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Ira Vinson "Jack" Birdwhistell
Basketball & Me
I don’t have any vivid ‘first’ memories of basketball, but I do recall a tall pole behind what we called the ‘smokehouse’ in our back yard at 564 South Main Street, to which my dad and some friends attached a rickety backboard and goal. This would be my main place to play for four or five years. Heat or cold, rain or shine, I could be found out there shooting baskets on the tiny, sandy court, which over the years developed a dip right beneath the goal which became a puddle in wet weather. My usual playmate was my cousin ‘Mac’ Goodlett, who lived across the street. We played countless games of H-O-R-S-E and ‘21' in those days. At some point our neighbors on Franklin Street, W. J. and Nancy Smith, attached a goal to their garage (about 8 feet high) which had the advantage of being on a blacktopped driveway. This became the neighborhood place to play pickup games until we moved to 568 South Main (1960) and were able to erect an excellent backboard and goal on a spacious blacktopped area, which became THE place to play basketball outside for all the kids in town.
When I attended grade school on Woodford Street, we played outside during recess on a rickety goal attached to one of the school’s outbuildings. When we moved to the new Saffell Street School during my fifth grade year (1956-57), imagine my delight in the full court, tiled gym with its fancy goals and backboards. Games between the various grades were my first taste of organized ball. Because I was so much taller than kids my age, I did pretty well.
I spent a lot of time reading the ‘Chip Hilton’ series of sports books, written by Clair Bee, a famous college basketball coach from up East. ‘Chip’ and his friends (including a dude named ‘Fireball’ Finley) played baseball, football, and basketball for their tiny high school–always the underdog, but always emerging victorious. Even though I had ‘joined the church’ and got baptized at age ten, I feel sure that ‘Chip’ Hilton influenced my life then more than Jesus Christ! I certainly spent more time reading about ‘Chip.’
Meanwhile I had become a devoted fan of the University of Kentucky Wildcats basketball team. The first team I remember well was the 1955-56 Wildcats, but I think I recall a game in early 1955, when Georgia Tech broke a long home court Kentucky winning streak. I developed a habit of adopting an ‘favorite player;’ my first was Bob Burrow, a tall fellow from Ft. Knox, KY, who was a junior college transfer to Coach Rupp’s team. I don’t recall for sure, but it was probably during the ‘55-‘56 season that I attended my first game at Memorial Coliseum. I know I spent many happy hours lying on the floor at 564 South Main ‘keeping score’ of the games while listening to Claude Sullivan call the game on the radio (two or three different radio ‘networks’ aired the games then). By the1957-58 season, I was a real fan. I had adopted Johnny Cox from Hazard as my favorite player, even attaching his number ‘24' to a white sleeveless undershirt I wore when playing games at the Smiths’ court on Franklin Street. As a chubby, bespectacled kid (think Ralphie in ‘Christmas Story’), I was quite a sight!
One game that season we arrived at the Coliseum early to watch the freshman team play. I spotted Cox and other varsity players seated near the court, and I pestered whoever brought me to let me go ask for my hero’s autograph. Fearfully I made my way to where he sat with the other players. I asked him if he would sign my program. He said something which sounded remarkably like, ‘Oh, Shit!’ but he signed and handed it to another player. My feelings were hurt, but how I wish I had that program today! That team, nicknamed ‘The Fiddlin’ Five’, went on to win the NCAA Championship for 1958. In a field of sixteen teams, they won two games at Memorial Coliseum, then two more at Louisville’s Freedom Hall (then brand new). I recall vividly listening to the final game vs. Seattle (no television coverage yet) and the great Elgin Baylor and weeping when it was over, even though my team had won and Johnny Cox had a great game–because there were no more games to listen to that season!
The next year marked my first venture into organized basketball. I played on the seventh/eighth grade team for Saffell Street school (we were the only school in the county with a gym). I recall one of the drills Coach James Harley put us through involved learning to jump rope, quite a chore for a kid as clumsy as I was. My next door neighbor, Gary Gillis, an excellent player, was an eighth grader and one of the stars of the team. The only game I remember was the championship game of the Anderson County Grade School tournament, which Saffell Street won. I was heartbroken, however, because I was the only guy on the team who didn’t get to play in the game. I’m sure I cried. Mr. Harley still apologizes for that when he sees me–and that was fifty years ago!
The next year, I got to play all the time as a tall, but slow, eighth grader. Once again the tournament championship game is all I recall, which Saffell Street lost to Marlowe, a tiny school in the boonies of Anderson County which somehow managed to field a team with three excellent players: Larue Ruble (a fine all around player), Jerry Catlett (a dead-eye long range shooter), and Bill Perry (a tall and powerful center who claimed every rebound). Next on my basketball horizon, life as an Anderson County Bearcat.
Some winter nights during my grade school years, my dad would see that I got to home games of the Bearcats. I remember being in awe of Bobby Stratton, Dicky Russell, Noal Cotton, Bobby Catlett, Donnie Jeffries, and other high school guys who played for Coach Jim Boyd’s Bearcats. There was a small sort of balcony in a corner of the gym, where I usually sat. I was amazed at how fast and powerful the players were. I would occasionally listen to high school tournament games and had a faint recollection that someone named Ralph Carlisle was a famous coach in Lexington, and he had grown up in Anderson County. Several times between 1957 and 1961, my aunts, Georgia and Martha Moffett, took a friend and me to the Saturday semi-final session of the Kentucky High School basketball championship, held either in Memorial Coliseum or in Freedom Hall. Lots of fun. I also became aware that there were ‘small town teams’, ‘Louisville teams’, ‘mountain teams’, and ‘colored’ teams. My family, of course, pulled for the ‘small town teams’ and the ‘mountain teams’. Because Anderson High was in the powerful Eleventh Region, dominated by the Lexington teams, Anderson had little expectation of ever making the Sweet Sixteen.
