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King Kelly Coleman and the Ballad of Carr Creek

king kelly

 

This Spring I was lucky enough to enroll in an Appalachian Geography class at UK. Exploring the cultural past of our ancestors charged me to look further into the impact of basketball over the last 100+ years. Usually KSR posts are limited to facts found on the internet, but this summer I will be taking that one step further. With the help of William T. Young Library’s archives and the Mountains’ Finest Oscar Combs, I will re-tell some of the greatest stories from the past that are often left out of the equation for those that were not around to see it firsthand. 1928: The Barefoot Boys of Carr Creek and the Undefeated Ashland Tomcats, Johnny Cox’s Hazard Heroics

 

If Bill Shakespeare ever wrote a drama based on East Kentucky, you wouldn’t find him at the McCoy House. The 1956 State Basketball Tournament might be the most dramatic tale never told in sports. I’ve written this story before, researched it for countless hours, but it still amazes me how a story this close to home can feel like fiction from the 1500s (they EKY dialect can sometimes be just as difficult as Shakespeare to understand). Grab your popcorn, and try to remember what you learned in sophomore English class about Shakespearean tragedies.

 

The 1956 basketball season was a tale of two teams from East Kentucky that seemed like the same to most, but were actually perfect opposites, representing ideological differences of good and evil. The Wayland Wasps were the sexiest team in the state with a Knight in Shining Armor leading the way. This Knight from Coal Country in Floyd County was more of a King than a Knight, Kelly Coleman was (and always will be) the best high school player the state of Kentucky has ever seen. Just as prep basketball began taking off on a national scale, the King was considered the best of the best, head and shoulders above his counterparts Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Described by Oscar Combs as, “a man among boys,” Coleman finished his career averaging 33.6 points per game before breaking four of his own state records in the 1956 Tournament.

 

Coleman was to fulfill his destiny during the 1956 Sweet Sixteen by taking home a State Championship, winning Mr. Basketball, and breaking Johnny Cox’s scoring record set just one year prior. The scoring phenom didn’t realize that he’d have to go through vengeful, mean SOBs from Carr Creek to achieve immortal status. If you remember, 28 years before the ‘Barefoot Boys’ from Carr Creek took the eventual undefeated National Champions to 4 OTs before falling in the State Championship game. Despite the optimism brought to the area after a successful season, the Creekers wouldn’t rest easy until they won the title. Just like their 1928 predecessors, their team defense made it nearly impossible for teams to score. The underdogs of the tourney, they filled the familiar role with pride, prepared to go toe-to-toe with the best of the best. Ask, and they did receive.

 

Coleman entered the state semi-final game against Carr Creek averaging an astonishing 46.8 points per game.  The King only needed two more wins to complete his destiny, while complementing his ridiculous record-setting resume (he scored 68 points during the tourney’s first game, something I DARE a high schooler to pull off now).  With a chance to play for the state title on the line, on March 13, 1956 legends from the past met a legend of the present.  Those that attended the early Saturday morning game at Memorial Coliseum were in for a treat.  The Creekers’ suffocating defense had never been better, with Carr Creek’s Jim Calhoun holding Coleman to a career-low of 28 points (A record-setting 28 rebounds wasn’t too shabby though). In 1996, Calhoun could only explain the phenomena one way, “God was with me.” This divine intervention kept the game close into the waning minutes of the game. With 4 seconds left, the Indians’ Freddie Maggard scored a one-handed tip in, slaying the King 68-67.  Maggard, along with future UK player E.A. Couch finally brought the trophy home later that afternoon when they defeated Henderson 72-68.  The Creekers’ underdog triumph solidified their place in history, fulfilling their own destiny that began nearly 30 years before.

This celebration had been a "long time coming". (h/t kentucky.com)

This celebration had been a “long time coming”. (h/t kentucky.com)

 

The 1956 State Tournament was also the last high point in the mythical King’s journey.  After setting the State Tournament scoring record of 185 points in the 3rd place game, blowing past Johnny Cox’s mark of 127, Coleman was pictured on the front page of The Lexington Herald being carried off the court wearing a crown, before being named the State’s Mr. Basketball.  It amazes me that his hero status was so great that Carr Creek’s Championship victory was merely a footnote for local journalists. The National High School Player of the Year, touted as better than Oscar Robertson, was set to form a dynamic due with Jerry West at West Virginia University the next fall, but no Shakespearean tragedy would be complete without a tragic flaw. “He looked like a boy among men because he’d been drinking beer, probably since he was 13,” noted Oscar Combs, adding to what was seen as common knowledge at the time. That may not have been a problem for Coleman had he chose to play for Adolph Rupp, but the coal camp his father worked for was based out of West Virginia. The company had provided for his family his entire life, and even more so after he decided to become a Mountaineer.  Later on in life Coleman told the Pikeville Medical Leader, ““The guy who was my sponsor gave me a car to drive,” he explained. “I had, I believe, a 1955 Dodge, a Gulf credit card for gasoline, about 15 pairs of shoes, and four or five suits. I probably had the nicest clothes in Floyd County over my last two months in high school. If I needed money, I got it. I was engaged to be married in high school during my last year, and he (the sponsor) paid for the rings.” Rupp knew ‘foul’ play was involved, (allegedly) sending NCAA officers to investigate the phenom that was set to leave the state in the fall. Coleman was ruled ineligible, never recovering from the setback while suffering from alcoholism for the remainder of his days.  Trying to live up to the ‘King’ reputation ultimately led to the downfall of the greatest player to ever pick up a basketball in Kentucky.

