Dan Weber writes a sports column for LINK nky. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Over three decades removed to Philadelphia, Chicago, and Southern California, I’ve had some opportunities, not many, to write about UK basketball. And that’s as the lone person who has covered – on a daily beat basis – the top two programs in college basketball history – Kentucky’s Wildcats and UCLA’s Bruins.
But not once in those three decades had I written the name of the man in charge of UK basketball when I started observing it up close – Joe B. Hall.
Until last Friday, that is, when in talking about the state barnstorming tour by UK-bound high school junior phenom Reed Sheppard, I’d thought back to one of the ways UK was ahead of the curve way back when in the 1980s – under the kindly, self-effacing but highly competitive man we all called “Joe B.”
Then between the time I wrote it on Friday and the time it was to be published, Joe B. Hall left us Saturday morning at the age of 93. He’d been battling for months and receiving friends and family the last few weeks, but all you can do then is note the sadness – and seeming suddenness – of the news and vow to return to Joe B.’s story. Which we do now.
Because Joe B. was special. One of a kind. Sweet. Caring. Considerate. Open. Maybe the best example ever in sports of stepping in to succeed a legend at the highest level for the longest time the way he did for Coach Rupp – while being as different as was almost humanly possible. Try googling “John Wooden’s UCLA successors” some time.
Former Cincinnati and current UCLA Coach Mick Cronin, son of onetime Covington Catholic Coach Hep Cronin, is No. 11 in a long line. It took until No. 6, Jim Harrick, before UCLA won its lone post-Wooden NCAA title.
Joe B., the first and only Kentucky basketball coach to have played for and graduated from UK, did it ending a 20-year UK drought in 1978. Wooden prevented Joe B., who had taken over in 1972, from doing it three years earlier with his retirement-driven drama the day before the 1975 finals.
But as much as we could talk about Joe B.’s coaching success in his 13 years with a 297-100 record in his 13 seasons as coach of the Wildcats (and 373-156 overall in 19 seasons as a head coach) before retiring after the 1984-85 season we choose to go in another direction. We’re going to talk about his success as a special human being. Just a good guy.
And for those of us from around here, almost a Northern Kentucky guy coming from Cynthiana, which back in the day was the dividing line between Northern Kentucky and the Bluegrass. But it wouldn’t have mattered if he came from Wickliffe down on the Mississippi, the Wildcats could never have been coached by a more Kentucky guy.
It was the single greatest pride of Joe B.’s life. He’d been something of a tag-along player in the Fabulous Five era when in a time of no scholarship limits, UK had All-Americans – literally – on the second team. Joe left for the University of the South in Sewanee, led the nation in scoring there, then came back to get his degree at UK.
But the heck with history, unless you’re talking about Joe B.’s history of taking the game to UK fans with scrimmages all over the state to bring the Wildcats closer to them. Or coming up with a Midnight Madness that evolved into Big Blue Madness to allow more Kentuckians access.
Joe B. even allowed us – sportswriters – to see UK practice a couple of times, something that never happened under Coach Rupp. Although I’d snuck in to Memorial Coliseum as a kid one Saturday morning before a football game only to get spotted and tossed by the managers.
That connection is what you remember about Joe B – that personal touch. It’s something he had to learn the hard way. Like that time his Wildcats had taken down an unbeaten Indiana team in the NCAA Tournament in Dayton at the end of the same season that had seen Bob Knight cuff Joe B. on the back of the head on the court in Bloomington. Joe B. took his time and when it counted most the next game they played in the NCAA in Dayton, took Bobbie down. And then they became fast fishing buddies.
I still recall how UK fans hereabouts spontaneously lined up in their cars and were standing outside them along I-75 here in Covington waiting for the UK bus to hit the state line on the Brent Spence Bridge heading to Lexington. It looked and sounded like the stories of VJ Day.
Or in this story that I learned from the basketball coaches at Xavier when my Musketeers and UK played home and home for a while, both at the freshman and varsity level. One year, Xavier had a freshman group led by a 6-foot-11 New Yorker, Luther Rackley, a future NBA player. UK, still playing no African-Americans, had no one close to Rackley’s talent. But in the first game in Lexington, with longtime Rupp assistant Harry Lancaster running the UK freshmen, Rackley fouled out in minutes with UK winning.
Then came the return game in Cincinnati. And Joe B., on the road recruiting, got a call to fly home. He was needed to take over the UK freshmen for the trip to Xavier. And Rackley did not foul out. And UK got crushed. And Joe B. was the guy who had to take it. As he did.
He even had to hold off latecomer Gale Catlett, the West Virginian who coveted the UK job after Rupp, to get it. And when it came time to giving Joe a well-deserved raise, a penny-pinching UK Athletic Department ended up putting in some extra floor seats and having Joe B. sell them and keep the money instead of paying him.
Joe B. bore the brunt of the return of the UK-U of L basketball series in the 1983 NCAA Tournament, losing that first game to a strong Denny Crum team in the Mideast Regional finals in Knoxville. But then UK fans were eventually able to observe how Joe B. bonded with his decade-long radio show co-host and the man who beat him in that so-called “Dream Game.” Sure, U of L and Crum were big rivals but they weren’t the enemy – and Joe B. came back to beat Crum’s U of L team twice the next season and five of the next seven.
