Mark Story

Bobby Washington played in NBA, but says nothing was more special than his time at Dunbar

Former Dunbar guard Bobby Washington talked with Kenneth Tate of Richmond before Washington's induction into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown.
Former Dunbar guard Bobby Washington talked with Kenneth Tate of Richmond before Washington's induction into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in Elizabethtown. mstory@herald-leader.com

When S.T. Roach coached Dunbar High School to the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen for the first time ever in 1958, Bobby Washington was an elementary school student in Lexington listening on the radio.

It was only the second year that high school sports in Kentucky had been racially integrated, opening the boys’ basketball state tournament to historically black schools such as Dunbar.

“Hearing my school, Dunbar, playing in that state tournament, it made a big impression on me,” Washington said. “I remember thinking ‘I want to be part of that.’”

Washington lived out his dream, becoming a standout on Dunbar teams that played in three straight Sweet Sixteens (1963-65). That included reaching the 1963 state finals — where Dunbar lost to Mike Redd, Wes Unseld and Seneca 72-66.

“The only regret I have about my high school career is we did not win the state championship,” Washington said. “I’m 70, and that still bothers me.”

On Saturday night, Washington’s high school career received Kentucky’s ultimate validation. The former Dunbar guard — who would later coach Bryan Station to the 1989 Sweet Sixteen semifinals — was among 18 inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in a ceremony in Elizabethtown’s State Theater.

This year’s class brings the number of Hall of Fame inductees to an even 100. The “Centennial Class” is designed to help celebrate 100 years of KHSAA-sanctioned basketball.

The only regret I have about my high school career is we did not win the state championship. I’m 70, and that still bothers me.

Bobby Washington

It was a big day for the High School Basketball Hall of Fame, which opened its new museum to the public on a one-day basis for the first time Saturday. The facility, located in a renovated Presbyterian church in downtown Elizabethtown, will open permanently Aug. 12.

Ken Trivette, chairman of the Hall of Fame board of directors, said this year’s inductees will be the last for at least one year. “We plan to spend (2018) celebrating the centennial of high school basketball in Kentucky,” he said.

In future years, Trivette said, induction classes will be smaller than the ones (between 16 to 18) that got the Hall, which enshrined its first class in 2012, to 100 in six years.

Besides Washington, other 2017 inductees with direct Lexington ties included Greg Todd, now the women’s basketball coach at Morehead State, who coached Lexington Catholic to girls’ hoops state championships in 2001, 2005 and 2006.

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Former Oldham County girls’ basketball star and current University of Kentucky women’s hoops assistant Kyra Elzy held her son, Jackson, while signing autographs at the reception before the 2017 Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame induction. Mark Story mstory@herald-leader.com

Former University of Kentucky women’s player Lisa Collins, who helped Laurel County to three straight girls’ state titles (1977, ’78 and ’79) was inducted, as was current UK women’s assistant Kyra Elzy, a mid-1990s high school star at Oldham County.

Elzy said she, too, is haunted by the fact her stellar high school career ended without cutting down a state champion’s nets.

“I still get sick at my stomach every state tournament,” she said.

At the time Washington played high school hoops in the early 1960s, integration was still a recent change and things were not always easy.

“When we played — and I know this will sound bad — but some of the games, some of the (officials’) calls were very questionable,” Washington said.

Roach, who died in 2010 at 94 as one of the most respected coaches in Kentucky high school sports history, would not let his players verbally challenge the referees in response.

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Former Dunbar guard and Bryan Station coach Bobby Washington, left, talked with Paul Laurence Dunbar Coach Scott Chalk before Washington was inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame. Mark Story mstory@herald-leader.com

“We wanted to say things,” Washington said. “But (Roach) wasn’t going to put up with that. He would always point to the scoreboard, say (having the most points on) the scoreboard was the way to respond.”

After high school, Washington went on to be a star player at Eastern Kentucky University and played two seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA.

Yet, as he looks back, Washington says the basketball that meant the most to him was played in Lexington in the uniform of Dunbar High School.

“Because I got to play with my friends, same guys I grew up with,” he said. “I played NBA ball, but the most fun I ever had playing basketball was playing with my friends in high school.”

2017 Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame class

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 Forest, 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.

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