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The Year Of The Ashland Tomcats

My
family’s history is rife with tales of glory and gunfire, mad dogs
and mountaineers, mine disasters, and an uncle murdered by his
young lover, the body still hidden somewhere in the lonesome
eastern Kentucky hills. As a child my mother, a McCoy, sat on the
laps of ancient relatives with chest-deep beards covering scars
inflicted by the "dastardly" Hatfields. My father was,
by all accounts, a noted athlete who, as a college freshman, was a
member of the committee that hired a young Adolph Rupp to coach at
the University of Kentucky and who later was named an All-American
on the 1933 Wildcats basketball team.

As a boy in the 1950s, these
stories were the myths and legends of my clan, embellished, of
course, by the revisionist instincts of the various tellers.

But one story was the best and
I asked for it often.

In 1928, my father, Ellis Johnson, played on the undefeated
Ashland Tomcats basketball team that made Kentucky history by
winning the national high school basketball tournament in Chicago,
returning to a delirious statewide reception that rivaled, at
least in the eyes of Kentuckians, the welcome received by Colonel
Charles Lindbergh when he had landed in Paris the previous year.

After my father died in 1990,
I began to ferret out a more objective account of the 1928 season.
As I collected hundreds of newspaper articles and several books on
the subject, I realized my dad was being modest. The story is even
better than I thought.

Ashland came to the state
tournament undefeated in 25 games, including six lopsided
victories in the district and regional tournaments. Despite this
record, Ashland’s location, far from the media centers of the
state, allowed Louisville St. Xavier and Covington High School to
be the pre-tournament favorites.

Carr Creek, on the other hand,
had enjoyed plenty of press, based on its colorful circumstance.
The Knott County team, nine players who were all cousins, played
in khaki pants cut off at the knees and T-shirts with the numbers
sewn on by hand, practiced outdoors since it had no real gym, and
was forced to walk or ride horseback eight miles to catch a bus
for games, all played away from home. To get to Lexington for the
state tournament, the team had to walk the eight miles and take a
bus another 12 to reach the nearest rail spur 20 miles away.

In his book, The Carr Creek
Legacy
, Don Miller recounts that after upsetting Middlesboro
in the regional finals at Richmond, the smitten Richmond fans
collected funds to provide the Creekers with regulation uniforms
to wear at the state tournament.

Although already popular with
state basketball fans, the Lexington bookies gave the Carr Creek
team little chance since they played in the B division of the
tournament. In those days, the district, regional, and state
playoffs were divided by school size into A and B categories. The
semifinals of each of those tournaments determined the A and B
champions, and the finals brought the two divisions together for
the overall championship. At that early part of the century, the
state high school basketball tournament was second only to the
Kentucky Derby in attracting the interest of Kentucky sports fans,
and it moved from the sports pages to the front page for the
three-day event.

As the teams arrived at the
Phoenix Hotel, where the Table d’Hote dinner could be had for
$1.50, the Ben Ali Theater announced it would present The Jazz
Singer,
starring Al Jolson, the first talkie movie, to take
advantage of the deluge of fans streaming into the city. On the
night of the opening round, Lindbergh himself landed unannounced
at Lexington’s Halley Field on his way to Washington, D.C.

For the Tomcats, the
tournament got off to an inauspicious start, defeating Danville
High School just 16-8 in what Ashland Daily Independent
sports editor Brady Black termed "one of their sorriest games
of the year."

Ashland returned to form and
vanquished Henderson 25-13 in the second round and upset tourney
favorite Covington 22-13 in the A Division championship.

Carr Creek delighted everyone
by advancing to the finals with victories over Walton (31-11),
Minerva (21-11), and Lawrenceburg (37-11).

On Saturday night 4,000 fans
packed the University of Kentucky Alumni Gymnasium, and interest
was so high that play-by-play reports were sent by telegraph to
the Kentucky Theater for the overflow.

The game was a defensive
battle with the crowd on its feet from whistle to whistle. Carr
Creek held the Tomcats without a field goal during the first half,
and the Creekmen led 4-3 at intermission. Ashland led 8-6 at the
close of the third quarter, but Carr Creek’s Shelby Stamper netted
a free throw with a second left in regulation time to tie the game
at 9-9 and send it into overtime.

Neither team scored in the
first three-minute overtime period. Nor the second. Nor the third.

Ashland’s Gene Strother broke
the ice at the tip-off of the final overtime with a long shot from
the corner. Seconds later, my father broke loose for a layup to
put the Tomcats up 13-9, but Zelda Hale countered with a short
shot to bring it back to 13-11.

Then the stall began.

