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1966 Kittens -- The Runts

From the Editor:  This is the sixth in a series of  short essays from A Sea of Blue member oldcat'69, who played as a walk-on on Kentucky's freshman team in 1965-66 during the Adolph Rupp era.

I started not to write this last piece because the interest level (as measured in comments) went down on the previous article.  On the other hand, Joe B. Hall wasn’t the most dynamic personality, in spite of being a pretty good guy and a really good coach, so it must have been HIS lack of sparkle and not MY dynamic, spellbinding prose that drove the reduced interest.  So, "not really my fault"—the eight-year-old’s standard defense. 

Actually, the real reason I felt I had to cover the Runts had nothing to do with Coach Hall or the number of comments on the last piece.  Those five guys, who I watched practice and play all year, were simply the most overachieving team I’ve ever seen, even including the Unforgettables, although the competition is close.  Now, Forty will probably start his counter-discussion by saying that the Runts had two first-team All-Americans, et cetera, et cetera.  That’s true, but they had those same two guys the next year, and Thad Jaracz both years to boot, but the Runts went 27-2 and the 66-67 team went 13-13.  So the difference had to be something, or someone, else.

First of all, you have to understand that the Runts were really embedded in the student body more than teams are today.  They lived in the dorms. That’s right, no Wildcat Lodge and no special training table except for game days.  Coach Rupp felt they should be integrated into the school, and they were.  There was a football house, but not one for basketball.

In fact, Larry Conley and Tommy Kron were roommates and lived two doors down from me on the second floor of Haggin Hall.  A FRESHMAN DORM!  ONLY SLIGHTLY MORE CIVILIZED THAN THE FOYER OF HELL.  I couldn’t begin to describe to you how bad it was, so I won’t.  Suffice to say that a couple of seniors trying to play basketball and graduate were probably somewhat distracted by their living conditions.  

With that as my intro, here’s the Cliff’s Notes on the Runts:

Pat Riley.  All-American in football in HS.  All-American in BB at UK.  Best athlete on the team by far.  Excellent jumper, good shot, acceptable passer.  Jumped center at 6’3"—only lost about three jumps all year, but "quick-jumped" every time and rarely, if ever, got called.  Stud.  BMOC.  Drove a red 1964 Chevy convertible with rolled and pleated interior with a beauty sitting in the jump seat.  Married her.  Still married after approximately 40 years (at least they were still married a couple of years ago).  Journeyman NBA player.  Winning NBA coach.  Despite status, pretty nice guy to walk-on freshmen players.  Periodically acknowledged our existence.

Louie Dampier.  All-American.  Baseball letterman at UK, also.  Absolutely the best shooter on the Runts.  Medium athleticism, but good ball-handler, very quick shooting off the picks.  Would have scored an unbelievable number of points, as he did in the ABA, if we’d had the 3-point line.  Generally quiet personality, but an assassin when he had an outside shot. Also a good guy.  Little more sharp with comments than Riley, at least to freshmen players.

Thad Jaracz.  Sophomore with a little baby-fat on him.  Despite that, excellent slasher with the ball.  Filled the outside lanes on the break very well.  Good inside shot, only fair facing the basket.  Good body positioning on rebounds.  Very quick with outlet pass.  Retired from U.S. Army (I’ve heard) as a Staff Judge Advocate (lawyer).  Also good guy.  Realized he was the new guy as a starter, but filled the role exceptionally well as the least athletic of the starters.

Ah, we finally get to the reasons the Runts were so good.

Tommy Kron.  Senior. Medium athleticism, but a heart as big as all get-out.  Pit bull on defense.  Could look pitiful in practice, but follow with a great game.  Good ball-handler, excellent passer.  Kind of "slid" around the floor, making him look slower than he was.  Absolutely great gentleman.  Treated everyone, from Coach Rupp to freshman slug with respect.  Passed away a little over a year ago.  The world’s loss.

Larry Conley.  Senior.  Leader.  Fair jumper, good shot, superlative ball-handler.  Almost as skinny as Tayshaun.  Most selfless person I’ve ever witnessed on a basketball court.  I never saw him make a behind-the-back pass like Maravich, or dribble between his legs like any number of hot-shots, but if you were open and Larry Conley had the ball, he’d get it to you.  And you would get it in a position to shoot.  With Kron, the glue, the spark, the whatever the heck you want to call it that resulted in the team winning.  Played at about 173, got back after the Texas Western game at 153.  Super human being, in my humble opinion.  Still broadcasting basketball, and damned well at that.

In summarizing this team and its (see Ken P, no apostrophe!!!!) record, I have to say that they epitomized the terms synergy and chemistry.  Three of them might not have been starting at a lot of places, but if you had added all their individual abilities, the sum would have fallen far below what they achieved together.  I have no idea if they even got along with each other privately, but when they got on the court, it was magic, before there was Magic.