Why UK Basketball Fans Are Serious About the Cats

This article appeared in the Bourbon County Citizen, the oldest continuous newspaper west of the Allegheny Mountains.


Kentucky Basketball in the Forties and Fifties

I have written a series of articles about the basketball craze in Paris during the late 1940s and early 50s.  Paris High had several great seasons during that time.  Bourbon County Vocational had consolidated and was making great strides to challenge Paris for supremacy in Bourbon County . Both schools filled their gymnasiums to overflowing for every game. Basketball was becoming an exciting sport.  Not just a game to keep the football players in shape during the winter months, as was the original purpose of basketball.

In addition to the craze for the high school teams, everyone was crazy over the University Of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. Coach Adolph Rupp had been at Kentucky since 1930.  However, his basketball teams didn't begin to have much of a following until around 1946.  That is when the Wildcats won the National Invitational Tournament in New York City 's Madison Square Garden .

At that time, the NIT was the biggest national tournament, rather than the NCAA as it is today.  The National Collegiate Athletic Association only had eight teams: two from each of the four regions. The NIT had 16 of the best teams.  Since the NIT occurred after the NCAA, a school could play in both tournaments.  Kentucky played in both during the reign of the Fabulous Five.  In 1948 and 1949, Kentucky won back to back NCAA Championships, but lost in the NIT both years.  I know one year they lost to St. Johns .  I listened to the game at the Blue Grass Pool Room.

During the first part of the so called "glory years", the Fabulous Five played in Alumni Gym.  It still stands on the corner of Euclid and Limestone.  The capacity of the gym was a whopping 2800 fans, but it was not hard to get a ticket to see a game.  I saw several games between 1945 and 1949 without any trouble.  The Southeastern Conference played its post-season tournament at the Louisville Armory, which held around 6000 fans.

The players' names were household words:  Alex Groza, Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard, Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones, and Captain Kenny Rollins.  Groza and Barker had served in World War II, and Barker had been a prisoner of war. While a captive, he found a volleyball and used it to hone his basketball skills. Barker was the first person I saw who could dribble a basketball behind his back.  Beard and Jones were Kentucky boys; Jones from Harlan and Beard from Louisville .

We knew these people as if they were family.  When the Wildcats played, fans from all over Kentucky would gather around the radio and listen to the games.  Claude Sullivan was the announcer for WLEX, and he was a great play-by-play man.  When Kentucky lost, which was not often, it was like a death had occurred in the family.  Many fans could not go to sleep at night, and grieved for several days.  I know.  I was one of them.

Kentucky started playing in Memorial Coliseum in 1950, and The Fabulous Five passed the torch to a new group, establishing the Hagen and Ramsey era.  Kentucky won the NCAA Championship again in 1951.  Then tragedy struck the Kentucky Basketball program when we learned that two players on the Fabulous Five were guilty of shaving points.  The gamblers had gotten to them during the summer months when Rupp took the team to the Catskill Mountains to practice.  It seemed clear that several schools were involved, including the City College of New York.  However, the NCAA only sanctioned Kentucky with banishment from playing any organized basketball for the 1953 season.  However, that did not keep Rupp from playing.  He divided the team into two teams and went all over the state scrimmaging so the Wildcat fans could see their beloved team.

The following year Kentucky had its only undefeated season, winning 25 without defeat. That team had all Kentucky boys except one, Lou Tsioropoulos, who came from Lynn , Massachusetts .  All the other starters were from Kentucky . Cliff Hagan was from Owensboro and Frank Ramsey from Madisonville . Billy Evans, the captain, was from Berea . Gayle Rose played his high school ball here in Paris .  

As an interesting side note, Lou Tsioropoulos came to Kentucky on a football scholarship but he never wore a Kentucky football uniform.  It was things like this that sent football Coach Bear Bryant packing.

Kentucky won the NCAA tournament again in 1958.  By that time, the NCAA was the more prestigious tournament.  The NIT, because of the point shaving scandal, had ceased to exist.  I know that Coach Rupp said he would never take a team back to New York to play.  It is interesting to know that Kentucky won the tournament without getting out of the state.  There were 24 teams in the tournament.  Kentucky drew a first round bye. 

They played two games at Memorial Coliseum and two games at Freedom Hall in Louisville .  The Cats played the Temple Owls in the first game in Louisville . Kentucky and Temple had a history, a history that includes another game between them that very same season.  It rivals the Duke game of 1992 that we hate to see replayed.  Kentucky was playing Temple with All American Guy Rogers . Earlier that same year, UK and Temple played in a classic triple overtime game. Vernon Hatton hit a shot from behind the ten-second line to send the game into overtime. Vernon Hatton scored UK 's final six points to edge the Owls. Kentucky finally won in a triple overtime. 

The NCAA semi-finals provided the stage for a much-anticipated rematch. It was the first game that UK ever played in Freedom Hall, and again Vernon Hatton's layup with 17 seconds left pushes the Wildcats past Temple , 61-60, and into the NCAA Championship game. In the finals, Kentucky played Seattle with the great Elgin Baylor.  Rupp told the team to run everything in the middle to get Baylor into foul trouble.  It worked and Baylor sat on the bench for a lot of the game.

Anyone can see why some fans, especially the old fans, are not pleased with the present situation regarding Kentucky Basketball.  Some say that those days are gone forever; that  Kentucky will never dominate again. Parity is too great.  I say that Kentucky still has the name, and with proper recruiting and coaching staff, they will again be the premier basketball program in the country.  Ten losses or more in a year is unacceptable to us old guys.  The new generation seems to believe that Kentucky basketball has always been the way it is now.  They are satisfied with mediocrity. 

Not me.


Submitted by Price Huston

Mr. Price Huston has been speaking out about the UK Basketball Program in Fan Fair of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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