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TALKING TO MYSELF: 6 March 2012 Congratulations are in order for the Owen County High School boys basketball team that narrowly lost to Oldham County in the semi-finals of the regional tournament last night. Though I know they are disappointed, I am hopeful that in time, they will understand that winning is not always about the final score. This morning seems an appropriate time to resurrect an essay I wrote several years ago about Owen County's worst - and best - basketball team.
The old men wore matching brown sweaters and slacks, a nod to Coach Rupp who wore a brown suit to each of their games. A half century ago, they had played for Adolph Rupp on the University of Kentucky basketball team that won the 1958 NCAA tournament. In basketball-crazed Kentucky, they had been young heroes back then, handing Rupp his fourth national title, the final jewel in his NCAA crown.
In the huge arena named for their coach, they formed a wide line that stretched across the midcourt of the playing floor. They were there to be honored at halftime on the golden anniversary of their championship season. No one mentioned that the head coach now sitting on the University’s bench had not yet been born in 1958.
When each man’s name was called, he stepped forward and waved to the crowd. A television camera zoomed in for a close-up shot, and then a larger than life electronic image of the former player flashed on a giant screen near the roof of the arena.
I didn’t believe it was him when I heard him introduced over the loud speaker – it’s an ordinary name, after all. But when I saw him smile and wave on the huge TV screen, I recognized him. The Bill Smith of the 1958 UK squad, the very tall man standing down there in a brown sweater, was the same Bill Smith who had been my high school physical education teacher in 1959. I vaguely remembered having heard he’d played for UK, but in the arrogant nonchalance of my youth, I had never before connected him with Rupp’s famous “Fiddling Five” team. He hadn’t been a marquee player, you see, and when I was fourteen, I only had time to pause for superstars.
Sitting in grandiose Rupp Arena, I was hit by the irony of his long ago situation. He had been part of a national championship team one year, and by the next, he was teaching the likes of klutzy me how to do jumping jacks and sit-ups in freshman gym class. My heart reached across the decades to give him a symbolic pat on the back for not buckling under the challenge.
In addition to me and a passel of other whining ninth graders, Coach Smith had other problems that year. He’d been hired, of course, to coach the varsity basketball team at Owen County. A lifetime later, I can better appreciate the expectations that must have been heaped on this young man fresh out of college. After all, he’d played for Adolph Rupp and on a NCAA title team, at that. Surely, he could transform our recently consolidated farm boys into a basketball powerhouse. As if that were not pressure enough, he was handed the task of coaching the first racially integrated team the Owen County Rebels ever put on the court.
Coach Smith’s boys simply could not win. They were well-coached, my Daddy said, but they were small and young, mostly freshmen and sophomores. The Rebels lost every game on their schedule.
The racial integration of the Rebels, however, was a winning situation, and I have to think Coach Smith played a big role in the ease of that transition although I can’t honestly speak to how he did it. Perhaps his great height (he looked to be 6’6 to me) and confident UK-aura made others reluctant to criticize his playing line-up. Maybe it was the even-handed way he treated all the boys in practice that made them look so comfortable and happy together on court. Whatever, several black players were assimilated into that losing team with nary a snide remark from anyone, and he started a freshman black student, Billy Whitney, most every game. Billy was a flat-out good basketball player by the way – even an ignoramus like me could see that - and even though we couldn’t win a game, we felt grateful he was on our side.
This may not seem remarkable to younger readers, and in a right-side-up world it would not have been. But in 1959, in places like Kentucky, white people did and said some awful things when their schools were first required by law to enroll black students. That is why it pleases me to remember that there was no ugliness in Owen County when our schools were integrated – even though a century earlier it had sent a higher percentage of its men to fight for the Confederacy than any other Kentucky County. Even though a few years earlier, someone had chosen the name “Rebels” for our newly consolidated high school’s sports teams.
When district tournament time rolled around, God must have decided to reward Coach Smith and the Owen County Rebels for good behavior. We drew a bye in the first round, and then, in the mysterious way of miracles, we shocked Williamstown in the second round to chalk up our first win of the year. That single victory placed us in the district’s title game. Win or lose (and for the record, we lost) we would be district runner-up champs, and advance to the regional tournament.
At the regional level, we drew a Goliath in the first round (Oldham County or Shelby County, I can’t remember which.) To no one’s surprise, we lost. But Coach Smith and his players were not intimidated, and skillfully slowed the tempo of the game so that the score was low, and the big guys didn’t humiliate us.
I couldn’t get to Coach Smith through the crowd last Saturday night, but I would like for him to know that I’ve never forgotten his first team. I wish I could tell him how many times I’ve thought about those boys when one discouragement after another has slapped me down, and I’ve been tempted to give up. I wish he could know how often I’ve remembered his and his team’s dignity and grace when faced with insurmountable odds. I wish I could thank him for making integration look so easy.