The King (left) makes a 2005 book signing appearance with Gary P. West (right), the author of King Kelly Coleman: Kentucky's Greatest Basketball Legend

The King (left) makes a 2005 book signing appearance with Gary P. West (right), the author of King Kelly Coleman: Kentucky’s Greatest Basketball Legend

 

Never did I imagine in my wildest high school dreams that the confusing dialogue of Shakespeare would apply to something in my life. The “Fall of the King” depicts a a once-in-a-generation hero with a tragic flaw (his alcoholism reminds me of King Lear wallowing in the rain). Initially a beacon of hope for those around the state, Kelly could never conquer his internal conflict by fulfilling his destiny as the G.O.A.T. If that doesn’t fulfill the Shakespearean moniker, Carr Creek’s revenge of the Barefoot Boys is just one element that perfectly fits in as an opposing force. A supernatural force impeded (Calhoun’s divine intervention against the King), leaving a moment of chance (Maggard’s one-handed game-winning tip in with 4 seconds left) to catastrophically derail the King’s destiny.

 

Shakespeare always taught us a lesson, despite it being very unclear until your English teacher could relay the message. Taking the role as English teacher, I feel that this lesson is the best real-life portrayal of good vs. evil. There are two clear sides, but it’s difficult to discern which side is ‘good’ and which is ‘evil’. This gray area is why living your daily life is so difficult. For the most part, we tread near the line of ‘good’, but the King teaches us that it does not take much ‘evil’ to damn you away from the ‘good’ forever. No matter which side you empathize for, we can all agree that moments like this from EKY set the foundation in creating the best basketball state in the nation.

 

 

-Thanks to all of my sources, from the Old Herald, to the new H-L, Oscar Combs, and many more in between. I couldn’t have done this without using hundreds of your guys’ help. @RoushKSR

Article written by Nick Roush

"Look upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole." @RoushKSR

30 Comments for King Kelly Coleman and the Ballad of Carr Creek



  1. Frew Drunklin
    1:38 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Love it. Good stuff. These kinds of posts add a nice historical/cultural aspect to the site. I had heard if King Coleman but didn’t know much. Now I do.



  2. gulfbreezecatfan
    1:38 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    well done !



  3. tom
    1:40 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Story goes that the King never cared for the Kelly automotive supply company because he didn’t like the signs that read ‘Kelly Tires.’ He was quoted once as saying “..Kelly NEVER tires”.



  4. BOSOX
    1:41 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Who u all think is best high school player out of Lexington last 15 years? Erik, Jaron Brown, George Baker, David Graves?



  5. lesigh
    1:56 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Historical posts are a nice break from the summer day-to-day gossip beat. Thanks Nick.



  6. Bicycle Seat Sniffer
    2:05 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    It’s stuff like this that makes us UK fans who we are. Rich in history. Even though King Kelly had no affiliation to UK, most of the fanbase embraces him due to his mountain heritage. Does UofL and its fanbase? Absolutely not which is why they have no history prior to 1980.



  7. Mt Washington Mike
    2:17 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    I really enjoyed this story. Good Job!



  8. East KY Cat
    2:31 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    I saw him play and man he could shoot. Fast break basketball supreme.



  9. whodat
    2:31 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    if Rupp did indeed have a hand in Coleman’s being ruled ineligable then shame on the Baron… nlot choosing UK wasn’t reason enough to ruin a career.



  10. BluKudzu
    3:10 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    “The wheel has come full circle” King Lear 5.3.176

    I think George Bernard Shaw said “No man has ever written a tragerdy better than Lear.” I would suspect that would be true, only because Shakespeare was not alive, when this story emerged. Perhaps it could have been one of his greatest testimonials of all the kings of which he had written………..

    Then again, perhaps not.



  11. Mapp
    3:16 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Since King Kelly, Todd May is hands down the best player to ever come out of those mountains.



  12. Paul Collins
    3:34 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Aside from the 1950’s lore (which is music to our Eastern Kentucky ears), I can’t believe that you omitted the football connection to this story–especially this summer when football is hot! The Carr Creeker Freddie Maggard is the father of his UK quarterback son, Freddie, who played with his cousin, Joey Couch, son of fellow Creeker E.A. Couch.



  13. Stan
    3:35 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Hazard’s Jim Rose was the best mountain player I’ve seen.



  14. whoa
    3:38 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    #11 – John Pelphery says no way



  15. Breal1515
    3:49 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Great Post, we need more like this, keep it up…….



