Mark Story

Decades after Mr. Basketball abdication, Phil Cox and Manuel Forrest will be linked again

Phil Cox, Kentucky’s 1981 Mr. Basketball, in his days starring at Cawood High School. Cox, now 54, will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown this weekend.
Phil Cox, Kentucky’s 1981 Mr. Basketball, in his days starring at Cawood High School. Cox, now 54, will be inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown this weekend. Herald-Leader file photo

Even though Phil Cox wore the uniform of Vanderbilt from 1981-85, the former Cawood High School star always got a loud ovation from Rupp Arena crowds when he was introduced before playing the Kentucky Wildcats.

“That always meant a lot to me,” Cox said Wednesday. “Anytime we went to Rupp, they always supported me. Heck, I went to (the SEC Tournament in) Tampa in 2009 as an SEC Legend, and the Kentucky crowd gave me a big ovation there, too.”

Basketball fans in the commonwealth seem to feel a special bond with hoops heroes from the Eastern Kentucky mountains.

The grandson of coal miners, Harlan County product Cox was every bit that.

On Saturday evening, Cox will be back in the state to be inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown. The sweet-shooting 5-foot-11 guard — who averaged 33 points a game at Cawood as a junior in 1979-80 and 28 points as a senior the following year — is among the final 18 of the Hall of Fame’s first 100 inductees in its “Centennial Class.”

Phil Cox
After leaving Vanderbilt as the Commodores’ all-time leading scorer (he’s now fourth), Phil Cox settled in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “You can take the boy out of Kentucky,” the Harlan County native says, “but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy.” Photo submitted by Phil Cox

“I’m excited about it,” Cox said. “Words really can’t explain my feelings about it. Being from southeast Kentucky, growing up in Harlan (County), it’s just an incredible honor.”

In a nice twist, ex-Moore High School forward Manuel Forrest is also among the 18 former players and coaches being inducted Saturday night at E’town’s State Theater. It is fitting that Forrest and Cox are going into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall together because the duo are uniquely connected in our state’s hoops history.

Officially, 1958 is the only year in which two players shared Kentucky Mr. Basketball honors. Earlington’s Harry Todd and Russell County’s Ralph Richardson were both Mr. Basketball that year.

Due to an unusual circumstance, the Class of 1981 also produced two Mr. Basketballs.

Forrest, a 6-foot-7 forward, was originally named 1981 Kentucky Mr. Basketball after averaging 33.1 points and 14.9 rebounds and leading Moore to the semifinals of the Sweet Sixteen.

However, that year the NCAA had enacted a rule limiting players to two postseason all-star games. Forrest was selected for the McDonald’s All-American Game. He then chose to play in the Kentucky Derby Festival Classic rather than in the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star Games.

By making that decision, Forrest gave up the 1981 Mr. Basketball title.

Cox then inherited it.

Moore High School’s Manuel Forrest was originally chosen Kentucky’s 1981 Mr. Basketball, but gave up the honor in order to play in the Derby Festival Classic All-Star Game. Cawood’s Phil Cox became Mr. Basketball instead. This weekend, both Forrest and Cox will be enshrined in the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown. Herald-Leader file photo

Of giving up Mr. Basketball, Forrest told The Courier-Journal at the time “I have spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about it. I would love to feel the rivalry of the Kentucky-Indiana series. But, right now, I don’t think it means as much to the people of Kentucky as the Derby Classic does.”

Of becoming Mr. Basketball after Forrest abdicated, Cox told the Associated Press at the time “I’d rather be second than last.”

Thirty-six years later, Cox said he had forgotten the particulars that led to his becoming Kentucky’s 1981 Mr. Basketball. “I just know Manuel was a talented individual, an unbelievable player,” Cox said of Forrest.

Before becoming Mr. Basketball, Cox says the most memorable moment of his high school hoops career came against 13th Region rival Clay County and iconic head coach Bobby Keith.

“I banked in a shot from the backcourt to win a game against Bobby Keith in Manchester,” Cox recalled. “Winning at Clay County, that just didn’t happen. Our locker room that night, it was crazy. To me, that was Kentucky high school basketball, just a great moment.”

Like many in the commonwealth, Cox grew up dreaming of playing college basketball in Kentucky Wildcats blue and white, but that chance never came. However, a former UK player, C.M. Newton, gave Cox the opportunity to play against Kentucky at Vandy.

Phil Cox, right, from his days (1981-85) starring for Coach C.M. Newton, left, at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt Athletics

“I was the first player he signed at Vanderbilt,” Cox said. “I was just hoping that basketball would give me the chance to go to college somewhere and then I get to go to a school like Vanderbilt. I owe Coach Newton a lot.”

