The KHSAA boys’ Sweet Sixteen holds a significant place in the hearts of sports fans across the commonwealth, particularly those who came of age in the middle part of the 20th century, when high school basketball seemingly ruled the state. The 1956 tournament often is regarded as the most memorable thanks to an abundance of last-second heroics, a collection of schools with exceptional basketball pedigrees and the record-setting dominance of Wayland’s“King” Kelly Coleman, a player as mythical in the moment as he is today.
The following is an oral history of that tournament — won by Carr Creek — curated from new and existing interviews.
Billy Ray Lickert: I’m partial to Lafayette. I think the Seneca teams with (Wes) Unseld and (Mike) Redd, the Ashland team with Larry Conley and them, they were great. The Cuba Cubs, Carr Creek. That’s the great thing about the state tournament; you can have the Carr Creeks and the Cubas, who could still compete.
Lickert, who went on to play for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky, was a standout for the ’56 and ’57 Lafayette squads, the latter of which won the Generals’ third title in the ’50s. No other school won more than one in the decade.
Lafayette entered in 1956 with a tournament-worst 19-8 record but defeated Glendale, which had the tournament’s best record at 33-2, in the first round. Lickert scored 22 points in the first half before picking up his fourth foul with 15 seconds left in the second quarter and sitting the rest of the contest. “But he had given the Generals a 47-31 working edge and they came through successfully,” the Lexington Herald’s Billy Thompson wrote on March 16, 1956.
Joe B. Hall (former University of Kentucky coach): Billy was so slick, he could do things with so much ease that it didn’t look like he was working.
The Generals lost, 65-63, to Bell County in the quarterfinals. Lickert, who later was treated for a wrist fracture suffered during the game, fouled out with two minutes left in regulation. The Bobcats’ John Mayes hit a layup in double overtime after Lafayette was whistled for a walk to start the sudden-death period.
Lickert: At halftime, Coach (Ralph) Carlisle grabbed me by the jersey, started twisting it up in a knot and he got right up in my face. He said, “If we lose this game, you’re never gonna forget it as long as you live.”
He was right about that.
Freddie Maggard (from the 2012 documentary “Legends of the ’50s”): Carr Creek was nothing but a post office. There was no restaurant, no theater. There was nothing but the school and a post office. The only thing that was going on was Carr Creek basketball.
Carr Creek, a small school in Knott County, took the 1956 title, twice advancing on buzzer-beaters by Maggard, who died last April. Raymond “Corky” Withrow played for Central City, a Western Kentucky power that lost to Carr Creek in the first round of that tournament.
Corky Withrow: With three seconds to go, we had a one-point lead and Carl Jamison was shooting the one-and-one. He made the first one, which gave us a two-point lead, and missed the second one. A fella by the name of E.A. Couch, he got the rebound, started down the floor — and this is with three seconds to go, they’ve got to make a field goal, OK? — then Carl Jamison, who had missed the free throw, came out of nowhere and whacked him.
Couch, the late father of future Paintsville and UK football star Joey Couch, made both free throws to send the game into overtime. Maggard hit a buzzer-beater in the waning seconds. Carr Creek handled Allen County, 69-45, before Maggard hit another game-winner against Wayland in the semifinals.
Withrow: I relive that game just about every day of my life. My wife, she gets tired of hearing about it. She tells me to go to sleep.
Maggard (“Legends”): I hate to this day the way that I did these two fellas (Withrow and Coleman). They’re good people.
Withrow: (Maggard) scored 20 points in the final ball game against Henderson, which Carr Creek won. And he didn’t make the All-State team. That was a crime at that point. Years later I know the Kentucky legislature honored him up in Frankfort and gave him an All-State trophy or made him an all-stater. I got to know Freddie real well after that. If anybody was gonna beat us, I’m glad it was a nice guy like that.
Coleman (“Legends”): It was a three-point basket, I remember. It would be a three-point basket today. … To me, 68 points is not the biggest feat. (It’s) his two shots.
Coleman, a 6-foot-2 guard, scored a state-tournament record 68 points in the third-place game versus Bell County, breaking a record of 50 which he set against Shelbyville just two days earlier.
His arrival in Lexington that year was marked by flyers dropped from a plane.
Lickert: They said, “King Kelly’s coming to town.”
Billy Thompson (Lexington Herald, March 15, 1956): A youngster of 17, getting all the publicity (Coleman) has and even having hand bills passed out about him, seems that it might work the wrong ways — but apparently it hasn’t. The Machine Gunner apparently is wearing the same sized hat today he wore as a freshman.
