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Sports in Kentucky

Were 'Fiddlin' Five' last 'pure' team?


 

 

University of Kentucky Wildcats fans old enough to be Grandpa and familiar with Social Security paid tribute last week to UK’s 1957-58 national championship team. The Fiddlin’ Five.

An argument can be made Adolph Rupp’s Fiddlers were as endearing to Kentucky fans as the Unforgettables in 1992. It was 1958. America launched its first satellite. … Kentuckians Phil and Don Everly had a national hit song, “Bird Dog.” … And, the pre-CBS NCAA basketball’s Big Dance invited 24 teams.

In many ways UK’s unlikely march to an NCAA title was: The Last Pure Season. An era when radio was king and Claude Sullivan put star dust on the names Vernon Hatton, Johnny Cox, John Crigler, Odie Smith and the rest.

1958. Flying in the faces of segregationists, college hoops’ glamour names belonged to Oscar Robertson, Guy Rodgers, Bob Boozer and Helms player of the year Elgin Baylor. Last AP poll before the NCAA Tournament began ranked Jerry Westled West Virginia number one, then Cincinnati, Kansas State and San Francisco. Kentucky (19-6) was ninth.

Rupp’s players were not violinists worthy of Carnegie Hall, he said, “… but they fiddled around and found ways to win.”

Standard Oil Radio Network and Hall of Fame broadcaster Sullivan took it from there. The Fiddlers lost three of their first seven games, then won 19 of 22.

The Last Pure Season was before Maravich was a one-man show, and before the NBA harvested teenagers. Significantly, it was during Bob Cousy-led Celtic team-ness. In the winter of 1957- 58, UK fans witnessed an amalgam of so-so players become a team with an insatiable will to win under a tyrannical coach who scowled at anything less. It worked. The players had gumption enough to play a team game as it should be. Execution and skip the trash talk.

Starters Hatton, Cox, Smith and John Crigler were native sons as were sixth men Earl Adkins and Don Mills. Billy Ray Cassady (Inez), Lincoln Collinsworth (Salyersville), Harold Lloyd Ross (Hickman), Bill Smith (Walton) were part of Rupp’s lost battalion.

Mills and Ed Beck platooned so efficiently at center UK might be the only team in NCAA history to win a title game as its pivot man contributed scored zero points.

The popularity of the Fiddlin’ Five still stirs good memories mostly about beating favored Seattle and Baylor in the finals.

Dave Powell of Albany was 14 years old and recalls UK trailing by a dozen points “… (Don) Mills subbed for Beck, played most if not all the second half and put Kentucky ahead. Cox and Hatton had good games (31 and 24 points). I remember UK warming up on a lot of cold winter nights. (Adrian) Smith, who never made a big impact on WHAS radio broadcasts, was the only one to have a good pro career.”

Jimmy Sumpter, Crittenden County, in an e-mail, named every team member in hopes of winning tickets so his fifth grade son could attend a UK game. “My son, who plays basketball at Crittenden Mt. Zion School, is a Duke fan, but I’d love him to see the Wildcats.”

A fan in Corbin. “Listening on radio I came to “see” Hatton and Crigler as tough grind-it-out kids who handled pressure well. And it rubbed off on the others. Thing was, those kids that year were just right for old Uncle Adolph’s temperament. By the time they got to Seattle and Elgin Baylor, the could handle anything.”

Rupp was right, his Fiddlers were not worthy of Carnegie Hall, but on March 22, 1958 they were the toast of Freedom Hall.

For Powell, Sumpter and others maybe it was The Last Pure Season.

Fiddler’s Relevance?

What relevance, a Kentucky team 50 years ago? Template for t-e-a-m.

The Fiddlers defined a state. Strong-willed and always clamoring in one direction. Up. Ranked ninth was perfect fuel. Crigler and Cox, Beck and the rest understood hard-scrabble and used toughness, symbolized by Hatton and sharpened by Rupp, to drive for their prize. That Kentucky was underdog to Seattle was perfect also. Elgin Baylor, Charlie Brown and the rest, did not realize maybe, in a basketball game’s last five minutes, toughness and smarts kick the mule. Seattle had no chance. Relevance? Today, 50 years on, the Fiddlers’ ascent, who they were, how they got to the summit, more than the prize, makes them a fascination. A template for teams at every level.

Desmond Allison

A ‘wonder whatever happened to’ query about Desmond Allison (UK basketball 1999- 2000) brought a response from Jeffrey Blair in Elizabethtown. An internet video features 26- year-old Allison playing tightend at South Dakota University at Vermillion. Allison expresses his heart-break after being dismissed at Kentucky for DUI. Enjoying pass catching success at South Dakota, Allison hopes for a chance to play in the NFL.

Tribute

During basketball season this space will make a weekly dedication to those who helped basketball in Kentucky what it is. This week: If a Stan Musial Award for Nice guys who finish first existed, it would go to John Oldham. Others for tribute – Barry Goheen (Calvert City), Jerry Fultz (Wayland) and Wesley Cox (Louisville). Thank you.

And so it goes.

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