My dealings with Joe B. included the time, just a week before he was about to surprise the UK Nation with his resignation in 1986 at the NCAAs in Denver. We were in Salt Lake City the week before and Joe B. and Kenny Walker had stayed behind at the arena to do a TV interview and then somehow their driver was a no-show. So there I was, driving back to the hotel and seeing the pair waiting there all by themselves. “You guys need a ride?” I asked. Why yes they did. And so off we went.
In those pre-GPS times, I wasn’t all that familiar with Salt Lake City. So for the next 15 minutes or so, I was holding my breath and acting like I knew where I was going. But I needn’t have. This wasn’t a big-time college basketball coach and his All-American. This was a guy from Cynthiana and a player who took his cues from his coach. Could not have been more fun. We searched for the hotel together. And didn’t get all that lost doing so.
It wasn’t difficult dealing with Joe B. The most extensive time came after UK recruited Covington Holmes’s Dicky Beal, the outstanding point guard with exceptional speed and quickness who was bothered for years by a nagging knee injury that a couple of surgeries hadn’t fixed. So what would you do, I asked our young team doctor at Xavier where I had recently been the assistant AD before going into sports writing. His answer: Get Dicky to the best orthopedic sports surgeon in America down in Georgia. His name: Dr. Frank Andrews, not so well known then but who would go on to become the No. 1 go-to guy in all of sports – and a UK team physician for a time thanks to Joe B.
Here’s how it happened. Joe B. not only began extensively opening up the once-closed UK program to African-American players, he brought in Leonard Hamilton as an assistant coach and started Leonard on the way to a Hall of Fame career. In this case, Leonard had the ability to get Dicky from Lexington to Dr. Andrews. Dr. Andrews did the surgery. And Dicky took UK to the Final Four his senior season in 1984.
How did you do it, I once asked Dr. Andrews. Why was it so easy for you to fix Dicky’s knee? Simple, he said. Only a few athletes, mostly NBA players, are able to injure themselves that way. And if you haven’t seen them, you don’t know what you’re looking for. Andrews had. But it took a team effort to get it done.
The last time I ran into Joe B., 21 years ago, we talked about his time with Dicky but that wasn’t all. It was at the Recreation Bowl high school football game in Mt. Sterling kicking off the 2000 football season between Kentucky’s two all-time winningest programs – Highlands and Louisville Trinity in a once-in-a-lifetime matchup that Highlands won 42-29. I was in town and couldn’t pass it up.
Neither could Joe. He and a couple of buddies had driven over from Lexington for the game and it was like you’d talked to him the week before. Big smile. Extended handshake. Calling you by name. And then talking Kentucky sports and his ex-players who never seemed like all that “ex-”.
That was Joe. Always was. Always will be. Sure he won a national championship and a national Coach of the Year award and four in the Southeastern Conference with eight SEC championships in 13 seasons while producing seven All-Americans who won 11 times including a majority of African-Americans who made up five of the first eight on his final team in Lexington.
But it’s the stories not the numbers so much that have come up this past weekend. Here’s one from Bob Valvano, sportscaster brother of the late Jimmy V., about the time Jim was bringing his Iona team to Lexington to play UK only to painfully break a tooth on the flight down. Not only did Joe B. greet the Iona flight on landing but he personally got Jim to a dentist for a quick fix. Bob said: “Jim never forgot that kindness. Nor did I. RIP Joe.”
Another story from Debbie Yow, who pioneered in coaching and AD positions from Kentucky to Maryland to North Carolina State in the early days of women in college sports: “I was coaching the UK women and taking an all-star team to Europe in ‘77. Before leaving, Coach Hall gave me $100 for personal expenses. (I was earning only $9,000). Two days later, he gave me another $100. When I protested, he said “this is from Mrs. Hall, not me.”
After having recruited players like Dan Issel, Mike Pratt and Kevin Grevey as an assistant, Joe B. brought in players like Jack Givens and James Lee as a head coach after signing the program’s second black player, Reggie Warford, in his first year as head coach.
“A friend,” Givens called Joe B. over the weekend. “I’m going to miss him . . . I hope and pray that my life is as long and as full as his life was.”
Said Kyle Macy: “I have not only lost my former coach, but someone I considered a good friend. He will be missed.”
Reds Hall of Fame announcer Marty Brennaman had this take: “One of the finest men I’ve ever known. Some of my fondest memories of doing UK basketball in the late ’80s was the friendships I made with (equipment manager) Bill Keightley and Joe B. He will be missed so much! God, I’m sure, has blessed him.”
And blessed us for allowing Kentucky folks to show Joe B. these last years how much he meant to all of us. For UK fans who might have missed on some of this with Joe B. the first time around, they got it right this time.
Joe B. wouldn’t let them do it any other way.
Photo: Joe B. Hall (via Kenton Co. Public Library)
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