Kentucky high school legend J.R. VanHoose seeks to inspire others

By John Herndon,

LEXINGTON – He’s considered one of the best ever to play high school basketball in Kentucky, but almost 25 years after playing for Paintsville High School, J.R. VanHoose is still trying to get better.

His credentials earned him a spot in the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013. His biographical information there simply says, “VanHoose was one of only a handful of players to record over 3,000 points, 2,000 rebounds and 500 blocks during his prep career. He led Paintsville to the state title in 1996 and a runner-up finish in ’98. He was named the MVP of the 1996 tourney, 1998 Mr. Basketball and 1998 Parade All-American.”

Not only that, Paintsville won the 15th Region all four of his high school years. He would go on to a great career at Marshall University before returning to his hometown. I caught up with VanHoose before Friday’s quarterfinal round of the UK Healthcare Boys’ Sweet 16. Seated just a few rows from the playing floor, he was ready to see young men from across the state chase their dreams just as he did from 1995-98.

J.R. VanHoose and his wife, Kayla, before Friday morning’s Sweet 16 game. VanHoose is one of a select few who have played in four Sweet 16s. (Photo by John Herndon)

“You think of all the close ones you have,” he remembered. “My freshman year, Montgomery County beat us (78-71) in overtime. Then we won it in 96, but my junior year we made it to the semifinals. My senior year we got beat in the state finals.”

Paintsville beat Ashland Blazer, 71-53, for the 1996 title, but fell to Highlands, 74-71 in overtime, the next year. VanHoose’s high school career ended with an 89-78 loss to Scott County in the championship game.

“You know, playing here one time is a huge opportunity,” he said. “For me, very few people have played in four Sweet 16s and I tell people I am proud of that accomplishment, to play in four. We played in 12 games at Rupp and we won a state championship and were state runner-up. Very few people have been able to do that and that makes it very special, especially playing for a small school like Paintsville. Very few schools in the history of the Sweet 16 have been here four (consecutive) times.”

During this week’s Sweet 16, VanHoose has been posting videos of some of the big plays in Paintsville’s run to the title. Those Tigers defeated Owensboro in overtime, then Allen County-Scottsville on a last-second shot before rolling past Lexington Catholic and Ashland on Saturday.

Today, the Sweet 16 is just as special. VanHoose and his wife, Kayla, are usually seated near midcourt and between games, he’s easily seen – at 6-foot-9, of course – visiting with the many friends he has statewide. 

“You see the people that played against you or coached against you or just fans,” he said. “It’s always a great feeling.”

A history buff, VanHoose now teaches social studies at Johnson Central High School, where he has helped coach the boys’ basketball team since 2015 and was as part of the Eagles’ Sweet 16 team in 2019. He’s also served as the girls’ basketball coach at Phelps High School and was an assistant coach at his alma mater for four years.

“I have been coaching 18 years. That’s a long time and a lot of kids,” he smiled.

He’s had some success as a coach but says being on the sideline is much different than being on the court. “The biggest thing is that you can’t do anything for the kids when they are out on the court. You can’t make the shots for them. As a player, people rely on you to make shots or make a big play,” he said. “But as a coach, you hope you have done the proper preparation for your kids to make the big play. Sometimes you will say, ‘I wish I could go out there and make the free throw or the big basket.”

But those who know J.R. VanHoose or see his social media posts know that he’s trying to just get better away from the court too. He’s found that in his faith and in reading the Bible.

“I have always been interested in looking deeply in religion and what it means and I try to be positive about things,” VanHoose said, “and the world we live in right now is not a very positive place.”

And VanHoose is known to often make Facebook posts that include Bible verses or inspirational quotes. “I want to be a better person and a growing person,” he says. “Reading the Bible helps me out. I am still learning and still growing and I don’t think I ever want to stay the same.

“If the posts I make can inspire someone, that’s fantastic.”

There’s no doubt that VanHoose and products of small high schools across the state have inspired others. And he wants to do his best to make sure high school sports remain a positive influence.

“I think when you come to the Sweet 16 or any sporting event, you see kids working hard and playing together,” he says. “You know that is what sports is all about. You see the joy of it.”

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