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Saturday, October 26, 2013

The night they called it a draw: 95 years ago, UK played to its only tied basketball game

A sampling of newspaper headlines from February 1918 in the confusing aftermath of the Kentucky and Kentucky Wesleyan tie game. (Graphic by James Pennington)

A sampling of newspaper headlines from February 1918 in the confusing aftermath of the Kentucky and Kentucky Wesleyan tie game. (Graphic by James Pennington, made from scans from the Kentucky Herald, Kentucky Leader and Kentucky Kernel)


Kentucky considers itself the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball; it readily announces itself as such, right there at the beginning of each game at Rupp Arena like it has for many years. Buried in its 2,773 games is a nearly endless supply of stories untold. That’s what tradition is. It includes 2,111 wins, any number of which many readers would gladly describe in granular detail were you to ask.


It also entails 661 losses, and it’s assumed the same readers may remember more about some of those losses as they do some of the wins. Memory is funny that way. But neither memory nor public record—certainly not memory at this point—serve to remember one of the quirkiest footnotes in a sport and a program therein filled with them. On Feb. 9, 1918, for the first and only time in school history, Kentucky tied a game.


It had been a long week for the Kentucky basketeers.* The Wildcat quintet played back-to-back games against Tennessee on Feb. 7 and Feb. 8. Two convincing wins for the Wildcats resulted, surely—33-26 and 40-12—but they came at a price as steep to their bodies as any war stamp would have been to their pockets, since substitutes were sparingly used in those days of basketball, and war stamps were in demand.


*When reading through 1918 newspapers for the purpose of research, one is apt to refer to a basketball team in terms like “basketeers” and “quintet.”


On that Friday, the local five traveled to Winchester to face Wesleyan at Wesleyan Gymasium (Kentucky Wesleyan was in Winchester from 1890 until 1951, when it moved to its current location in Owensboro). Before the game, fans were treated to a 7:30 game between the Wesleyan Midgets, the home team’s junior varsity squad, and the Clark County High School team. The final of that game favored the Midgets, 32-6, and the main game tipped off squarely at 8:15.


At first the Wildcats did not quiver with ill effects of playing a third night in a row, and they led 14-4 at the end of the first half. Wesleyan’s shots began to fall after that, and the Winchester five stormed over coach Daddy Boles’ crew in the second half. The Kentucky Leader described it in the next day’s edition as “an advance which the blue and white basketeers could not stop.”


By the end of the game, Wesleyan walked off the floor with what it thought was a 22-21 victory to avenge the 23-13 Wildcats win when the two teams played at the Buell Armory on Kentucky’s campus exactly one month before.


But about half an hour after the game, Boles, who had been hired in 1917 as the athletics director and subsequently installed himself as football and basketball coach for one season apiece, recalled an event earlier in the game in which a Kentucky Wesleyan player stepped over the foul line when attempting a free throw. It’s disputed whether it happened in the first or second half, but at some point, Kentucky Wesleyan’s Nunnelly made a free throw with his foot on the line.


From the Kentucky Herald’s Feb. 10, 1918 edition:


“The referee threw out both hands like an umpire at a baseball game calling a man safe without using his voice. Nobody paid any attention to him. The scorekeepers drew a circle and put a cross mark in it, meaning one score.”


Boles brought the event to the attention of the referee, who confirmed the basket should not have counted. Referee Burr, a teacher at Kentucky Wesleyan by trade, decided to nullify the one point. He declared the game a 21-21 tie, and both coaches signed a statement that Daddy Boles took back to campus in Lexington.


Ninety-five years ago, newspapers were far more territorial and biased, and the Winchester Democrat took offense to Burr’s decision. Said the Democrat of Burr’s reversal in its Feb. 11, 1918 edition:


“This can have no bearing on the official score of the game. Spalding’s Official Basket Ball Guide for 1918, Rule 6, section 10 covers this point. Wesleyan can and will claim this game. All reports coming out in the Lexington papers have been badly colored.”


