Sixty-eight years later, Cliff Hagan’s memories are vivid. A train brought Hagan and the Owensboro Red Devils to Louisville for the 1949 Sweet Sixteen.
In an era when smoking in public was ubiquitous, there was so much smoke in the air in the Louisville Armory during the 1949 Kentucky boys’ state basketball tournament that Hagan had trouble seeing the scoreboard from the playing floor.
After Owensboro beat St. Xavier in the semifinals, Hagan was cramping so much his teammates had to help him stand up. “I wasn’t sure I would even be able to play in the finals,” Hagan says.
The 6-foot-4 Hagan played. He scored 41 points in the title game, then a Sweet Sixteen record, and led Owensboro to the state championship.
Over an epic hoops career, Hagan would go on to play on teams that won the 1951 NCAA championship and the 1958 NBA championship. He was inducted as a player into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.
Yet, to this day, the 85-year-old Hagan says his greatest basketball thrill was leading Owensboro to that 1949 Kentucky state championship.
“It’s sort of like your first love, your first kiss,” Hagan says. “Something that shapes you when you are young has an impact on your life that’s hard to match.”
As the 100th boys’ Sweet Sixteen tips off in Rupp Arena this week, the Sweet Sixteen, the commonwealth’s one-class high school basketball state tournament, is still the most authentically “Kentucky” sporting event our state has.
Story of families
Yet, to this day, the 73-year-old Haskins says his favorite moment in basketball was walking into Freedom Hall with his father, Columbus, before Clem and the Taylor County Cardinals played in the 1963 Sweet Sixteen.
To a teen from rural Kentucky, Freedom Hall looked bigger than Versailles (the French palace, not the Woodford County town). A farmer, Columbus Haskins put things in perspective for his son.
“I was in awe. Freedom Hall looked huge,” Clem Haskins recalls. “My dad says, ‘If we could fill this place with hay, we’d never have to put up hay again.’”
In a state that relishes its history and traditions, the Sweet Sixteen has long been defined by cross-generational stories of Kentucky families.
The state tournament is Allan Houston, who as a junior, was the star on Ballard’s 1988 state championship team. Houston’s maternal grandfather was William Kean, a legendary coach who led Louisville Central to five state titles in the all-black league before Kentucky’s public schools were integrated. The grandson won the Sweet Sixteen title as a player that the grandfather had been prevented from seeking.
The Sweet Sixteen is the family of Alfred and Mary Cooper.
A farm couple in Bracken County early in the 20th century, Alfred and Mary had 17 children. Three died in infancy. One was killed as a teen in a car wreck. Alfred and Mary raised their other 13 children — 11 boys, two girls — to adulthood.
It was not an easy life. “At one point, their house burned down, and they moved into their barn,” says Heather Brumley, a great-granddaughter.
On the side of that barn, Alfred hung a basketball rim. “Once the chores were done, they had enough (children) for two teams and they played ball,” Brumley says.
Cooper brothers became a staple for the Brooksville High School Polar Bears. When the school won the 1939 Sweet Sixteen championship, there were three Coopers — Earl, Warren, Marvin — on the roster. In the state finals win over Hindman, Marvin had 10 points, Warren eight.
Decades later, when Mary Cooper died, the headline on her obituary read “Basketball Mother Dies in Bracken Co.”
Story of communities
All over Kentucky, stories about the local school striving to make a Sweet Sixteen — and to win it — are central to town narratives.
When John Pelphrey, Joey Couch and the 1986-87 Paintsville Tigers were leaving to come to Rupp Arena to make their third straight Sweet Sixteen appearance, the students at the nearby Paintsville Elementary School were let out of school for the send-off.
“It was like a scene out of a movie. I was in the first grade, and we came out to see the Tigers getting on their bus to go to Rupp,” says J.R. VanHoose. “It was completely apparent, even to a first-grader, that what was happening was something really important to our town.”
The dream of Pelphrey, Couch and Co. to bring the state championship back to Paintsville died that week in Rupp with a semifinals loss to Ballard.
Yet, nine years later, Paintsville did cut down the nets in Rupp Arena. The star sophomore center on Paintsville’s 1996 state title team was the same J.R. VanHoose who had been a first-grader watching the ’87 Tigers leave for Lexington.
Story of renewal?
Across a century, the Sweet Sixteen has supplied Kentucky with some of its most iconic basketball moments.
Ashland vs. Carr Creek (4OT). Undefeated Brewers. The Cuba Cubs. “King” Kelly Coleman’s 68 points. Edmonson County. Paul Andrews and “The Shot.” Richie Farmer’s 51 points. Chris Lofton’s nine three-pointers. Ken-Jah Bosley’s shot.
However, in the 21st century, many who cherish the Sweet Sixteen fret that the event’s hold on the commonwealth may be waning.
In 1987, 140,266 fans filled Rupp Arena for the state tournament. Last year, that figure was 88,170.
Historically, when Kentucky’s one-class state tournament has seemed threatened, the tourney has always produced its own salvation.
Louisville domination leading to calls for multi-class basketball? You get Edmonson County.
After three decades, people saying there will never be another champion from the mountains? You get Clay County.
Richie Farmer, the late-1980s Clay County star, lived a lifelong dream and played college basketball for the Kentucky Wildcats (1988-92). His UK career ended on Christian Laettner’s buzzer-beater in what many consider the greatest college hoops game ever played.
Yet, to this day, Farmer says his most meaningful basketball experiences came in the Sweet Sixteen.
“When you can win a championship for your town with the guys you grew up with, I don’t even know how to put it in words, it just means so much,” Farmer says.
As Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen turns 100, that feeling remains its ultimate appeal.
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 14, 2017: Hazard played surprising role in integrating the Sweet Sixteen
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