Everyone who is hooked on the Sweet Sixteen can trace their interest to one person or one event that triggered their addiction to Kentucky’s greatest sporting event. For me, it was Dr. Russell Bowen.
I thought of Dr. Bowen last week when I realized this was my silver anniversary at the Sweet Sixteen. And yes, that made me realize I’m getting old in a hurry, but it also made me realize how much good basketball I’ve watched over the last 25 years, and how grateful I am to him for making that possible.
Bowen was the principal at Jackson County in 1984, my senior year. Many of us liked him, and he liked many of us, enough so that he ordered something like 10 tickets to the state tournament and offered several of them to those of us affiliated with the boys and girls basketball teams.
Most who were offered the tickets made the trip just one day, but I managed to horn my way in on the guest list for all four days. I spent a total of 12 hours on the road over those four days, ate way too many meals at the Richmond Road Arby’s and saw teams that I had previously only read about in the newspaper, teams like Madisonville and Owensboro, Ballard and Boyd County.
I had been in Rupp Arena only once before that for a Kentucky game, but by week’s end it felt like my second home. I saw Logan County win three games by a total of seven points to reach the final, where it would beat a Bourbon County team that had won twice in overtime and once by one point in regulation. And I was a fan for life.
I haven’t seen every Sweet Sixteen game in the last 25 years, but I have been there every year and figure I have seen well over 300 of them. There have been more great plays, great players and great moments than I can remember. Among my favorite memories:
- The performance that stands out as the best to most tourney fans of my generation, Richie Farmer’s 51-point effort for Clay County in a loss to Allan Houston and Ballard in the 1988 title game. It was the second straight final between the two powers — Clay won in 1987.
- The run of Wayne County’s 1989 team, led by the inside-outside combination of Jimmy John Owens and Julius Green, to the title game and a narrow loss to Pleasure Ridge Park.
- The surreal surroundings of the 1992 title game between University Heights and Lexington Catholic, where most of the few thousand fans in Freedom Hall were more interested in following the Kentucky-Duke NCAA tournament game than the action on the floor.
- The 1993 championship run of Marion County and its coach, Tim Davis, whom I had gotten to know a couple of years earlier in my first months on this job.
- Paintsville’s success behind Todd Tackett and J.R. VanHoose in 1996, helping to preserve the tournament by renewing the belief that small schools can still win it.
- The teams that came close, like Hazard in 1986, Tates Creek in 1991, Ashland Blazer in 1996, Harlan in 1995 and Paducah Tilghman in 2002.
- The players, stars and role players alike, who start a highlight reel in my head when I hear their names, like Fred Tisdale, Rex Chapman, Felton Spencer, Russ Chadwell, Jack Jennings, Jermaine Brown, DeJuan Wheat, Darren Allaway, Andy Penick, Patrick Critchelow, Rick Jones, Casey Alsop, Derek Smith, Antwain Barbour, Patrick Sparks, Orlandus Hill, Chris Lofton, Demetrius Green, O.J. Mayo, Lonnell Dewalt, Ty Proffitt, A.J. Slaughter and Arrez Henderson.
- And the local teams that got there, even though their stays were almost always brief, from the improbable Casey County team of 1993 to the Mercer County team that made it with a losing record in 2000 to the Harrodsburg team that managed a first-round win in 1996 to the Boyle County and Lincoln County teams that made back-to-back appearances (Boyle in 1998 and ’99, Lincoln in 2007 and ’08).
The people are part of the fun, too, whether you’re meeting friends for dinner or just getting a text message from across the arena. Thanks to the Sweet Sixteen, I knew Don Irvine long before I ever covered his games, I see old acquaintances year after year and I’ve gotten to know more good people than I can count, from the folks working in the press room to the guys who launch T-shirts into the stands.
Twenty-five years is nothing compared to the state tournament history of some folks I know, but I’ll keep going back as long as I’m able and adding to my list of memorable moments and people worth knowing.