Then began my checkered career as a high school basketball player. I assumed it would be like playing eighth grade ball, maybe a little tougher. NOT!!! Anderson High hired a new assistant coach in the summer of 1960–Charlie Grote, a Little All-American from Georgetown College. Grote was a talented ballplayer and coaching disciple of Bob Davis (who wrote a book titled ‘Aggressive Basketball’–a real understatement). Charlie coached the Freshman team and the B-team–my fellow freshmen Robert Hott, Darrell Crawford, Jerry Catlett, Larue Ruble, and others played the Freshman schedule and also a few B-team games. Charlie’s practices were rough, his language was profane, he treated us (I felt) like dirt. As the season went on, I began to dread practice more and more, eventually to the point of faking various ailments so I didn’t have to practice. It was a terrible situation. However, there was one highlight I recall. We freshmen played Harrodsburg’s freshmen on a weeknight in their gym. As the game neared its end, we were behind by two points. Coach Grote called a play, but somehow (surely by accident!) the ball ended up in my hands. With the clock running down, I turned and flung the ball toward the basket–it banked in as the horn went off–tie game! We lost in overtime. But during the course of the game, my Dad had arrived after getting off work–I caught his eye right after I hit the shot. I don’t think I ever saw him so joyous–except when he first saw Cory and Dan or any of the grandkids. I also recall playing Lexington Dunbar’s powerful freshman team at their gym in Lexington–I’m not certain we scored the whole game.
That painful season frittered out, and my folks let the coach know that I wouldn’t be playing any more high school ball. I had put them through a tough spell. So for the next couple of years, I played a little backyard ball (by then we had moved to 568 South Main, where Dad had a fine blacktopped court installed), followed the UK teams, and was a lukewarm fan of Anderson High–Coach Jim Boyd had resigned to be Principal full-time and Charlie Grote was now the head coach. Grote’s teams played a very rough style--little finesse, even though he had such fine athletes as Gary Gillis and Jim Jeffries.
Then came my junior year, when I became Cheri Brown’s man of the year. A beautiful, lively gal, Cheri was real experienced by the time she got around to me–and I was sunk. At some point in the summer of 1963, I decided I must have a ‘letter jacket’–that symbol of high school manhood–to impress Cheri Brown. Playing basketball for Charlie Grote my senior year was my only option. It was one of the few brave things I’ve ever done in my life, but it was a selfish bravery!
To prepare for the season, I ran a couple of miles each afternoon after school in the back yard at 568 South Main, getting into the best shape of my life–I played at about 190 pounds. When practice started, it wasn’t as bad as I’d remembered (or maybe I was just tougher). I was one of the taller guys on the team, so the early practices were kind of fun. I had some real basketball weaknesses--my hands are small, I can’t jump, and I am slow. But I had a pretty good nose for the ball and a pretty good touch around the rim.
I recall my first varsity game–we played Mackville, a tiny school near Danville, on November 23, 1963–the day President Kennedy was shot. Far taller than any of the Mackville-ians, I just stood under the goal and put back rebound after rebound. I think I had 18 points–my high point game of the season. Because I had missed two important years of playing, I had an uneven season, to say the least–some good games, more bad games when I simply got nothing done. We played against some great players: Sullivan of Frankfort High, Judy of Franklin County; Bartleson of Harrodsburg. My friend Mike Sparks and I were the only seniors on our squad–the junior class was loaded with talent. The nadir of the season was one game when I was relegated to playing on the B-team–probably the only senior in the history of Kentucky high school basketball to suffer that fate! But Coach Grote was right–I needed to play more and more minutes.
Amazingly, my season’s second highlight took place in the Finals of the 42nd District Tournament–We played Jessamine County, and the game was at their gym. Somehow we had won two tournament games and were pretty fired up for the Finals. I had an amazing games–lots of rebounds, lots of points–I absolutely outplayed Ketchell Strauss, the giant center from Jessamine County. Once I even stole the ball and dribbled the length of the court for a basket. It was great fun–I still have a portion of the net from that game, hanging from a lamp in my bedroom.
We went on to play in the Eleventh Region tournament at Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, home of my beloved Wildcats. I remember after practicing there one afternoon (a highlight in itself), we were allowed to sit in the stands as the 1963-64 Wildcats practiced. If I’m not mistaken, that was the practice where Coach Rupp announced to his team that young star Mickey Gibson would not be playing for the Wildcats again. The next night we lost our first regional game to Madison Central–it was yet another game in which I made little contribution. So the season was over--I was relieved (no more practices!) and proud (I’d done it!).
And I must admit that two aspects of the experience were life highlights: (1) riding through the Central Kentucky nights (think ‘Hoosiers’) with the team on a big yellow Anderson County school bus driven by Evel Satterly, one of our janitors and a great fellow; and (2) at home games jogging as a team up the two sets of stairs from the dressing room in the bowels of our gym, pushing through the swinging doors, hearing the band playing the fight song, and joining the layup line as the fans went wild! It really is an unexplainable feeling.
Thus ended my organized basketball. While at Georgetown, I played intramural ball, backyard ball with friends at Louis Wolfe’s house near Knight Hall [my friend Billy Kruschwitz and I played two-on-two against friends David Wheeler and Walter Jones] , and continued to attend as many Wildcat games as possible. (To be continued)