Mark Story

Kenton County: Most dream it, He lived it

FORT WRIGHT — Across the ages, many a little boy in Kentucky has taken basketball to backyard goal motivated by the same two-pronged dream.

Become a statewide hoops star while leading the hometown high school to the state championship. In doing so, earn a basketball scholarship from the University of Kentucky.

Troy McKinley lived it.

The 1980-81 school year at Simon Kenton High School was at once so traumatic and tragic, yet also so uplifting and thrilling that there is now both a book and a documentary about it.

"It's Kentucky's version of Hoosiers," said Eric Deters, a Northern Kentucky attorney responsible for both the book (Pioneer Spirit) and the movie (Rebound: A Basketball Story). "Because of what happened to the school, it's even a better story than Hoosiers."

For McKinley, the morning of Oct. 9, 1980, started like a routine school day. He was on the third floor in the Simon Kenton science wing around 11:50 a.m.

Out of nowhere, his chair lifted off the floor — with him in it.

"Everybody's chairs lifted up," McKinley said. "We were, like, 'What the heck was that?'"

A natural gas explosion had occurred in the boiler room in the basement of the school.

Said McKinley: "The fire alarms went off. Nobody really said anything. We just started filing out and the smoke started hitting us in the face. We knew something was really wrong."

By the time his class made it to the school parking lot, McKinley said, smoke was billowing out of the bottom-level windows.

Fourteen different fire departments answered the fire alarm. Some 25 minutes after the initial blast, a second explosion occurred. It injured some 35 firemen and utility workers who had been fighting the fire.

Amazingly, there was only one student fatality. Robert Williams, a junior, died in the first detonation.

Many of the students who would have been in the math and science wing were in the cafeteria at the time of the first explosion.

"Robert was a beautiful artist, beautiful art work," McKinley said. "The art class and the boiler room were right there next to each other. They'd gone to lunch, in the cafeteria, but Robert stayed behind to work."

With their school building damaged, Simon Kenton students found themselves doing shift work at the rival Scott High School.

The Scott students would attend classes in the morning. They'd go home, then the Simon Kenton kids went to school at Scott from 1:30 to 7:30 p.m.

"Practicing basketball was a real challenge," McKinley said. "We had to try to find a gym. We practiced all over Northern Kentucky."

It hardly seemed like the launching point to one of the most memorable basketball seasons in Kentucky high school history.

Larry Miller remembers the first time he saw Troy McKinley shoot a basketball.

Having taken the head coaching job at Simon Kenton before McKinley's freshman year, he was checking out the players "in the pipeline."

"Troy had kind of an awkward shot. He almost shot it off his forehead," Miller said. "I told my assistant, 'We're gonna have to change that shot.'"

Yet the more McKinley shot, Miller said he noticed something else: He wasn't missing.

Said Miller: "I said, 'You know, maybe we don't need to change that shot.'"

At the time, Simon Kenton was a school that had never sent a basketball team to the Kentucky state tournament. Northern Kentucky's 9th Region had never had a team win a boys' basketball state championship.

The 1980-81 Pioneers were big and experienced. McKinley, 6-foot-6, had the freedom to roam outside and show off his unorthodox shot because both his front-court mates, Dave Dixon and Billy Meier, were also 6-6.

Greg Ponzer, Sean Dougherty and Allen Mullins were the primary guards. All but Mullins (a junior) were seniors.

"We'd sort of pointed to that year. We thought we had a good chance to get to the state," said Miller, now the head basketball coach at Bethlehem High School in Bardstown.

The Pioneers barely made it out of the district.

Against a good Walton-Verona team in the 33rd District semifinals, Simon Kenton was down eight with 2:45 left in the game.

Rallying, the Pioneers won in double overtime.

"It was a miracle win," Miller said.

Or destiny.

As the '81 Sweet Sixteen teams gathered, no one was talking about Simon Kenton. The tourney favorites were Moore, led by star Manuel Forrest, and Bryan Station, which featured junior standouts Keith Berry, William Conner and Jeff Clay.

Even though he entered the state tournament averaging 24.7 points, no one paid much attention to Troy McKinley.

"When we went to Rupp Arena, he had one scholarship offer — Northern Kentucky," Miller said.

McKinley had 28 points in a 64-62 opening win over Knott Central. That was just a warm-up for an epic quarterfinal shootout with Virgie and star Todd May. McKinley rifled in 39 points and had 13 rebounds; the 6-8 May went for 31 and 13.

Simon Kenton won 84-83.

In the semifinals against Moore, Forrest poured in a stunning 47 points. His team led by 11 in the third quarter.

McKinley scored 20 of his 33 points in the second half to spark a rally. With his team down one, he went up for the apparent game-winning shot attempt, but instead fired a pass inside.

An open Meier scored to give Simon Kenton a 71-70 win and a berth in the state finals against another Cinderella team, Mason County.

What was then the largest crowd ever to see a high school basketball game, 21,287, saw McKinley score Simon Kenton's first 11 points in the finals.

Yet Mason led 35-25 at the intermission.

In the second half, McKinley hit a wall. Scored only four points (to finish with 17). "I was exhausted," he said.

Simon Kenton's Dixon took over, scoring 14 points in the third period alone. He ignited a 70-63 win.

"Obviously, us winning at basketball didn't bring Robert back," McKinley said of the schoolmate killed in the explosion. "But people said it did help the community feel good after what we'd all been through."

Having averaged 29 points a game in the state tourney, McKinley was named MVP.

The guy who entered with only a scholarship offer from Northern Kentucky was suddenly among the most coveted players in the nation.

Kansas called. So did De-Paul, at that time one of the nation's elite programs. Louisville invited McKinley to its basketball banquet. Western Kentucky had a scholarship for him.

The day after the state tournament ended, McKinley and friends were outside shooting baskets. Troy's mom, Mary, called him to the phone.

"She was all excited, kept saying Joe B. Hall was on the phone," McKinley recalled. "I didn't believe her, so I wouldn't go in. When she finally convinced me, I went in and it really was Coach Hall. He congratulated me on winning the state tournament and invited me to visit Kentucky."

When he signed with the Cats on April 20, 1981, McKinley told reporters, "I've been a fan of UK all my life — it's been a dream of mine to go to Kentucky."

The story lost a bit of its romance at UK.

McKinley was not big enough to play power forward; he wasn't quick enough to thrive as a wing player.

He played only 48 minutes his entire freshman year; only 31 in his junior season.

Still, McKinley persevered and as a senior in 1984-85 became a valued outside shooting threat (seven points a game) on a team built around the inside play of Kenny Walker.

After college, McKinley went into law enforcement, served with the Lexington police. That career ended after he suffered a back injury when he slipped while in foot pursuit of a suspect.

Now, McKinley works as an elementary school special education teacher in Kenton County.

"One of the things I liked about police work was the whole 'helping people thing,'" he said. "That's what got me into this. When you work with a kid and they have that moment where they 'get it,' it's really rewarding. I'm like 'Man, I helped them.'"

McKinley, 46, and his wife, Donna, have three daughters: Brittany (21), Tory (11) and Abby (7).

Looking back, McKinley said it's hard to believe how much his life changed as a result of three days in the 1981 Sweet Sixteen.

"Kind of lived the dream, huh?" McKinley said.

Big time.