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Tom Chaney: No. R702. Remembering Cuba

Of Writers and Their Books No.R702: Remembering Cuba. The story of a championship team and a coach who proved you don't have to be an arrogant, bullying SOB to have a winning team. Sports can actually be fun, even for the players, and can be kept in proper perspective. First published in the Hart Co. News-Herald Sunday, 19 March 2006.
The next earlier column: Tom Chaney: When Basketball and Kelly were King

By Tom Chaney

In March of 1951 the Cuba Cubs lost the final game of the state basketball tournament to Clark County by 25 points. Dejected and disappointed they began the eight hour drive back to Graves County.

Their coach Jack Story had nursed a dream since 1937 of taking a championship team to the finals. His dream did not take into account losing in the finals.

The drive home promised to be a long one. No matter that the Cubs had become the darlings of the tournament. No matter that the fans in Memorial Coliseum were wild about them. No matter that the whole of Kentucky had cheered for them through four games. They had lost. Second place is not as good as winning.

Marianne Walker tells the story in her highly readable book, When Cuba Conquered Kentucky, Rutledge Hill Press, 1999.

Story had made lunch time reservations with Buster Tapp at the Old Southern Caf in Horse Cave. On their way into town down U.S. 31-W coach Story's new Kaiser had become the lead car in a tremendous procession. One hundred fans lined Water Street as the Cubs and their supporters stretched their legs and entered the caf. "Hardly anybody got much to eat that day because of all the excitement in and around the [Old Southern]," Walker writes.

From Horse Cave to Bowling Green, through Auburn, Russellville, Elkton, Hopkinsville, Cadiz, Canton, and Golden Pond they were met by another sheriff or constable and escorted through streets lined with supporters. "To them, Cuba represented the dreams of all tiny communities across. . . Kentucky -- the Cubs' success was theirs, too."

According to Walker "This seemingly endless gauntlet of enthusiastic well-wishers was the result of the efforts of a small group in Horse Cave, who had initiated a network of telephone calls. The residents of one town would ring people in the next town to alert them that the motorcade was headed their way. This network ultimately stretched 140 miles from Horse Cave to Eggner's Ferry Bridge in Aurora."

After transferring to new, borrowed Cadillac convertibles at Pete Light Springs the team led an eight-mile long motorcade ending in Mayfield where a crowd of eight thousand welcomed them home.

All of this for the runners-up.

The Cuba story is a great deal like the Wayland story in 1956 where the promise of championship basketball can be realized by a tiny town with no other claim to fame. The ingredients in the Cuba phenomenon were a coach committed to the vision of championship and at least two players who bought into that dream in junior high school.

Story's father was principal at Pilot Oak in 1937. He asked his son to accompany coach Clovis Wallace to the state tournament to handle the money and act as team manager. Pilot Oak lost to Midway in the quarter finals. Midway won the championship.

"As he sat in Alumni Gym in Lexington that March night in 1937 watching Midway receive the magnificent championship trophy, Jack was so struck by the magnitude of the ceremony he told the Pilot Oak boys sitting next to him, 'I'm gonna come back here some day and win me one of those!'"

He never wavered from that vision.

In 1947 he took over the coaching job at Cuba and never looked back. But he did look out his window at the playground. "Off to one side on the dirt basketball court, five skinny, shaggy-haired boys dressed in overalls and plow shoes were playing basketball. . . . The tallest one of the five had astonishing natural ability to fake his passes to the smallest boy, who moved so fast as he dribbled the ball that he seemed to be floating above the ground. . . . All five boys handled the ball, shot, and moved with natural ability. As he watched them, Jack Story broke out into laughter, saying to himself aloud, 'Well, I be damned.'"

For the next four years Story unrelentingly taught, coached, molded Charles Kenneth "Doodle" Floyd, Howard "Howie" Crittenden, Jimmie Webb, Raymon McClure, Joe Buddy Warren, and the others into that championship combination which took second place in 1951 and won it all the next year.

Doodle and Howie were the nucleus of the team as they moved from eighth grade to final night against Manual in March 1952 in Memorial Coliseum.

Those boys also bought into the dream of hard work and glory.

The Cubs made a pact in their room at the Phoenix Hotel after the defeat in 1951. Next time they would win!

They saw clearly that the loss to Clark County had come from a lack of endurance. "They ran and practiced basketball all summer long. . . . Many mornings before school Howie and Doodle would run from their homes in Pilot Oak to Wrays three mile away where Ted Bradley and Jimmy Webb lived. Then all four would run to Cuba four miles down the road. . . . In the evenings sometimes, theyd run ten miles to Mayfield and back. Every afternoon they practiced."

Story had showed the team a film of the Harlem Globetrotters early on. The boys adopted the freewheeling style of the Globetrotters, even to using their theme -- "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Their flashy style coupled with their skill endeared them to their fans from the Jackson Purchase and across the state.

After their defeat of Manual, Story and his Cubs claimed the steak dinner Buster Tapp had promised at the Old Southern in Horse Cave. Their progress from Lexington back to Mayfield far exceeded that of the year before -- capping the American dream of coach and team.

Marianne Walker has done a valuable service recounting the Cuba era in Kentucky basketball. She may be forgiven for getting the name of the Old Southern wrong and moving Horse Cave to Edmonson County.

One who wishes may find a copy of When Cuba Conquered Kentucky at the same address on Water Street where the Cubs dined in defeat and victory.

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 2011-03-13 07:49:51
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