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Could UK have won another NCAA title if Frank Selvy had stayed home?

Frank Selvy was drafted first overall by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1954 NBA draft. 

Baltimore Bullets: Frank Selvy Photo by NBA Photos/NBAE via Getty Images

Corbin, Kentucky is a town dear to the hearts of many thousands of University of Kentucky basketball and football fans – primarily due to the Bird family, which sent four all-star athletes to Lexington and another (Billy Bird) to Eastern Kentucky U.

But one Redhound basketball player, Frank Selvy, was overlooked because as a high school junior he was 6’0” and a bit scrawny.

Recruiters, including Adolph Rupp of Kentucky, were fighting to get Corbin’s 6-6 Jerry Bird, “but Coach Rupp told me when I was a junior I was too undersized to play for him,” Selvy said in a recent phone interview from his home in Simpsonville, S. C.

“But I grew almost four inches between my junior and senior years and I started scoring a lot of points for our team and then I started getting offers from UK, North Carolina, Tennessee and others.”

After Selvy was named MVP in the Kentucky East-West all-star game, Rupp offered a scholarship, but Selvy had committed himself to play at Furman, “I liked Coach Lyles Alley,” Selvy said. “He came up and talked to my mother. Plus, there were two or three guys from Corbin High and Fred Fraley of Wayland who came along with me. My mother taught me to never go back on my word, so I stayed with Furman. Anyway, I figured I would be just another player at UK – they had Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, Bill Spivey and a lot of other good players. I loved to score and Coach Alley, said they needed me to be their go-to guy and I liked that. But I still remained a UK fan.”

Also on that Corbin team was future college football coaching legend Roy Kidd.

UK was certainly the nation’s most powerhouse team in that era, winning NCAA crowns in 1948-1949-and 1951. But they missed out in 1952-53-54, when Selvy was setting records at Furman. UK was favored to win the title again in 1951-52 but finished 29-3 and was upset by St. Johns in the NCAA tournament (a team they had beaten by 40 in the regular season).

Due to several Kentucky players found to be involved in a point-shaving scandal, the NCAA banned teams from playing the Wildcats in 1952-53 and the school from the 1953 NCAA tournament. Thus, Kentucky’s 1952—53 season was cancelled. The Cats had another great team in 1953-54 (led by Hagan and Ramsey), going 25-0 and outscoring the opposition by 27 points per game.

But, again they missed out on the NCAA when the UK grad student players (Lou Tsioropoulos, Frank Ramsey and Cliff Hagan) had technically graduated the year before, so those players were ruled ineligible for the NCAA tournament. Despite the wishes of the remaining players, Coach Rupp decided his team wouldn’t play. So, the Cats withdrew from the tournament, settling for the nation’s No. 1 rating by the Associated Press.

Selvy likely would have been an important part of those teams – but would he have been good enough to change Coach Rupp’s decision to miss the 1954 tournament (the starting UK guards on that team were 6-1 Bill Evans (8.8 ppg) and 6-0 Gayle Rose (6.7 ppg)? The NCAA rules were changed years later, allowing grad students to play.

Selvy went on to become a major part of college basketball history at Furman, leading the nation in scoring (41.7 ppg) as a senior when Furman went 20-9, including a NCAA Division 1 record 100 points against Newberry College. He made numerous college all-star teams.

Basketball logic seems to indicate a player who twice led the nation in scoring and became a two-time NBA all-star would have been an integral part of Big Blue basketball.

“Looking back I think I underestimated myself too much in 1950 – I now believe I could at least have been a starter at UK,” said Selvy.

Selvy was drafted first overall by the Baltimore Bullets in the 1954 NBA draft. He went on to play nine seasons in the National Basketball Association during the late 1950s and early 1960s, interrupted by a stint in the U.S. Army. As a pro, Selvy is mostly known for his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, teaming with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. He was twice an NBA All-Star.

“I spent 2 ½ years in the Army and never had a chance to play much basketball. When I got out of the service, I decided to quit the NBA and go back to Furman as an assistant coach and later as the head coach when Coach Alley retired. His playing success did not carry over to his coaching as Furman went 44-59 (with his brother, Charles Selvy, one of the top players).

Selvy will always be a part of basketball lore because of his 100-point game.

But Feb. 23, 1954, had been designated “Frank Selvy Night” at the Newberry game.

Some 65 people from Corbin, including Selvy’s mother, father, two sisters and five brothers drove down to Greenville from Corbin to see him play college ball for the first time. He later told sports writers: “Since they came all that way to see me play, I didn’t want to flop.”

He certainly did anything but flop.

Coach Alley told his players to get the ball to Selvy as much as possible and screen for him every time down the floor. Selvy was coming off a 51-point game against Georgia Tech.

Newberry’s Bobby Bailey, who had held Selvy to 23 points in an earlier game, did not have the same success in the rematch, fouling out after less than three minutes in the first quarter.

“I drove to the basket a lot and he just kept fouling me. After he was out they didn’t have anyone who could stay with me.”

Selvy hit 41 of 66 field goals and 18 of 22 free throws, his last two points coming on a desperate heave near midcourt at the buzzer. Selvy later estimated that eight or 9 of his shots would have been 3-pointers today.

College games then were played in four 10-minute quarters. At the end of the first quarter, Selvy had 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting. He had only 13 points in the second quarter and had 63 points at the end of the third quarter.

In the fourth quarter, Selvy scored 37 of Furman’s 40 points. Selvy was at 94 with 30 seconds to go. A quick basket, followed by a turnaround jumper from the baseline and “98” shouted the PA guy. Newberry rushed down court and missed. Coach Alley called time with two seconds left and set up a play for Selvy. Selvy fired a 45-footer at midcourt and the ball went in and pandemonium ruled.

Furman won 149-95.

Selvy is now 87 years old and doesn’t think much about basketball these days. “I want to get my health back so I can get back onto the golf course.” He said he was once a scratch (par) golfer but nowadays he just hopes to score under 100 – a familiar number.

(Ken Mink is a former Lexington Herald-Leader sportswriter, covering UK sports in the 1960s. He spent more than 50 years as a journalist, serving as the editor of six daily newspapers. He is also an author with 26 books in circulation, including “Big Blue Blues: The Inside Story of UK’s Involvement in the Point-Shaving Scandal of the 1940-50s.” He is a native of Vicco, Perry Co., Ky)