From the Editor: This is the first 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.
This first part is autobiographical in nature, and future parts will relate the author's experiences as part of that team, and provide insights into many aspects of the Golden Age of Kentucky basketball and the legendary coaching staff. I hope you enjoy oldcat'69's recollections.
About the Author:
I’m a farm boy who got a one-year ringside seat in the college basketball "holy of holies." My high school coach Harold Ross was, by his own admission, the thirteenth man on the first twelve on the UK NCAA champions of 1958. He was hired to be our coach immediately after graduation from UK and was my coach and family friend until I graduated UK and went into the Air Force.
As a high school player, I was an excellent shooter and good ball-handler who was way too timid in putting up shots. I also had, and may still have, the single-game and season assist record for my high school. But, like a lot of 6’1" guards around in my day, I had a fatal flaw—"white man’s disease," although we didn’t have a name for it at the time. Actually, like the beginnings of AIDS (which is not a joking matter), I may have been the origin of the disease, although others had had the symptoms in earlier years, I had a full-blown case. The good news in high school was that most of the guys I played against also were poor athletes, so we all deluded ourselves into believing that we could play just ‘cause we could shoot the eyes out of the basket. (Still can, by the way, but the new three-point line is stretching an old man’s range a bit.)
When I enrolled in UK, Coach Ross suggested I go over to Memorial Coliseum a few days before October 15 and ask how to go about trying out for the freshman team (All you young folks remember, freshmen could not play on the varsity then!) as a walk-on. He knew, as I did not then, that Coach Rupp typically recruited freshman scholarship players fairly heavily every other year, and ’65-66 was, thankfully for me, a light year.
So, I did. I was told to report back on October 15 at 4:00 in the afternoon with a pair of basketball shoes. I’m not sure how many other walk-ons there were, but I think the number was around 15 to go with the five scholarship players (Bobby Hiles, Phil Argento, Gerry Guter, Alvin Ratliff, and, for the life of me, I can’t remember the other guy’s name, although I can see his face in my memory. Maybe FortyYearCatFan can help.).
Anyway, we shot around for 25 minutes or so and freshman coach Harry Lancaster and his first-year assistant Joe B. Hall came out onto the floor after watching us and gathered us around the free throw circle. They proceeded to ask our names and where we went to high school. The process went smoothly until I told them my name and that I went to Todd County Central. At that point, Coach Lancaster stopped and said, "That’s one of our boys, Harold Ross, coaching that team. You should know all our plays." Not being sure if that made me a marked man or not, I replied, "Yes, Sir, I do." As it turned out, that single fact was a great advantage to me as we began practice.
Once the team was pared down to 12 or 13 players, we began learning to run the traditional 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 plays Rupp had used for years. Basically, it was a "second guard" offense (that was who was designed to get the first shot opportunity) that involved a lot of motion and a lot of picks, both stationary and moving. (Note: I suppose that having a background with basic pick and roll basketball is what frustrates me about today’s game when many players don’t even know which way to roll when they do manage to set a (usually ineffective) pick. And don’t get me started about a guy who dribbles the other way when one of his teammates sets a pick for him. Sheesh!!!!!)
At any rate, having a seven-year, since fifth grade, knowledge of those plays made me look fairly good among the other walk-ons, so I ended up being the sixth man in the first few games on the freshman schedule. Hiles and Argento were the guards, and, while I didn’t get a lot of "PT, BABY," I did get to play in each of our pre-holiday games, scoring a few points. As an aside, the only real instruction that Coach Lancaster ever gave me as he put me in was, " . . .if you get a shot, take it." This would become important to me in a later game.
We really didn’t have a very good team; perhaps it was the worst freshman team in Rupp’s history. It certainly was the worst freshman record, at 5-10, but even with the scholarship players, we really weren’t that hot. Argento was pretty good, but, except for Ratliff, the rest of the scholarship players weren’t UK caliber for one reason or another.
At the end of the first semester, at the Christmas break, three of the scholarship players failed to make grades, so we were left with Hiles and Argento and a bunch of us slugs for the second semester. Unfortunately for me, both those guys were guards, so I was still the sixth man, doggone it!!!
Because of the shallow talent pool and because they really weren’t much interested in developing anyone but Phil Argento for the varsity, a few of our second semester road trips were cancelled and we ended up playing only 15 games. I’ll discuss some of them later.
If it sounds like I was a little awed by the whole process, I was. I had figured out that I had to run just to stand still in this world of college basketball the first time I was paired one-on-one with Alvin Ratliff at practice. Alvin, you see, was possibly the second-best player in the state the previous year, after Butch Beard. I really hadn’t had a heck of a lot of trouble with my high school teammates one-on-one, but Alvin ate my lunch. So, I kinda figured out that I wasn’t going to be the magic walk-on that was asked to play on the varsity.
I also realized that I was privileged to be witnessing something pretty special when the Runts climbed the rankings to No. 1 and stayed there. I’ll write about each of them later, but suffice to say they were the definition of team chemistry. And, unlike our current crop, they could handle the ball. Ten turnovers in a game would have sent Coach Rupp into apoplexy.
I was fortunate not to have a class from 2:00-4:00 PM either semester. That’s when the varsity practiced, and freshmen players were allowed to watch varsity practice, so that’s what I did. I watched and listened to the greatest coach in the game, up to that point, as he taught, cajoled, prodded, cussed, embarrassed, and, yes, led, his team to the national championship game. I was a bit player, but I walked several steps behind him for a very few days on his "Glory Road."
I was completely in awe of where I was, even as I got familiar with my situation and the whole process of being there. A little ol’ farm boy who used to listen to Claude Sullivan and then Cawood describe Hatton, Crigler, Nash, Baesler, and a lot of the other heroes on the radio was now on the floor where they played. It was almost breathtaking.
You younger folks will never know how it felt to turn on the AM radio and hear "Hello, everybody. This is Cawood Ledford, and KENTUCKY BASKETBALL is on the air," but to us, it was the greatest thing in the world.