A magazine headline said “The Best Sports Moment in the History of Your State is …”
Results came from a question about which moment each state should be most proud of. According to ESPN The Magazine (June 25), 105,000 responded. Results from Kentucky: Secretariat winning the 1973 Derby in record-setting time is our proudest moment in sports, 31.8 per cent said. Runner-up: Muhammad Ali’s “Thrilla in Manila” title win over Joe Frazier in 1975, 20.8 per cent.
Clearly, Secretariat and Ali loom large in Kentucky’s sports pantheon, but best ever? Nada. Still, the “proudest moments in sports” premise is useful. Here are a dozen of mine:
12. Blanton Collier. Born in Millersburg, schooled at Paris, coached at Kentucky (1954-62), but reached his zenith coaching at NFL Cleveland. His Browns won 76 of 110 games, 1963-70, an NFL championship in 1964.
11. Perfect season (almost). In 1953-54, Kentucky’s basketball team won 25 without a loss in a season made imperfect by a peculiar NCAA ruling. Stars Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos were ineligible for tournament play because they were in graduate school.
LaSalle, led by Tom Gola, won the 1954 NCAA title. Early in regular season, Kentucky defeated the Explorers handily, 73-60.
10. Frank Selvy. Corbin native was first and only Division I player to score 100 points in a college game. Long before the 3-point line was a thought, Furman coach Lyles Alley gave Selvy, the nation’s leading scorer, a green light. On February 13, 1954 (‘Frank Selvy Night’), with the player’s mother and family in the stands, Alley took note it was South Carolina’s first-ever televised college game and made way for an American moment.
A scorekeeper estimated a dozen of Selvy’s 41 field goals would have been threes instead of twos, including a 40-footer at the final buzzer in Textile Hall. Selvy made 41 of 66 shots (62 percent), and cashed 18 of 22 free throws.
All the way to a 50th anniversary in 2004, the ever modest Selvy has been recognized or honored nationally one way or another.
Anecdote. Selvy’s rise to fame is, in its way, a classic kid-with-adream metaphor depicting our state’s roiling passion for its dream game.
Growing up in Corbin, Selvy wanted to play at Kentucky. As a senior in 1950 he was a 150-pound 6-foot center. Adolph Rupp, saw UK’s future through a lens that featured 7-foot Bill Spivey, 6-5 Shelby Linville, 6-4 Cliff Hagan and 6-3 Frank Ramsey. Rupp needed guards.
By mid-summer, Selvy had grown to 6-feet-3 and, despite a one-point performance against Indiana in the all-star classic, was MVP in the East-West all-star game. Rupp dispatched assistant Harry Lancaster for another look at Selvy.
Too late. Lyles Alley had already wooed Selvy to Furman. His UK dream in the rearview mirror, the Corbin kid kept to his familytaught principles.
In turn, Lancaster recommended another undersized high school center as guard prospect. Bill Evans of Berea took the scholarship Selvy should have gotten. The rest is another Dream Game chapter. Both went on to illustrious careers.
By his senior year at Furman, Selvy had broken every scoring record north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, led the nation in scoring, 41.7 points a game and was a college All-American. He played nine NBA seasons.
Evans became a starter on Kentucky teams that won 48 of 51 games. He was chosen to the U.S. team for the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia and brought home a gold medal.
9. Ashland High and Carr Creek. Adolph Rupp is credited with making basketball king in Kentucky, but two high school teams set a standard long before Rupp arrived from Kansas — Ashland and Carr Creek.
In March 1928 in Chicago, Ashland and Carr Creek were in a field of 40 teams invited to play for the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament title.
Carr Creek won hearts of fans and Ashland won the championship and USA’s first national championship.
Prophetically, one writer said, “The two schools established Kentucky in the national consciousness as a basketball powerhouse.”
8. Bird Brothers. Jerry, Calvin, Billy and Rodger Bird’s impact on football and basketball in Kentucky remains unmatched. Jerry was a basketball All-American for Adolph Rupp, Calvin led Corbin High to a state football title in 1955, was all-state then starred at Kentucky; Billy was a football all-stater and one of the state’s finest basketball guards; Rodger led Corbin to an unbeaten season in 1960, became an All-American at Kentucky then played for the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl II.
7. Valley Station. Louisville’s Little League team created its own dream game experience in 2002 and won baseball’s Little League World Series at Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
6. Steve Cauthen. At 18, he rode horse racing’s last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed in 1978. The Walton, Kentucky native was U.S. Sportsman of the Year in 1978.
5. Kentucky’s 1948 NCAA title team starters. The “Fabulous Five” stood at attention as our national anthem played at the XIV Olympiad in London. Gold medals for native sons Kenny Rollins (Wickliffe), Wah Wah Jones (Harlan) and Ralph Beard (Louisville). Cliff Barker and Alex Groza and coach Adolph Rupp wore gold also.
4. Mary T. Meagher. Now 47, Meagher will always be Madame Butterfly. In the Olympics in 1984 and 1988, she won three gold medals, a silver and bronze, and set two world records. Meagher is still swimming’s best ever in the butterfly.
3. Harold Reese. During spring training at Vero Beach, Florida in 1947, Kentucky native PeeWee Reese was asked to sign a petition saying players would not take the field with a black man. “I’m not signing that! No Way.” he said.
2. PeeWee Reese II. In Cincinnati during Jackie Robinson’s rookie year with Brooklyn, Reds players were name-calling Robinson mercilessly. Reese, of Ekron in Meade County, walked over to his second baseman and put an arm on his shoulder. Years later Robinson wrote, “He stood there beside me awhile. He didn’t say a word, but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me and just stared. PeeWee was standing by me. I will never forget it.”
1. A.B. “Happy” Chandler. In October 1946, 15 of 16 Major League teams voted against Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey’s signing of Jackie Robinson. Governor Chandler, then the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, said yes. With Kentuckian Chandler’s unwavering support, Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947.
From Ashland and Carr Creek in 1928 to Happy Chandler’s place in Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York today, Kentuckians own an exquisite array of proud moments in sports, but also a socially profound impact on America too.
And so it goes.