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Billy Reed: Once-proud all-star classic dying from lack of interest, especially in Kentucky

A year after the first NCAA tournament in 1939, a group of basketball junkies in Kentucky and Indiana thought it would be a grand idea to have the best high school seniors from the two states meet every summer in the biggest arena in the two states, which was 15,000-seat Butler Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Hoosiers won, 31-29, over a Kentucky team that included Joe Fulks of Kuttawa, who was later credited with popularizing the jump shot in pro basketball.

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From then through 1954, excluding two years during World War II, the game was played annually in Butler and the Hoosiers used the home court advantage to jump out to a 13-1 series lead. Tired of getting beat in Butler, and aware that 18,000-seat Freedom Hall was under construction in Louisville, Kentucky demanded that the series become an annual two-game event, which it did in 1955.
For decades, the series was a showcase for the basketball talent in the two states claiming to be No. 1 in hoops interest. Each year the media in each state selected a player be “Mr. Basketball” and wear the No. 1 jersey for his state in the Kentucky-Indiana series. For every Jack Givens or Darrell Griffith who wore No. 1 for Kentucky, Indiana could boast of an Oscar Robertson or a Steve Alford.
The games drew well in each city. As many as 16,000 would come to Freedom Hall when Kentucky had a good team and Butler (now Hinkle) Fieldhouse in Indianapolis usually was sold out. The only serious competition, if you want to call it that, was the Dapper Dan Classic in Pittsburgh.
But then, somewhere in the late 1980s, the shoe companies began to get involved and recruiting suddenly became a cottage industry and summertime league basketball began to grow on a national basis. And, gradually, the Kentucky-Indiana series began to lose its shine, especially in Kentucky. The crowds in the Bluegrass State dwindled to the point that the game’s sponsors moved the game out of Freedom Hall and into smaller venues in Bowling Green and Frankfort.
Today the once-proud series is on life support, dying from lack of interest, especially in Kentucky. Last month the Kentucky home game was held in the 2,500-seat arena at Transylvania University, a D-III school in Lexington, and drew a crowd of only 1,700. The next night, a crowd of 6,250 watched the rematch in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
The radical drop in interest is at least partly due to Kentucky’s inability to compete. Last month the Hoosiers won 104-94 in Lexington and 111-99 in Indianapolis. It was Indiana’s sixth consecutive sweep, and the victory in Indianapolis ran the Hoosiers’ winning streak to 13 in a row. It has become so one-sided that it no longer fits the definition of a rivalry.
Nobody seems to know what’s happened to high school basketball in Kentucky, but everyone agrees its quality has diminished considerably since, oh, 1986, when future University of Kentucky folk hero Rex Chapman was “Mr. Basketball” for a Blue Grass team that also included future D-I stars Scott Draud (Vanderbilt), Felton Spencer (Louisville) and Reggie Hanson (Kentucky).
What’s particularly inexplicable is the demise of high school basketball in Louisville, the state’s largest city. For decades, Louisville was a must-stop on the recruiting trail, due to wondrous talents such as Charlie Tyra, George and Wes Unseld, Ron King, Darrell Griffith, Durand “Rudy” Macklin, Winston Bennett, Tony Kimbro and many others. But lately traditional state high school powers such as Male, Central, Shawnee, and Manual have been devoid of D-I talent.
Of this year’s Kentucky All-Star team, only teammates Quentin Snider and Kelen Martin of Louisville Ballard are headed for programs that have made the NCAA Final Four in recent years. A 6-foot-2 guard, Snider will play for Rick Pitino at Louisville. Martin will go to Butler, where he’ll become a teammate of fellow Kentucky all-star Jackson Davis of Lexington Lafayette and Indiana all-star Tyler Wideman of Lake Central. The other Kentucky all-stars are headed to Western Kentucky, Austin Peay, Findlay, and Miami, Ohio.
Kentucky coach John Calipari signed Dominque Hawkins, the 2013 “Mr. Basketball” for Kentucky, to a scholarship and he made a contribution off the bench for last season’s national runner-up team. Otherwise, other than Darius Miller, the valuable sixth man for Calipari’s 2012 national title team, the Wildcats have not gotten much value from the “Mr. Basketball” winners they’ve signed in recent years. The list includes Josh Carrier (2001), Brandon Stockton (2002), Steffphon Pettigrew (2007), and Jon Hood (2009).
What makes the high school situation fascinating is that the college is the complete reverse. Last season no Indiana college made the NCAA tournament. But Kentucky produced back-to-back national titles in 2012 (UK) and 2013 (U of L), not to mention the national runner-up (UK) last season.
One reason for last week’s dismal attendance may have been the absence of Indiana’s “Mr. Basketball,” Trey Lyles, a 6-10 product of Indianapolis Tech who’s headed for Kentucky. He missed both games due to illness. Still, Indiana had a rather attractive drawing card in 6-3 James Blackman Jr., who’s headed from Tom Crean’s Indiana program. Blackman’s father, an assistant coach for the Indiana stars, was a 1983 Indiana All-Star who went on to a splendid career under Joe B. Hall and Eddie Sutton at Kentucky.
The games were played at a fast pace that was refreshing in this era where coaches control and slow down the college game, and Blackmon and Snider put on a show that would compare with any in the series’ history. In the Lexington game, Blackman scored 41 and Snider 37. A night later, Snider scored 27 and Blackman 23 in Indianapolis. That gave each a total of 64, placing them in a tie for third on the all-time list behind George McGinnis (76 points for Indiana in 1969) and Oscar Robertson (75 for the Hoosiers in 1957).
Otherwise, the player making the biggest impression was 6-6 Trevon Bluiett of Park Tudor High in Indiana. He scored 32 for Indiana in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, only slightly off the 35.7 he averaged as a senior. He’s headed for Xavier.
The Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation, which sponsors the game in its state, has a new leadership team that’s trying to pump life back into the game. They wanted to have last month’s game in UK’s Memorial Coliseum, but were stymied by an NCAA rule that prohibits all-star games on college campuses. They also have suggested various changes in format, but haven’t received much sympathy from their Indiana counterparts, who are relatively happy with their side of the street.
In order for the Kentucky game to justify larger crowds that will necessitate moving its game to a larger arena, the first item of business is simple: The state’s all-star team has to become competitive again. All the state needs to do is to begin producing its share of tomorrow’s Rex Chapmans and Darrell Griffiths. Surely that’s not expecting too much from the hottest college basketball state in the nation, is it?

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.

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