By Stephen Burnett
Once he helped build the University of Kentucky basketball program in the 1960s, playing several roles under the leadership of head coach Adolph Rupp. Today, Charles “Cotton” Nash still enjoys different roles — from Wildcat to professional ballplayer, to racehorse owner, to grandfather of seven who are developing their own sports legacies.
“We have six grandchildren living here in town, and most of my free time I spend going to their ballgames,” Nash said. “I worked with them ever since they were young, all of them. … It’s just what kids do. They play the sports that they enjoy the most.
“It’s just fun following them, instead of gardening and the like. Last year, it was probably 80 or 90 games over the course of the year.”
If you happen to attend one of those games, there is a chance you might spy Nash up in the stands. If you’re paying attention and notice a player’s last name is Nash, that chance is even higher, he said.
“Occasionally that happens,” Nash added with a chuckle. “Of course, I don’t look the same as I did when I was playing basketball.”
Foundations as a two-sport athlete
Nash’s history in the sports would take much time to recount, he said. That’s because his time with the Wildcats was only the start of a long and varied career.
Born in Kearny, N. J., Nash had an early interest in baseball, to which he added a love for basketball, football and discus-throwing. In 1961 when he came to UK, he played on both outdoor diamonds and indoor courts.
“Our era was before freshmen could play varsity ball, so all of us just had three years of varsity ball,” Nash said. “We played a semi-schedule on the freshmen team against some amateur teams,” and players from other colleges.
Sports Illustrated cover photo by James Drake
As number 44, Nash was 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds. He ultimately played 78 games for the Wildcats and Rupp. Basketball biographers and statistics trackers can’t label him “forward” or “guard” as easily as they may other players, because during his time on the team Nash ended up playing all five positions.
Nash was named an All-American in each of his three varsity seasons, including a first-team Associated Press selection as a senior, and finished his Wildcat career with 1,770 points scored. In his senior season, the Cats earned a No. 1 ranking for the first time since the team won its fourth NCAA championship in 1958. That ranking was a highlight of his career, Nash said.
Meanwhile, he also gained experience playing for UK’s baseball team. That led to a crucial decision after his graduation in 1964: paling minor-league baseball with the Los Angeles Angels or professional basketball with the Los Angeles Lakers. Again Nash opted for both, at least at first.
“I don’t think people realize sometimes, [that] even though I wasn’t in the major leagues that long, I did play in the NBA and (baseball) for a short period of time,” he said. That was from 1964 to 1965, when he played for the Lakers and the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA and the San Jose Bees, Hawaii Islanders and El Paso Sun Kings in Minor League Baseball.
That portion of his career proved difficult thanks to a lack of off-season time to recover from exhaustion, he told “Sports Illustrated” in a 2000 interview. Only after a two-year break from basketball did Nash try again, when he joined the (now-defunct) American Basketball Association’s Kentucky Colonels. He played 39 games for the Colonels in 1967, until he chose to focus solely on baseball.
At last he followed through on his love for baseball, using his minor-league experience to rise to Major League Baseball. Nash made his major league debut in 1967 with the Chicago White Sox, where he appeared in three games, and latter returned to the big leagues for brief stints with the Minnesota Twins in 1969 and 1970.
That puts Nash in a unique place, he said. The former Wildcat is one of just 12 athletes to play in both the NBA and MLB.
Life after baseball and basketball
Now in Lexington, Nash has enjoyed his break from professional ball — involving either bases or baskets — but he is by no means retired. Other fields remained to be discovered, he said, such as when, 20 years ago, a friend invited him to a horse sale in Lexington
Years before, during his time at UK, Nash had enjoyed watching races at The Red Mile. He had kept that interest throughout his life, long before that winter day at the Lexington horse sale.
“By the time I got home, I owned part of two horses in partnership with him,” Nash said. “That’s what started it all. … We’ve been in it over 20-something years now. We breed and race. … Just two or three years ago, we were fortunate enough to breed and raise and sell the eventual horse of the year in 2010.”
That horse was Rock N Roll Heaven, who won 10 races in a row, ending with the Little Brown Jug pacing race. One of Nash’s brood mares was also inducted into a harness-racing hall of fame.
“It’s also a sport, and it’s enjoyable,” he said.
Nash also likes to golf occasionally and he ran a successful real-estate business, but he finds other pleasures in watching the contemporary Cats continue the tradition he helped to build. The 2012 championship was especially fun to see, he said.
“They clearly had the best team, [though] sometimes the best team doesn’t always win the NCAA tournament,” Nash added. “In fact, they had the best team in the country two years ago. … They really should have had two national titles.”
He is also able to enjoy the family tradition when watching his own grandchildren compete. That includes his younger grandson in Little League baseball, his granddaughters enjoying softball, basketball, soccer and swimming, and his grandsons who play high-school baseball and football and could later become college players.
“If my [grandsons] play college ball, I’ll be interested in that for sure,” Nash said. “And that will take me back on the road.”
(Footnote: Cotton’s son Richey played two sports in college (basketball and baseball at Princeton) and one professionally (Minor League Baseball for the San Diego Padres organization). Now a filmmaker, Richey was featured in a KyForward story about his award-winning film two weeks ago. )