I can’t tell you where most of my high school mementoes are today. Memories of a title are great, the people are even greater.
My yearbooks? They were packed up for a move and I don’t think they’ve ever been unpacked. Pictures? I occasionally run across some when cleaning out some old boxes, have some laughs about 1970s fashion, then discard them or box them back up.
But I know exactly where to find that gold basketball I received in 1974.
It’s not fancy. It just says, “Regional Champions.”
That little memento the KHSAA presented to members of 16 teams that had been able to navigate a week of madness known as regional tournaments remains a prized possession.
It always will be. As much as anything, it represents what my trip into high school basketball can be to someone who never scored a point or grabbed a rebound.
In those days when I fancied being another Louie Dampier, I’d learned to shoot decently from 20 feet and beyond. Unfortunately for me, that was the only part of the game I somewhat developed and in those pre-three point shot days, there just wasn’t much of a market for a one-dimensional guy a few inches short and a lot of steps too slow.
I was cut during tryouts twice in junior high school, but persisted to be part of the team.
I became a manager of the Anderson County Bearcats.
That wasn’t always an easy job, but our coach, Wayne King, made me feel as important as anyone who put on a jersey on Tuesday and Friday nights. Eventually, I even went on some scouting trips and learned some little tricks of gamesmanship.
(A duty at home games was to look at what kind of ball the visitors used in warm-ups. If they brought Wilson narrow seam balls, I was to go get a Rawlings wide seam and put it at the scorer’s table for the officials to use as the game ball. If the team brought wide seams, I got out the narrow seam. Of course, it made little difference but to see how it irritated some opponents made me feel I had a part in the outcomes.)
As we came together for that 1973-74 season, Anderson County was nowhere to be found at the top of the Eighth Region, something none of us could ever remember and we certainly didn’t like it.
We started the season hot, losing only once before Christmas, then eventually cracked the Litkenhous Ratings Top 25 in January. We hit a February slump but regrouped in time to win that district championship we weren’t supposed to win.
Our machine kept clicking at Henry County High School in the Eighth Region Tournament. After we rolled past Eminence and Oldham County, King gathered the team in front of the locker room chalkboard. He wrote the number 300 to remind us that about 300 teams opened district play less than two weeks before.
Then he wrote 128. Only 128 made it to the regionals.
He wrote 64, noting the number of teams standing in the semifinal rounds.
He wrote 32.
“Now there are 32 teams left. You have a chance to do something very special tomorrow night,” he said.
Only a Sweet 16 would make it to Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
Waiting for us was Scott County, a team that had beaten us earlier in the year. At halftime, the Cardinals led, 30-25. Finally we caught up and after a see-saw fourth quarter, it came down to one possession. With over 6,000 fans going berserk and two bands dueling fight songs, it was the sheer madness of March.
The scoreboard hanging over mid-court read, “Anderson County 55, Scott County 54.”
Scott coach Everette Varney called time.
Then King countered with his own.
More than 40 years later, I can still see my Sunday School teacher in the stands urging the Bearcat defense to hold on. A pencil I was using to keep stats broke as Scott worked the ball up court.
The Cardinals’ last-second shot fell off the rim and the bedlam broke loose.
I don’t remember much about the celebration other than I lost that stat sheet and got thrown in the shower, plaid pants, navy sport coat and all. But it’s easy to spot me in a photo of that celebration that appeared in the next edition of The Anderson News.
Reality hit the following Wednesday when Louisville Central routed our team, 87-58, in the Sweet 16. Most of us were just in awe of being on the Freedom Hall floor.
That game went by way too fast, but the memories of that year are still strong.
I still see some of the guys around Lawrenceburg. Another teammate, who moved out of state years ago, emails me often and has stopped by to say hello when he’s been in town. Sadly, I have attended funeral visitation for two of those Bearcats who helped cut the nets at Henry County that night.
King and his wife, Diane, were friends of a lady I had met. She attended his church and when we said, “I do,” King read Scripture in our wedding ceremony.
To a high school kid, those games were among the most important things going on in our lives. The wins were unmatched highs. The losses cut my heart and when Shelbyville ended our bid to return to the Sweet 16 the following year, tears streamed down my face.
Now I realize those triumphs and trophies were the real-time measuring sticks, but the people who were part of those teams are what made those years special.
Many years later, one of those people, “Dagger” McKee, asked me to watch his daughter play youth league basketball. She dominated. That’s putting it mildly.
I watched her grow and 40 years to the day after McKee played a big role in our win over Scott County – March 9, 2014 — my teammate’s daughter, all-stater Eriel McKee, led her Anderson County team to a second consecutive regional championship win over Simon Kenton.
Dagger McKee was beaming. So was Wayne King, who was also there that day.
It was a story that had to be written.
That’s because we remember.
And we never forget.
John Herndon has been an award-winning sports writer for The Anderson News since 1985. He’s also written for numerous other publications. He was manager of Anderson County’s 1974 Eighth Region championship team.