Of the four newspapers that covered the game—the Kentucky Herald, Kentucky Leader, Kentucky Kernel and the Winchester Democrat (the other Winchester newspaper at the time, the Winchester Sun, did not print a report of the game at any time and rarely reported on sports in the era)—the Democrat is the only one which initially printed the game as a 22-21 win for Wesleyan. The Herald initially printed the game as a 22-21 win for the Wildcats, but it was a typo that was corrected in the next day’s paper. The Leader and Kernel (the UK student newspaper) got it right on deadline.


On Feb. 15, 1918, the Democrat printed a letter from Dr. Joseph E. Raycraft, a Princeton University man who was the chairman of the joint committee on basketball rules, to Wesleyan’s Coach Robertson, who wrote Raycraft about the decision to rule the game a tie after it had been announced a Wesleyan win. Raycraft’s letter to Robertson in full, as printed in the Democrat, read as follows:


“I have your letter of Feb. 12 in which you raise the question as to as to whether a free throw which has been overlooked by the scorers and referee until after the game had been finished should count.


“The score must remain as announced by the official at the end of the game. He has not the power to make any changes after he makes his final announcement.


“Very truly yours,

Joseph E. Raycraft.”


Those were the last words the Democrat would print on the matter. It never acknowledged the game as anything but a Wesleyan victory.


Coaches Boles and Robertson at some point decided to reschedule the game and play it from zeroes, hoping to void the Feb. 9 debacle and resolve the only tie either side had ever played. For unknown reasons, the rescheduled contest never came to fruition.


A victory against the Wildcats would have gone a long way to keep Wesleyan alive in what was essentially a three-team race for the all-important state championship. The three teams were Centre, Kentucky and Wesleyan. But in its very next game a week later, Wesleyan dropped a 26-23 contest to Georgetown College, and it was effectively eliminated from competing for the state championship no matter if it had defeated Kentucky or not. A rescheduling of the tie game would have served no purpose other than to tidy up the referee’s error, and it’s possible that came into play when the game was never put back on the schedule.


Kentucky lost its first game of the season to Centre in Danville on Jan. 17, a 29-21 win for the Colonels. So the Wildcats then needed a win over Centre at home at the Buell Armory on Feb. 21 to force a decisive third game for the state championship, and Boles’ quintet did so with a 22-20 game that took three overtimes to settle.


On March 9, in the last game of the season, Centre clinched the state championship with a 24-12 win over the Wildcats at the St. Xavier gymnasium in Louisville.


Boles only dabbled in coaching for one academic year, coaching football in 1917 and basketball in 1918 before serving solely as athletics director until 1933. Turns out, his legacy on Kentucky would not be getting rid of one loss because of a technicality. Twelve years later, he hired a high school basketball coach in Freeport, Ill., to lead the Wildcats. That man was Adolph Rupp.


As Kentucky fans bicker about officials nearly a century later—some of which is warranted, much of which is not, all of which happens in every other fan base in sports—only once has an officiating error caused the outcome of a game to change after the fact. According to the Herald’s Feb. 11, 1918 edition, word didn’t spread fast enough:


The Wesleyan rooters staged a night shirt parade celebrating a victory which never did take place.”


To be fair, prematurely celebrating a victory that never happened is not a phenomenon unique to either Kentucky Wesleyan or the year 1918.


In 1918, interest in basketball was low to begin and rightfully buried further in newspapers by the war effort, so it’s no wonder an insignificant game was never rescheduled. And it’s no wonder, considering all that’s happened in the 83 years since Boles hired Rupp, little ever came of the game. The game came, it went, it caused a little bit of a stir, and everyone moved on.


As the Lexington Herald said on Feb. 11, 1918:


“But the truth is now known. The game was a tie, and should be counted—Wesleyan 21, Wildcats 21.”