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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The group included athletes who had tasted victory in the Kentucky Derby, World Series, Super Bowl, Indianapolis 500, NCAA Tournament, NBA and ABA finals, and State High School Basketball Tournament. Everybody belonged to at least one Hall of Fame. It even had the first woman to row a boat across the Atlantic Ocean.
And then there was me, your humble correspondent, feeling woefully inadequate to be included in such company. Yet because of the kindness of Steve Higdon, president of the Louisville Sports Commission, there I was Monday at the Hurstbourne Country Club, trying to act as if I belonged to this exclusive club billed as “Louisville Legends.”
Much to my delight and relief, my fellow lodge members welcomed me graciously. To my knowledge, nobody cornered Higdon and upbraided him for including a scribe. I tried to earn my keep, at least a bit, by emceeing the morning draw that matched the celebrities with groups that had anted up donations to the Sports Commission for the privilege of playing golf with a legend.
I loved the ribbing among the athletes that belied the respect and affection that have for each other. Take Bubba Paris, for example. A product of Louisville DeSales High and the University of Michigan, he started at offensive tackle for three San Francisco 49er teams that won the Super Bowl.
When he encountered Junior Bridgeman, the former University of Louisville basketball All-American and Milwaukee Bucks sixth man, he immediately began teasing him about the national TV commercial that extols Junior’s success as the owner of many Wendy’s and Chile’s restaurants.
“Man,” said the irrepressible Bubba, “I see you you’re on TV all the time.”
Bridgeman smiled sheepishly.
“I mean,” said Bubba, “you’re on TV in San Francisco more than Joe Montana.”
Bridgeman shook his head and began to laugh.
“The only reason I flew in here,” Bubba said, “was just so I could meet you.”
Somebody took a photo of jockey Pat Day, who’s probably 4-feet-11, standing between 7-2 Artis Gilmore and 6-9 Dan Issel, the mainstays of the Kentucky Colonels’ 1975 ABA championship team.
And Steve Cauthen, the last jockey to win the Triple Crown (aboard Affirmed in 1978) was asked repeatedly if he thought I’ll Have Another could add the Belmont Stakes to his impressive wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. (He thinks he can). Also present was Jean Cruguet, who won the 1977 Triple Crown aboard the immortal Seattle Slew.
The legend with the most seniority was Dale Barnstable, who played for Adolph Rupp on UK’s immortal “Fabulous Five” NCAA champs of 1948 and ’49. I didn’t get to known “Barney,” as all his friends call him, until long after his playing career. But we became great friends in the 1970s, and I was able to do a piece about him when he won the Kentucky Senior Amateur golf championship.
Of all the legends, I figured I had the longest history with Butch Beard, who I covered in 1964 when, as a junior, he led Breckenridge County to the State Tournament championship game against Wes Unseld’s senior team at Seneca. Butch was so beaten up by Allen County in the semifinals that he needed a shot to even make it on the floor for the title game. His team got beat that night in Memorial Coliseum, but came back during Butch’s senior year to win the championship in Freedom Hall.
Doug Flynn was there. A native of Lexington, he was a utility infielder on the best baseball team I’ve ever covered – Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” of the mid-to-late 1970s. Now he’s working for Central Bank in Lexington and doing an occasional stint in the Reds’ radio booth with Marty Brennaman.
As we all were autographing photos, I got to sit between Danny Sullivan, the Louisville native who won the 1985 Indianapolis 500, and Art Still, the 1977 All-American defensive end at UK who went on to a long all-pro career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Still tried to take a few shots at Paris – a defensive player impugning an offensive one – but Bubba shut him up by pointing out that he not only played in three Super Bowls – Still never made one – but that the 49ers won all three.
Three starters on UK’s 1978 NCAA championship team – Rick Robey, Kyle Macy, and Jack “Goose” Givens – mingled amicably with three players for U of L’s 1980 title team – Rodney McCray, Roger Burkman, and Scooter McCray. The coaches of both those teams, UK’s Joe B. Hall and U of L’s Denny Crum, were on hand to do their popular morning radio show.
U of L football was well-represented by former defensive back Frank Minniefield, a founder of the Cleveland Browns’ “Dawg Pound,” Ernest Givins, who became an all-pro wideout with the Houston Oilers; Tom Jackson, long a member of ESPN’s NFL team; and Otis Wilson, a staring linebacker on the Chicago Bears’ 1985 Super Bowl champs.
The only woman in the group also might have been the most amazing person in the room – Tori Murden-McClure, the first woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean. She was alone in her boat for 81 days. Oh, yeah. She also was one of the first six people to reach the South Pole by a land route.
Watching and listening, I was struck by these thoughts:
First, I was able to become friends with most of the athletes and coaches because, back in the day, there was a level of trust that no longer exists between the media and the people they cover. All these years later, most seem to remember me as fondly as I remember them – and I can think of no greater blessing.
Second, because The Courier-Journal wanted its sports editor to be where the action was, I was there when most of them achieved their greatest victories. Today, sadly, jobs like I had no longer exist. The chains that own most of the newspapers, including The C-J, have slashed resources so much that sports departments now depend mainly on wire services. That doesn’t lend itself to the kind of personal journalism that comes about when you have your own man on the scene.
The immortal Red Smith, idol to me and almost every other person who tried to cover sports for a living, once told me that the secret to success was to “be there.” He meant being at the events, of course, but also being in the paper. I took his advice to heart and wrote a minimum of five columns a week for the C-J.
Finally, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the character of the legends Higdon was able to assemble. To a person, they are modest and appreciative. Louie Dampier, to cite one example, is the same unassuming guy today that he was when I covered him at UK from 1964 through ’66.
It’s too bad The C-J didn’t cover the event because an enterprising writer could have filled several notebooks. I guess nobody there understands Red Smith’s cardinal rule for journalism: Be there. Then again, maybe Gannett has slashed the sports staff’s resources to the point that nobody was available to attend one of the most impressive arrays of sports talent and accomplishment ever assembled in Louisville.
At one point, I ran into Lloyd “Pink” Gardner. He was a student manager for Uncle Ed Diddle and Johnny Oldham at Western Kentucky before becoming the trainer for the Colonels. He later went into coaching and was involved, as either head coach or assistant, with several state titles at Fairdale High.
“Isn’t this amazing?” he asked, looking around the room. “The older we get, the more we all seem to appreciate each other and what we accomplished. I don’t want to be morbid, but you wonder how many more chances we’ll all have to get together like this.”
Against all odds, Issel’s team won the golf scramble. He has been gone from UK for 42 years, but still is the all-time leading men’s scorer despite playing only three varsity seasons. But the thing is, he was far more accurate with his outside jumper than he is with his extra-long putter.
What’s the story, Big Fella?
“We had a guy on our team who once played in the British Open,” Issel said, smiling. “I didn’t do anything except cheer him on.”
Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby, Kentucky’s spectacular annual event.