Wayland Coach Copper John Campbell (Lexington Herald, March 16, 1956): I can tell that the publicity is worrying (Coleman) a little. He was so afraid that he wouldn’t make a good showing in the first game. The backboards worried him a little, too. He has played on glass boards before, but they had blank walls behind them.
Lickert: If we had won (against Bell County) and lost to Henderson, then we would have been in the consolation game instead of Bell County. And I would’ve probably had to guard Kelly Coleman. So, that was the good thing about it, is I didn’t have to guard him.
Coleman (“Legends”): The crowd there was booing me for all the three games I had played. And they were still booing until I broke Johnny Cox’s record for most points in a tournament in the first quarter. Then they started rooting for me. And when Bell County was trying to freeze the ball, the crowd started booing them.
Cox, who led Hazard to the state title in 1955, had scored a tournament-record 127 points in that tournament. Coleman’s 185 points in the 1956 tournament are 48 more than second place (Richie Farmer in 1988) today.
Maggard (“Legends”): Johnny had 127 points in the state tournament and people said, “That’ll never be broken.”
Coleman ( “Legends”): ’Til next year.
Thompson (Lexington Herald, March 16, 1956): Some have said that Coleman is overplayed in the local papers. “You give one man too much publicity,” some folks said. It is true that no high school player has received as much publicity as King Kelly, but after he receives all the build-up and then comes through with a 50-point production, do you believe he has been overplayed?
Hall: He was a real smart player. He had a savvy for the game, and a cockiness and confidence that he could do things that defied his stature or his ability. He would bring the ball up the floor, and two players would try to take the ball from him. Maybe even sometimes three. And they couldn’t get it away from him.
Wayland, which defeated Bell County 122-89, was the first team to score 100 points in state-tournament history. It was the only state tournament he played in, but Coleman’s 69 field goals in 1956 remain the eighth most for a career.
He was the state’s first Mr. Basketball and is still its all-time boys’ scoring leader (4,337).
Frank Ramsay (Lexington Herald, March 18, 1956): I have heard and read a lot about you — and it’s all true. You are great.
Bell County Coach Willie Hendrickson (Lexington Herald, March 18, 1956): Kelly, you are truly the greatest basketball player Kentucky has ever had.
Carr Creek’s finals win — 72-68 over Henderson — capped the end of an era for the mountain regions, which had claimed three straight titles (Inez in 1954, Hazard in ’55). The 14th Region, from which Carr Creek came, hasn’t produced a winner since its run. Only four Eastern Kentucky teams — Ashland (1961), Clay County (1987) Paintsville (1996) and Shelby Valley (2010) have won since Carr Creek. Regions 13 through 16 have produced only 10 state finalists in the last 61 years.
Consolidation — and population growth elsewhere — changed things. And not just in the mountains.
Withrow: I think it was more fun in the ’50s than it is now. I think the winning and losing probably disturbs coaches and fans more. We didn’t like to lose, don’t get me wrong, but there was more of an innocence to it. You played these teams in your own county. There were such great rivalries and that’s the thing that’s really missing. ...
In Lexington, the schools still have a rivalry there because of how big the city is itself. But you take a small county, small schools where there’s maybe 200 students here and 200 students there, all they had was a basketball team.
Hall: It has changed. I think the big schools have a greater advantage than back in the 1950s. But still, they get a fight taken to them no matter their reputation. I just love to watch those little teams. ...
Any kid that was on a squad that made the state tournament never forgot going on that floor and representing his team. The memory was tattooed or burned into your skin.
ABOUT 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 feature by Josh Moore on the 1956 state tournament and Mark Story’s column about Edmonson County’s title in 1976 are the fourth and fifth articles in a series we’re publishing in the newspaper and on Kentucky.com over the course of the 2016-17 high school basketball season. Visit Kentucky.com to read previous installments of the Sweetest Century series.
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 hope you are enjoying it.
1956 state tournament
At Memorial Coliseum in Lexington
Wayland 87, Shelbyville 76
Earlington 63, Monticello 57
Allen Co. 55, Olive Hill 52 (OT)
Carr Creek 70, Central City 68 (OT)
Lafayette 76, Glendale 64
Bell Co. 82, Maysville 77
Mayfield 64, Boone Co. 61
Henderson 80, Valley 62
Wayland 65, Earlington 58
Carr Creek 69, Allen Co. 45
Bell Co. 65, Lafayette 63 (2OT)
Henderson 59, Mayfi eld 57
Carr Creek 68, Wayland 67
Henderson 68, Bell Co. 63
Wayland 122, Bell Co. 89
Carr Creek 72, Henderson 68