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Tom Chaney: When Basketball and Kelly were King

Of Writers and Their Books No. 055: When basketball and Kelly were king. First published in the Hart Co. News-Herald Sunday, 5 March 2006.
The next earlier column: Tom Chaney: Davis McCombs in Lexington

By Tom Chaney

A half-century ago it seemed that all Kentucky life was put on hold for the first three weeks of March. In 1952 tiny Cuba had conquered Kentucky taking basketball fans and the state tournament by storm. In 1953 Caverna, then in only its third year of existence, had become the darling of Memorial Coliseum only to lose in a heart stopping and breaking finale in the semi-final round.

Three years later in 1956 Kelly Coleman and the Wayland Wasps from Floyd County stunned Kentucky -- setting records which still stand in the annals of Kentucky basketball. They didn't win the tournament -- like Caverna they took third place after a loss to Carr Creek in the semi-finals. But it is that consolation game against the Bell County Bobcats that is still remembered.

Gary P. West has just published the first study of the life and basketball career of Coleman: King Kelly Coleman, Kentucky's Greatest Basketball Legend. In the stores in 2005, West's account is just in time for the fiftieth anniversary of Coleman's final season as an incredible player in Kentucky's defining sport.

"King" Kelly Coleman was, according to Coach Adolph Rupp of the University of Kentucky, ". . . The greatest prep basketball player in history." As a junior in 1954-55 he had averaged 32.6 points per game. The next year 1955-56 he upped that to 46.8 points per game.

Opposition players bragged if they were able to keep Coleman under his point average. Those were the days before the three-point shot. No regular rebounding statistics were kept in the mid-fifties, but he probably averaged twenty-five per game.

According to "Copper" John Campbell, coach of Wayland, Coleman controlled 90 percent of the center jumps and jump balls he was involved in. That was before the possession rule on tie balls.

The Wasps and Coleman were not prepared for the reaction in Memorial Coliseum to their first game against Shelbyville. For the first time in history, the opening game of the tournament was a sellout.

Coleman controlled the tip to teammate Billy Ray Combs who passed back to Coleman. As soon as he had the ball, the 13,000 spectators erupted in "boos." "A routine developed. Every time he had the ball they booed. When he passed it the booing stopped."

Despite this reaction he scored fifty points as Wayland won 87-76.

The booing was not unanimous. There was an eastern Kentucky coterie who were avid supporters of the three mountain teams - Wayland, Carr Creek, and Bell County.

By tournament time, Coleman had made it clear that his college choice was over the line in Morgantown with the West Virginia Mountaineers. This may have had an effect on the crowd's animosity. Nonetheless, West notes that for Coleman the game had lost some of its innocence. "[A]fter that the game wasn't fun anymore. He was turned off to some of the people in Kentucky. They had judged him without knowing him. The game became less important, more of a job."

Wayland's second appearance against Earlington was also a sellout. Coleman scored 39 in that match to set up the "game-of-the-tournament" thus far.

Wayland and Carr Creek had split the season one and one. Carr Creek held Coleman to fewer than thirty points and won with a three-seconds-to-go shot by Freddie Maggard from 20-22 feet out. Carr Creek won the tournament against Henderson that night, just after the game of games.

Wayland and Bell County played in the "losers' game" the consolation game for third place. By halftime Wayland led 72-43 -- Coleman with 38 of those. Bell County's attempt to double team Coleman failed.

"When Copper John finally took Kelly out of the game there was a little less than two minutes to go and his star had hammered in 27 of 52 field goal attempts and 14 out of 18 free throws for 68 points." That broke the previous tourney record of 47 points. Wayland broke the team record with a 122-89 win.

By that Saturday night the fans had switched sides. They loved him. "In four games Kelly Coleman became the most legendary player to ever perform at the Boys Sweet 16."

The game had two other consequences according to West. He reports that sportswriter Earl Cox said that the Wayland/Bell County game hand much to do with ending the consolation game. West also says that "Earl Ruby, Sports Editor Courier-Journal, wrote that it was Kelly Coleman's performance and ability to draw a crowd that led the State Tournament to move to Freedom Hall in Louisville."

Excitement was in the air those March days in 1956. Just ask any one of us who were in Memorial Coliseum that week. But the thrust of West's study does not end March 17, 1956. He does a fine job of answering the question, "What happened to Kelly Coleman." He traces him to his abortive career at West Virginia; to Kentucky Wesleyan in Owensboro; through two seasons in the short lived American Basketball League; finally a degree from Pikeville College; a stint at teaching; a career in business; and finally, his return to Wayland. West tells the story of how a career of promise can turn from fame and how a town comes to live with its heroes after the final whistle blows and the coal tipples grow silent and empty.

Basketball is not the same these days. In 1956 there were more than 600 high schools in Kentucky. It was possible for a Cuba, a Carr Creek, a Caverna, a Wayland, or another small school to compete successfully. Now there are fewer than half that number (about 275). Basketball fervor is harder to generate when the school is a couple of mountains away - not just in the tiny community.

But there was a time when Cuba's Doodle Floyd or Wayland's Kelly Coleman reigned supreme come the third week in March.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at
Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749 (270) 786-3084
Email: Tom Chaney

This story was posted on 2011-03-06 03:54:39
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