By Jon Scott
A while back I was looking through some archives and ran across an article published on January 8, 1961 in the Louisville Courier-Journal weekly magazine entitled "Birth of the Big Blue." This was written by the Courier-Journal's Lexington correspondent Gerald Griffin. As someone interested in UK's basketball history, the title certainly attracted my attention so I made a copy but I didn't get a chance to really look into it until recently.
The article basically talks about some of the early days in UK basketball history, and interviews three people: former player Dr. H.H. Downing (who played in 1908), former coach and administrator S.A. "Daddy" Boles (who came to Kentucky in 1916 and was the head basketball coach in 1918) and former player Dr. E. Cronley Elliott.
It was Elliott who caught my eye, since I had never heard of him and I knew of no record of him ever playing basketball for Kentucky. Reading further it became apparent as to why, since Elliott claims in the article that he played basketball in 1902; a year before the first official game was known to have been played at Kentucky (February 6, 1903 against Georgetown College.
According to the article:
"This century was an infant when the University of Kentucky, then known as Kentucky State College, annoyed the taxpayers by building its first gymnasium on the Lexington campus.
It wasn't much by modern standards, but it provided shelter for a few athletic young men eager to work off steam during the long dry season between football and baseball. So they formed a basketball team.
That carefree decision in 1902, could be called the birth of the Big Blue.
Dr. E. Cronley Elliott, a retired Lexington dentist, was a member of that hardy crew which played for fun, without coach, captain or athletic scholarships."
I had not heard of cases where students played basketball in the gym prior to the official games held in 1903, but I wasn't surprised at reading this since it would seem to be natural that the students would take advantage of a gymnasium as soon as it opened.
Although there are some discrepancies in the literature as to when the gymnasium in Barker Hall actually became available to students, it appears likely that it was early in 1902. This is based on claims (in the 1904 yearbook and elsewhere) that the women actually had formed a basketball squad in 1902, along with articles in late 1901 in the Lexington Leader stating that the gymnasium was nearly complete and ready to be handed over to the University in conjunction with the decision by the College in 1901 to create a Physical Eduction Department and to hire a gymnasium instructor for the women, Frances Offutt, in December of 1901.
What did strike my curiosity was the claim by Elliott that not only did they play in the gym for fun, but that they played games against the local Lexington YMCA.
Again, according to the article:
"The team didn't even have a schedule the year Dr. Elliott played, although that forerunner of the celebrated Wildcats of recent years did play a couple of games with a team representing the Lexington Y.M.C.A."
If true that games were played with teams outside the University, this is uncharted territory since not only is there no known record of them, but these games predate the generally accepted start of the program by a full season. Unfortunately, it's highly unlikely that any records remain from these games, including what the dates and scores were, which individuals participated in them etc.
Beyond that, it's extremely unlikely that these games were officially sanctioned or endorsed in any way by the University given the general hostility by the administration toward organized athletics. If anything, it is surprising that basketball at Kentucky started as early as it did. As Gregory Kent Stanley noted in his book Before Big Blue "UK's first president, James Kennedy Patterson, attempted to ban all sports, believing that their legacy was limited to broken noses, legs, and arms, wasted time, idleness and 'a heritage of demoralization.'"
So while the information in this article likely will never be sufficient to alter the official record, it does give a glimpse into an earlier, previously forgotten time, and provides a reminder that there are still areas to be explored when looking back through Kentucky's rich basketball history.
As a follow-on to this, I should note that upon reading Elliott's claim, I wanted to verify that he indeed was present at Kentucky during the time stated (1902) and confirm that he wasn't mistakenly thinking of the 1903 season where he potentially could have been one of the group of students who were loosely organized under Walter Mustaine and instructed to start playing basketball (as described by Russell Rice in his book Big Blue Machine.)
One notable difference suggesting they were distinct situations concerned the game ball. In the Courier-Journal article it was noted: "In Dr. Elliott's time they wore gym suits which they bought themselves. But the school generously provided them with a ball and hung iron hoops at each end of the gym."
In comparison, Rice's account of the 1903 team in Big Blue Machine specifically mentions that the players were responsible for raising money to purchase a ball. From Big Blue Machine:
"I remember chipping in to help buy the ball," said Thomson R. "Tommie" Bryant, who had just turned 90 in January of 1975. "It was one of those you inflated with a foot pump and then laced. If something had happened to it, we couldn't have played."
Based simply on this discrepancy, they appear to be different situations. It does make one wonder what happened to the ball in 1902 however!
Confirming that Elliott was indeed present in 1902 was made slightly more difficult because there was no yearbook published that year. But a call to the UK Alumni Association confirmed that Elliott graduated from the University in 1902. Furthermore, Russell Rice checked his records and confirmed that Elliott had played quarterback on the 1900 Kentucky football team (the article claimed that Elliott had also been a quarterback in football and had played baseball in college).
So the information not only checks out, but based on his graduation date it appears extremely unlikely that Elliott was even still around campus in 1903, eliminating a lapse in memory as to the exact year as a likely possibility. In other words, I haven't found reason to doubt any of Elliott's claims as stated, including that he and others were playing basketball at Kentucky in 1902.
PS: According to records, after the article was published Dr. Elliott died the following year in 1962 at the age of 82.
If anyone happens to know of or runs across information about these forgotten games and their participants, I'd love to learn more about it.
About the Author:
Jon Scott is a lifelong Kentucky fan who lives outside of Philadelphia and enjoys learning and writing about Kentucky's basketball history. Jon maintains a comprehensive statistical database of the Kentucky basketball program, including biographical information of past players, coaches, articles, game details and boxscores of nearly every game Kentucky has played . The site can be found at http://www.bigbluehistory.net, which is freely available to the public.