxhead’ (nickname) just stuck like glue.”
Today, Rawlings, 46, is substitute teaching in Clay County. He and his wife, Billie Jean Jackson, have two children: a son, Dalton, 10, and a daughter, Danica, 9.
In October, Keith died at 75. Key members of the 1987 state title team were among their coach’s pallbearers.
Years after the state championship had been attained, Rawlings says, Keith told him “the rest of the story” about the finish to the 1987 finals.
Said Rawlings: “Coach Keith, he finally told me, ‘Box, I couldn’t tell you this then, but after you went back out (to shoot the crucial free throws), I turned and said (to an assistant), ‘We better get a defense set. There’s not a chance in hell he’s going to hit these.’”
Eugene Rawlings laughed.
Over the long arc of Sweet Sixteen history, the unlikely hero who laughs last has always been one of the best parts of the story.
About the Sweetest Century 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 Wednesday through Sunday this week.
Over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season, the Herald-Leader has published regularly appearing stories on Kentucky.com and in the newspaper highlighting memorable moments from the state tournament’s history.
Our coverage examines the significance of the tournament to our state’s history, revisits memorable games, champions and moments and looks at where the event goes from here. We’re exploring the joy, the heartbreak and the social impact of the event and recalling the teams and players every Kentuckian should know about.
We’re wrapping up the series this week as part of our annual Sweet Sixteen preview special section in Wednesday’s Herald-Leader and in posts you’ll be able to find all week on Kentucky.com and Kentucky.com/high-school.
And be sure to stay with our coverage throughout the week as new memories are made during the 100th state tournament.
Here are installments in the Sweetest Century series published to date:
March 13, 2017: A year-by-year history of the boys’ Sweet Sixteen
Feb. 15: 2017: Mason County’s Chris Lofton was ‘one of a kind’
Jan. 15, 2017: The team that saved Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen
Nov. 27, 2016: From chaos, the Kentucky boys’ Sweet Sixteen was born