Photo slideshow: Sweet Sixteen Thursday evening highlights
Now 62, Rice spent this past week attending the 2019 boys’ state tournament at Rupp Arena — with his father, Reginald, 90.
For more than five decades, Kenny Rice, the NBC television sports reporter, has carved a week out of his schedule to attend the Kentucky’s boys’ hoops state tourney with his dad.
“Sports has always been our bond,” Kenny Rice says. “I think for most guys of my generation ... the relationship with your dad and sports is a special one. And that’s what we’ve always had. We’ve always enjoyed this tournament.”
If, like me, you have an abiding love for the lore of Kentucky’s one-class state basketball tournament, there are few better people you can meet than Reginald “Rag” Rice.
A native of Garrett in Floyd County, the elder Rice saw his first state tournament as a high school student in 1946. That year, Sonny Allen led Breckinridge Training to the championship at the Jefferson County Armory.
“First time I had been to Louisville,” Reginald Rice says. “Like most high school kids, there were three or four of us who got together in an old car (for the trip). A friend, a doctor who had some money, he had mercy on us and got us an extra (hotel) room. We stayed at the Seelbach. Three or four of us would sleep on the floor.”
In 2019, there are not many people around who saw Brewers complete the last undefeated Kentucky boys’ basketball state championship season in 1948.
“When they would call timeout, McCoy Tarry, the coach at Brewers, would give (his players) hot chocolate,” Reginald Rice recalls. “During timeouts, they had a big ol’ jug over there and they would pour them all a hot chocolate. That was kind of comical.”
“I remember Frank Ramsey, Madisonville, the first time I saw him, he was all legs — a big ol’, long-legged kid,” Reginald Rice says. “But, man, he could get up and down that court, handle the ball.”
As a high schooler, Reginald Rice says Hagan already had the deft hook shot that would become his signature. Hagan used it to score 41 points in the 1949 state finals to lead Owensboro past Lafayette for the championship.
“That was the first time I ever saw a guy who could shoot the left-handed hook and the right-handed hook,” Reginald Rice says. “These kids were running around (the stands) calling it ‘Hagans-boro’ instead of Owensboro.”
As an adult, Reginald Rice served a stint in the military, married his childhood sweetheart, Edith Martin, and had two children, daughter Carol and Kenny.
Even as he spent a career working first in the coal industry, then as a federal mine inspector, Reginald Rice never stopped attending the Sweet Sixteen with buddies from Floyd County.
It was a passion he passed down to his son.
Kenny Rice’s memories of his own initial state tournament are vivid.
“I saw Wes Unseld play,” Kenny Rice says of the future Basketball Hall of Famer. “Seneca (Unseld’s team) won it that year (1964). It was the first time I walked into Memorial Coliseum. If you grew up like me, listening to all the UK games on the radio, that was a big deal.”
Pretty much continuously since, the Sweet Sixteen has been a shared father/son experience for the Rices.
From October 1980 through June 1999, Kenny Rice worked as a sports reporter/anchor for Lexington’s WTVQ. Yet even when he was assigned to cover the Sweet Sixteen for Channel 36, “I’d go up in the stands and watch some games with him,” Kenny Rice says of his dad.
As best as Reginald can figure, since 1946, he has missed six state tournaments — three (1951-53) when in the U.S. Army, two (1958 and ‘63) because of floods in Eastern Kentucky and one in 1996 due to heart bypass surgery.
Kenny thinks since 1964, “I’ve only missed five (state tourneys),” he says. “And that was only because of (covering the University of) Kentucky’s runs in the NCAA Tournaments in the 1990s.”
Until Edith Rice passed away in 2017, she kept a tolerant attitude toward losing the males in her family to a week of high school basketball each March.
“She got a kick out of us going to the state tournament,” Kenny Rice says. “She would always say, ‘You all are getting ready for your boys’ trip.’”
After Kenny Rice left WTVQ and shifted his broadcasting career onto national platforms — including covering the horse racing Triple Crown and the Olympics for NBC — he has continued to clear his schedule so he can attend the Sweet Sixteen with his dad.
In Rupp Arena, the Floyd County natives always root for the 15th Region champions. They enjoy seeing familiar faces they see nowhere else but at the state tournament.
Mostly, they relish sharing their mutual love for the Sweet Sixteen.
“This has been a great bond that we have had,” Kenny Rice says. “This state tournament, it has meant a whole lot to us.”