(This story is one of six serialized highlights from the Ken Mink book “Big Blue Blues: The Inside Story of Kentucky’s Involvement in the Point-Shaving Scandal of the 1940s-50s.” The complete book is on sale on the Internet through Amazon Books, Smashwords Books and Barnes and Noble. Mink is a former Herald-Leader sportswriter who spent many hours with the late UK basketball Coach Adolph Rupp and other coaches and journalists researching data for the book. He is a native of Vicco, near Hazard, in Perry County.)
Chapter 3: Bryant, Rupp: Dividing the Talent
One afternoon, UK’s new football coach, Bear Bryant, entered Coach Rupp’s office carrying a sheaf of papers and dropped them on Coach Rupp’s desk.
“Adolph, this is the statistics for each of our games this season. As you can see, Wah Wah Jones was one of our most important players. Now, I hear that you have suggested to him that he drop football from here on and concentrate on just basketball. Is that true?” said Coach Bryant.
Coach Rupp leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms across his chest.
“Now, Bear, where did you hear such a thing?”
“A couple of my players told me Wah Wah was saying he was considering playing basketball only because he felt that was what you wanted,” said Coach Bryant, taking a seat.
“The only thing I told Wah was that I thought his best chance to become a professional athlete was in the sport of basketball,” said Coach Rupp. “I never told him he should give up football. But I think you will agree with me that Wah’s future is in basketball, not football.”
“Not necessarily,” said Coach Bryant, picking up the sheaf of papers, which Coach Rupp had ignored. “He’s good enough to be a pro football prospect. Frankly, he’s the best tight end I have ever seen, college or pro. He could block out a Mack coal truck if I asked him to.”
“Well, coach, I can appreciate your dilemma,” said Coach Rupp. “You inherited a bad situation with Kentucky football. I think you are the man who can get this football program back on its feet and I want to do everything I can to support you. But basketball is Number 1 at Kentucky and I want it to continue that way. If you can bring UK football up to the point where UK basketball is right now, then I will be the first person in line to shake your hand. But I personally don’t think any man could ever do that. Basketball will always be king.”
“Well, coach, I think I will prove you are wrong about that,” said Coach Bryant, reaching across and shaking Coach Rupp’s hand. “We may not do it overnight, but I think we will reach your level within a few years, but I need players like Wah to help us get there.”
“Fine, fine,” said Coach Rupp. “I have a great love for this university and I want it to be successful in all fields — sports and academics. I have had very few players who could ever manage to be successful in both football and basketball, and I believe Wah is one of the rare exceptions to that. So, I am not going to do anything to discourage Wah from playing football for you. I just pray he doesn’t get hurt out there and lose his chance for a professional basketball career.”
Coach Bryant smiled broadly.
“Coach, I appreciate your candor and honesty. Let’s both keep our fingers crossed that this young man helps elevate both our programs.”
Wah Wah Jones had managed to escape the draft in high school because when he was called to visit the draft board he showed up with a gimpy foot and was excused from duty.
Humzey Yessin, a UK basketball team manager, became friends with Jones and told everyone that Jones getting a military exemption did not go over well with the opponents of the Harlan Green Devils.
”All the Kentucky high schools, every time there was a draft called, everybody wanted him on that bus. They all said if he could shoot a basketball that well, he should be able to shoulder a rifle.”
“He was the last UK four-letter man,” Yessin said. In addition to basketball and football, Jones was a pitcher with the Wildcats and a member of the UK track and field squad.
“You didn’t want to press him too much or you were going to wind up on your backside,” said Joe B. Hall, who was a onetime teammate of Jones at UK and later became the head coach, succeeding the retired Rupp.
“Rupp used to call him ‘the killer,’” Yessin said. ”Wah could really block his man out and get the rebound, then get the ball out on a fast break.” Yessin said because of Jones, the offense was pretty simple.
“We ran a two-guard offense and the forward was the key in there. Wah could block his man and hand it off to Beard,” Yessin said. ”It was old number six. Rupp used to say, ‘Well, first there is the National Anthem and then we run No. 6.’ That was the offense.”
At the University of Kentucky, Jones was a member of the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity.
The Wildcats finished 1946-47 with a regular season record of 32-2, losing only to Oklahoma A&M 31-27 in the Sugar Bowl tournament title game and to DePaul 43-37 in Chicago.
“Our boys were just too damn overconfident in that Sugar Bowl game against A&M,” said Rupp. “They just sleep walked through that one.”
Astonishly, the Wildcats again were shunned by the NCAA.
Kentucky went on to play in the NIT in New York City, beating Long Island 66-62 and North Carolina State 60-42 before losing 49-45 to Utah in the championship game to finish the season at 34-3.
The NCAA field of 1947 included Navy, Holy Cross, CCNY, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming and Oregon State. Holy Cross beat Oklahoma 58-47 for the title.
But the Wildcats were never again going to be denied NCAA tournament invitations.
After the 1946-47 season Wah Wah’s little brother, Hugh Jones, was finishing his career at Harlan High. He was an outstanding player, just like his big brother.
Wah Wah had hoped Hugh would join him at UK for the 1947-48 season, but Rupp had too much talent to add him to the team.
Coach Rupp talked to Wah Wah about the idea of letting his little brother join the Wildcats.
“Now, Wah Wah your little brother is an excellent player, but he just would not fit in here at UK with the players we now have,” Rupp told Wah Wah. “He just needs to go to Tennessee or someplace like that where he can get some good playing time.”
Hugh Jones wound up signing with Tennessee. UK won 11 of the 12 games he played against the Wildcats. Hugh scored 74 points in the 12 games, including 9 in Tennessee’s 66-53 win over UK on Jan. 14, 1950, and had his career high against UK when he got 13 in a 95-58 loss to UK on March 4, 1950.
UK basketball success continued to grow. The Wildcats of 1947-48 earned the nickname “The Fabulous Five,” with Beard, Groza, Jones, Ken Rollins and Cliff Barker becoming legends in their own time. All but Rollins returned for the 1948-49 season.
Kentucky developed a fast-break offense and pressing defense that was ahead of its time in an era in which most teams played a plodding style.
The Wildcats won NCAA championships in both 1947-48 and 1948-49, with Beard, Jones, Groza and Ralph Barnstable leading the way.
The UK players then added an Olympic title to their 1948 resume as their starting five became the core of the U. S. team that took home the gold medal in London in 1948.
Kentucky had become the nation’s most successful college basketball program and had established a national dominance.
In that era the NCAA tournament only had Eastern and Western regions, with the regional winners playing for the national title each year.
Kentucky had a tough game against Holy Cross in the 1948 Eastern Regional finals. Holy Cross, led by basketball legend Bob Cousy, had won the 1947 NCAA title and many experts picked them to win again in 1948.
UK opened with a 76-53 win over Columbia, beat Holy Cross 60-52 and then beat Baylor 58-42 for the title at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Wildcats of 1947-48 earned the nickname “The Fabulous Five,” with Beard, Groza, Jones, Ken Rollins and Cliff Barker becoming legends in their own time. All but Rollins returned for the 1948-49 season.
NEXT: Gamblers Start Talking to UK Players