Celebrating Sweet Sixteen
When March arrives in Kentucky, you don’t have to wonder if that refers to a birthday or basketball. And you can guarantee there’s going to be a four-day party, uniting people of all ages for the coveted high school boys’ and girls’ basketball championships
College basketball teams throughout the state generate their share of excitement during March, but it is the consistency of high school teams year in and year out that makes basketball in Kentucky what it is today.
Perhaps nothing grabs the entire state like high school basketball. From Wickliffe in the west, to Pikeville in the east, and from Maysville in the north to Franklin in the south, few escape the enthusiasm, excitement, and sometimes even uproar over a game played by teenage boys and girls in not-so-short britches.
And for most schools the ultimate of success is reaching the High School Sweet Sixteen.
For the girls it’s the Houchens Industries Girls’ Sweet Sixteen in Bowling Green, this year March 9-12, and for the boys it’s the PNC Boys’ Sweet Sixteen, March 16-19 in Lexington, for single-elimination tournaments.
According to Julian Tackett, commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (www.khsaa.org), several years ago before consolidation there were 600 schools. Now he says 272 boys’ teams and 270 girls’ teams that begin play in 64 districts throughout Kentucky have hopes and dreams of reaching their respective state tournaments. These districts melt into 16 regions—thus the name—with one winner in each.
“Our priority is on the 16- and 17-year-olds and the game itself,” Tackett says. “But it’s also much more than that. It’s a reunion, a chance for people to see each other here that they don’t normally see anywhere else. An atmosphere has been created that really makes this a special event for both the teams and fans.”
In the essence of life, long after the uniforms and tennis shoes have been put away, and memories have faded as to which team won in what year, anyone who has ever attended just one state tournament never forgets it.
Wayne Gaunce grew up in Carlisle and now lives in Glasgow. He hasn’t missed a boys’ tournament in 60 years.
“Saw my first one in 1950 at the old Armory in Louisville,” he says. “I have friends I only see one time a year and it’s there.”
Bobby Flynn, from Lexington, says he’s only missed two tournaments since 1946.
“I even refereed three games in the mid-60s,” he says.
Perry Jones now lives in a nursing home near Prestonsburg, but he hasn’t let that stop him from coming to the games, wheelchair and all.
“I’ve been to 50 straight,” he says of the 2010 tournament. “I live for coming here.”
Mike Perry grew up in the ’40s and ’50s in Feds Creek in eastern Kentucky, and moved with his family to Georgia when his dad quit working in the mines after a coal mining accident, and even though he didn’t see his first tournament until 2006, he plans on being a fixture at the boys’ tournament for years to come.
“I like Georgia football in the fall,” says the Bonaire, Georgia, resident. “But when it gets cold weather I put my blue shirt on and get ready for basketball.”
He says trips to Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, the Masters, Kentucky Derby, and seeing the Celtics and Packers don’t compare with the Boys’ Sweet Sixteen.
“There’s no sporting event like this,” he says.
Many youngsters in Kentucky, from the time they learn to dribble a basketball or shoot at a backyard goal, begin the dream.
For the boys it’s Rupp Arena in Lexington, and for the girls it’s Diddle Arena in Bowling Green.
The Kentucky High School Athletic Association has the responsibility of overseeing all prep sports throughout the state, but by far the most visible and financially rewarding are the two high school basketball championships.
The boys’ tournament began back in 1916 with only eight teams, but hasn’t always been played in Lexington. The first three years, in fact, were played at Centre College in Danville before moving to Lexington’s UK Gym and then to Alumni Gym in 1924. From there it was back and forth over the years. The Armory and Freedom Hall in Louisville hosted multiple events, while Memorial Coliseum and Rupp Arena were the sites in Lexington. But in 1995, the Kentucky High School Athletic Association decided Rupp would be the permanent venue.
The girls’ tournament dates to 1920, first being played in Winchester before moving to Lexington.
But then something happened.
From 1933 through 1974, there was no girls’ high school basketball tournament in Kentucky. Resuming in 1975, the tournament was played in Richmond until it moved to Bowling Green in 1985. Over the next several years, it was played in Frankfort and Richmond before settling back in Bowling Green in 2001.
Joyce Seymour, Louisville, has seen every girls’ state tournament since it was revived in 1975.
“There is a growing fan base that has evolved much like the quality of girls’ basketball,” Seymour offers. “The opportunity for kids to play on a university campus in a first-class facility, and then just imagine the opportunity a young girl has in getting a four-year scholarship to play basketball. Girls’ basketball was on hold for so many years, and now we’re catching up.”
Both tournaments are for the young as well as the young at heart, and unlike oil and water, basketball in Kentucky easily mixes them together.
They arrive by yellow school bus loads. Screaming students, many with painted faces, horn-playing bands, and clapping cheerleaders, all add to the atmosphere. The so-called old-timers sit back and watch. It’s the one time it doesn’t matter how loud it gets.
GREATEST SHOW IN HOOPS
To learn how Kentucky’s Sweet Sixteen boys’ and girls’ state basketball tournaments are unique, and find statistics of the past state champions, and individual and state team records, go to “Sweet Sixteen.”