  16. daquarius
    3:50 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    holy hell nerlens has a long pulsating beef rod



  17. Waylander
    4:18 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    As a man born and raised in Wayland, KY I appreciate this piece. However, Kelly Coleman’s “alcoholism” has been greatly exaggerated over the years! After he finished a record breaking career at KY Wesleyan and several years playing professionally he moved north to Michigan. Raised a family and lived a productive life. Upon retirement he became a frequent visitor to Wayland. I’m a life long diehard member of the BBN but Rupps tip to the NCAA to investigate Coleman and WVU are a real sore spot for most people in this area. Rupp did it out of spite without knowing the whole story of Coleman’s commitment to WVU. Enjoyed the article none the less.



  18. Plain Truth
    5:43 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    If I am not mistaken the man standing between The King and West is a legend himself, that is J. Willard Kinzer, recently at around 82 years young setting a drag racing record in his class at 237 mph.



  19. Waylander2
    6:53 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    You cite your sources, write a fairly accurate account of the events of March 1956, BUT, I will take exception to your portrayal of alcoholism being a tragic flaw of Kelly Coleman. Anyone with alcoholism as you tried to sensationalize in this story would not have been able to live a productive and successful life as Kelly has and continues to live. If you really want to learn facts regarding Kelly I suggest you listen less to Oscar, who never lets facts stand in the way of how he perceives things to be, and read the book that Kelly wrote with the help of Gary West. Or better yet, why don’t you make a trip up to Wayland and visit with him. Stop at the Kwik Mart and Bobby Hamilton will be able to hook you up.



  20. MappIsCorrect
    7:02 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    #11 Mapp is spot on regarding Todd May. The other one that I would put in the class of those two would be Pat Tallent. John Pelphrey, Bob Tallent, Herbie Stamper, Jim Rose and a few others might be close but Coleman, Tallent, and May have been the class of the mountains the past 50+ years.



  21. Waylander2
    7:04 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Not to say that Kelly didn’t enjoy a nip or two,,,,,,,or thirteen,,,haha.



  22. BHM
    7:40 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    —Long time reader—first time comment—
    Thank you Nick for these articles they are very entertaining and shed positive light on us “Mountain Folk.”
    I have to agree with #11. Proof on KSR today actually.

    1983 — Todd May (Wake Forest)
    Mr. Basketball in the state of Kentucky in 1982, May played in just four games as a Wildcat before moving on to Wake Forest during his freshman season. He was drafted in the 1987 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs in the 4th round.



  23. Big Blue Buster
    8:09 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Has everyone forgotten about Mickey Gibson? (Carr Creek and later Hazard high school) circa 1958. He was the best player I ever actually saw play when he was in high school.



  24. bung
    8:15 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    #20…Nice to hear the Tallent brothers mentioned. Mike was pretty good also…



  25. BigBlue
    9:16 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    What about Richie??
    Talk about a Shakespearean fall!



  26. Dorton Grad
    9:48 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    Rupp said that King Kelley was the best basketball player he had ever seen. He is a legend of East Ky and a ball player. A rumor I heard and I do not know it to be a fact is that Kelley wanted to start for Ky as a freshman and that was when you could not do that in the SEC. Rumor was that Kelley felt that he was that good and he must start on the first five. He wanted no part of the freshman team. We still are proud to call him King in the Mts.



  27. pizzaboy
    11:56 pm June 26, 2013 Permalink

    My grandpa tells a story when he played against Kelly. Wheelwright was up quite a few points going into the second half and Kelly was nowhere to be found. Shortly after the half started Kelly came into the Wheelwright gym drunk and was ready to play ball. Needless to say my grandpa and two other guys tried to guard him during that half and we not shot for him. Can’t remember the number of points he said Kelly had but it was over 30 and Wayland went onto win the game. He has a lot of stories about King Kelly and I love to hear them. People like him have shaped the eastern part of our state and brought lore to that area that is unmatched.



  28. Musrat
    6:18 am June 27, 2013 Permalink

    For the record, Kelly scored his 68 points in the consolation game against Bell County.



  29. Deacon
    10:39 am June 27, 2013 Permalink

    I was at the 1956 State Tournament. Kelly was the most hyped high school athlete I have ever seen. They actually passed out handbills showing his four year scoring average. His “warm up” shots were charted as to his shooting percentage! They played a consolotation game then and Wayland played Bell County. John Brock, a BC guard, told me he “held Kelly to 62 points in the consolation game”!The mountains were proud that year with three of final four teams hailing from Appalachia!



  30. bluesman
    11:42 am June 27, 2013 Permalink

    Kelly Coleman better than Oscar and Jerry West? wow someones lost it!!!Oscar was the best of the best on a High School team that would have won by 50 points if Colemans team had of not held the ball.Does anyone really beleive that Coleman was better Instate player than Chapman Doc Dunk Butch Beard Unseld Hagan Ramsey etc the list goes on and on how about Ervin Stepp? remember him another member of Eastern Kentucky Folk Lore