In 1928, a jump ball was held
after every score, and teams did not have to bring the ball across
the center line of the floor in 10 seconds as they do today.
Ashland got possession on the subsequent jump ball and used the
entire floor to protect its lead for nearly two minutes, the crowd
delirious as the clock ticked away.

In The Carr Creek Legacy,
Miller quotes John McGill, later the sports editor at the Ashland
Daily Independent
and the Lexington-Herald, about the
final minutes of the game. McGill was a boy at the time attending
his first state tournament game.

"With Johnson putting on
a dribbling show," McGill said describing his childhood
memories, "Ashland was able to freeze the ball until the end.
As Ashland fans swarmed to hoist their players in the air,
hundreds of fans swarmed to the floor to lift the Creekers to
their shoulders. Earl Ruby, a sportswriter for the Louisville
Courier-Journal
, was trying to type his story, and he could
not because of the frenzy of the Carr Creek fans. He had to obtain
shelter under the table to finish his report."

Ashland’s dramatic win
overshadowed the fact that the Ashland girls’ team won the state
title the same day.

The national high school
tournament, held at the University of Chicago, was in its 10th
year. The event was suspended for World War II and never revived
after that, but in the 1920s and 1930s it was one of the major
national sports stories.

As state champions, Ashland
earned a berth automatically, but the organizers of the national
contest knew a drawing card when they saw one and also invited
Carr Creek.

In the two weeks before the
Chicago tournament, the national newspapers filed many stories
about the Knott County boys, and Carr Creek arrived in the Windy
City as the undisputed crowd favorite. Kentucky fans got a great
kick out of the myths that sprang up about Carr Creek in those
intervening weeks. The national newspapers reported that the Carr
Creek players had been convinced to leave their six-shooters and
holsters at home, that they didn’t have a coach (they did: Oscar
Morgan), that they competed barefoot and in overalls, and they
played in a cow pasture (they practiced on an outdoor court or in
a gym where the ceiling was too low for games).

The Chicago newspapers ignored
Ashland at the start of the tournament, focusing on Carr Creek and
a Native American team from New Mexico that wore headdresses to
the tournament.

Carr Creek beat the New Mexico
team 32-16; Austin, Texas, 28-25; and Bristol, Connecticut, 19-13
before losing to tournament favorite Vienna, Georgia, 32-11 in the
quarterfinals.

Ashland won its first three
games handily, beating Naugatuck, Connecticut, 20-13; Oregon,
Missouri, 41-22; and Morris, Alabama, 28-16. In the semifinals on
Saturday afternoon at Bartlett Gymnasium, they avenged the Carr
Creek defeat by beating the Vienna Crackers (real name!) 20-19,
holding off a late rally by the Georgia champions.

Coach Jimmy Anderson’s Tomcats
took an early lead that night in the finals and frustrated the
Canton, Illinois, team with its patented dribbling stall the rest
of the game, finishing with a score of 15-10.

My father was named captain of
the tournament’s All-American team due to being the only unanimous
choice of the selection committee. Stamper of Carr Creek also made
the first team, with Darrell Derby and Jack Phipps of Ashland
earning spots on the second five-man honor squad.

Back in Ashland, the city had
virtually shut down, with most of its citizens gathered around
telegraph outlets for play-by-play accounts of the games. When the
news came that the Tomcats were the national champs, the citizens
"went stark, raving crazy" and car horns and shotgun
blasts were heard well past midnight, according to reports from
the Ashland Daily Independent.

When the Tomcats arrived home
Sunday afternoon, 10,000 wild fans met them at the train station
on 11th Street, and fire trucks inched the heroes through the
throng down Winchester Avenue to 17th Street in a jubilant
celebration that lasted for hours, actually weeks, as the Tomcats
traveled the state for dinners and ceremonies well into the
summer.

Two days after the Tomcats
returned home, the Grand Theater showed newsreel footage of the
tournament, featuring Carr Creek against the New Mexico team and
Ashland versus Canton.

I knew my father as a rotund, slick-bald fellow with
a slight limp from an old football injury. I’d give anything to see those flickering
newsreel images of him as a slim, muscled youth with a lock of curly hair flopping
on his forehead as he dribbled the seconds away.

The dominators

Ironically, Ashland Coach
Jimmy Anderson was known more as a football coach until his 1928
basketball team won the national championship. In the three
football seasons preceding the 1928 basketball schedule,
Anderson’s Tomcats won 25, tied three, and lost once. In the last
of those three seasons, the Tomcats were undefeated and allowed
only one touchdown the entire year, outpointing opponents 170-6.

Ashland’s girls’ basketball
team also won the state title in 1928. In the eight years the
girls’ tournament had been held, Coach W.B. Jackson’s Kittens had
won the state championship four times.

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