In an era before the three-point shot, Cox averaged in double figures all four years of his Vandy career, leaving the school in 1985 as its all-time leading scorer (1,724 career points). He is now fourth on Vanderbilt’s career scoring list.

Today, Cox, 54, is the married father of three children and serves as principal of Jefferson Middle School in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Yet when he comes back to Kentucky this weekend to be honored for his days as a Bluegrass State high school hoops star, Cox says he will feel perfectly at home.

“You can take the boy out of Kentucky,” Phil Cox says, “but you can’t take Kentucky out of the boy. This is a real big honor for me.”

Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame ‘Centennial Class’

The 2017 inductees into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame complete the “Centennial Class” comprised of the first 100 enshrined. This year’s induction ceremony will be Saturday in Elizabethtown at the State Theater, with a reception at 5:30 and the formal enshrinement ceremony at 7:30. For ticket information call 270-234-8354.

The brand new Hall of Fame building, across the street from the State Theater, is open to the public for the first time Saturday from noon to 5 p.m. with donations taken at the door.

Below are the first 100 inductees to the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame:


Boys’ coaches: Joe Harper, Monticello; Ray Vencill, Madison High, Elizabethtown; Russell Williamson, Inez

Girls’ coaches: Greg Todd, Berea, Lexington Catholic

Boys’ players: Robert Brooks, Madison High; Darel Carrier, Bristow; Phil Cox, Cawood; Manuel Forrest, Moore; Kenneth Kuhn, Male; Charlie Osborne, Flat Gap; Harold Sergent, Ashland; Jack Upchurch, Wayne Co.; Bobby Washington, Dunbar

Girls’ players: Erin Boley, Elizabethtown; Lisa Collins, Laurel Co.; Valerie Combs, Butler; Kyra Elzy, Oldham Co.; Mary Taylor (Cowles), Marshall Co.


Boys’ coaches: Pearl Combs, Hindman; Stan Hardin, Fairdale; Billy Hicks, Scott Co.

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


Boys’ coaches: Ron Bevars, North Hardin; Earle Jones, Maysville; Jock Sutherland, Lafayette; John Bill Trivette, Pikeville

Girls’ coaches: None

Boys’ players: Winston Bennett, Male; Jermaine Brown, Fairdale; Jimmy Dan Conner, Anderson Co.; Travis Ford, Madisonville; Jeff Mullins, Lafayette; John Pelphrey, Paintsville; Dickie Prater, Pikeville; Bobby Rascoe, Daviess Co.; Mike Silliman, St. Xavier; Jerry Thruston, Owensboro

Girls’ players: Ukari Figgs, Scott Co.; Lillie Mason, Olmstead


Boys’ coaches: Dale Mabrey, PRP; Al Prewiit, Henry Clay

Girls’ coaches: Bunny Daugherty, Sacred Heart

Boys’ players: Jack Givens, Bryan Station; Vernon Hatton, Lafayette; Kenny Higgs, Owensboro; Ron King, Central; Chris Lofton, Mason Co.; Todd May, Virgie; John Oldham, Hartford; Frank Ramsey, Madisonville; Mike Redd, Seneca; Corky Withrow, Central City

Girls’ players: Lisa Harrison, Southern; Crystal Kelly, Sacred Heart; Beth Wilkerson Hammond, Paris


Boys’ coaches: William Kean, Central; Letcher Norton, Clark Co.; Bobby Watson, Owensboro

Girls’ coaches: Howard Beth, Marshall Co.

Boys’ players: Butch Beard, Breckinridge Co.; Mike Casey, Shelby Co.; Larry Conley, Ashland; Johnny Cox, Hazard; Howard Crittenden, Cuba; Joe Fulks, Kuttawa; Allan Houston, Ballard; Billy Ray Lickert, Lafayette; Linville Puckett, Clark Co.; J.R. VanHoose, Paintsville.

Girls’ players: Sharon Garland, Laurel Co.; Donna Murphy, Newport; Jamie Walz-Richey, Highlands


Boys’ coaches: Ralph Carlisle, Lafayette; Bobby Keith, Clay Co.; S.T. Roach, Dunbar.

Girls’ coaches: Roy Bowling, Laurel Co.

Boys’ players: Ralph Beard, Male; Rex Chapman, Apollo; Kelly Coleman, Wayland; Richie Farmer, Clay Co.; Darrell Griffith, Male; Cliff Hagan, Owensboro; Clem Haskins, Taylor Co.; Wah Wah Jones, Harlan; Jim McDaniels, Allen Co.; Wes Unseld, Seneca

Girls’ players: Geri Grigsby, McDowell; Clemette Haskins, Warren Central