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Reliving Mountain Basketball Tradition: 1928 Excellence


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.


Before I begin this series with the unbelievable 1928 basketball season, it’s important to know how basketball’s roots took such a strong hold in East Kentucky. The hills of Appalachia fueled the nation beginning in the late 19th century, holding the richest coal deposits in North America deep underground. Capitalists swarmed the area, acquiring as much land as possible. In order to maintain and grow a work force, coal companies began manufacturing coal camp towns throughout the area. These sites were near the mines and financed entirely through the company.  Miners rented from the company housing and bought all of their goods from the commissary store using company money called script.


The size of coal camps grew into large towns, with Lynch homing up to 10,000 people at one point in the 20s.  The population boom spread into cities, with Harlan tripling in size from 1910-20.  Finding an escape from the mines for a large population was important to keep spirits up.  Some played musical instruments, others played basketball. “The best part about basketball was that it was the only sport that you could play by yourself,” recalls Perry County native Oscar Combs.  Oscar grew up in a coal camp 8 miles outside of Hazard, learning to play basketball as a child on a goal attached to a barn.  “It didn’t cost that much to buy a rim.  Everyone had a rim hanging from their barn, and you’d see kids playing at all hours of the day.”  This is also the place where chains became the standard net for outdoor basketball goals.  A common feature of inner-city parks today, almost a century ago they were first used because they could withstand the harsh weather.  “Nylon nets cost too much to be washed away with the first storm that hit.”


Nets may have washed away with storms, but basketball developed into a permanent community fixture in the 20s.  With populous coal camps scattered throughout, schools were large enough to have gymnasiums for winter basketball.  “There wasn’t anything to do during the winter except play basketball.  Everyone looked forward to basketball games because they were the single biggest event in the community; the only thing that would compare was pie auction fundraisers held twice a year.”  Players in the area were becoming more and more talented as the sport grew throughout the state.  Eastern Kentucky boys took advantage of their surroundings.  Carr Creek’s basketball court was on top of a mountain.  If you missed a shot, it rolled 300 ft. down the mountainside into the creek. “Needless to say, they got very good at shooting and rebounding.”  An inherent characteristic of Appalachians also played to their favor.  Barry Bingham Jr. of the Courier-Journal told Oscar Combs in a 1964 interview, “People that apply [for a job] from the mountains automatically get a +5.  NOBODY works harder than mountain people.” Work ethic in the right environment created a team of legend in 1928.



A little blip on the map without a post office, the one thing the small town of 140 had in 1928 was a high school.  With only seven girls and eight boys, the boys spent all of their free time after school playing on the mountain-top dirt court until sundown.  The results were 18 games without a timeout, substitute, or loss.  As word began to spread of the elusive forward Shelby Stamper and the Adams Brothers, stories began to take on a life of their own.  City newspapers declared them the ‘Barefoot Boys’, too poor to afford shoes or uniforms, but excellent basketball players.  Oscar Combs was quick to debunk the uniform rumor, “but if I asked a group of 20 people who ‘were there’, 12 of em would say one thing, 6 would say something else, and the rest of em would have a different story all together.”


While differentiating myth from fact may be difficult, one fact remained undeniable: this team was great.  The countless hours of experience playing together gave them the most ferocious defense anyone had ever seen in the mountains.  They tore through the regular season and regionals, giving them the opportunity to ride their first train to Richmond, KY.  After holding their first 3 opponents to 11 points combined, they faced powerhouse Paul Blazer High School from the Appalachian industrial city of Ashland.

Ellis Johnson's impact at Kentucky is greater than an All-American career; he was on the "search committee" that hired Adolph Rupp.

Ellis Johnson’s impact at Kentucky is greater than an All-American career; he was on the “search committee” that hired Adolph Rupp.


The 28-0 Tomcats’ team was led by future UK All-American Ellis Johnson, creating a battle for the ages for 4,000 fans packed into Lexington’s Alumni Gymnasium. For those that couldn’t fit into Alumni Gym, Kentucky Theatre received telegraph updates throughout the game. The Creekers pushed Ashland to the limit, holding them to ZERO field goals in the first half, taking a 4-3 lead into halftime.  The defensive struggle continued, with Ashland clinging to a 9-8 lead in the final minutes.  Carr Creek’s Shelby Stamper hit a free throw with a second left in regulation to send the game into Overtime. Three overtimes later, the score remained tied at 9. The 3rd OT began with a long-range strike from Ashland’s Gene Strother, followed by a layup from Johnson giving the Tomcats a 13-9 lead. Carr Creek responded, cutting it to two, but Ellis Johnson’s dribbling stalled the game to give Ashland an undefeated State Championship.


The game made national headlines, giving the Barefoot Boys enough publicity to advance to the National Interscholastic Basketball Tournament in Chicago alongside Ashland. Even though Carr Creek could only manage a couple of wins, Ashland assured the nation that Kentucky was the best basketball state, taking home the National Championship Trophy. From Carr Creek to Chicago, the Barefoot Boys achieved something people in the area never thought was possible.  85 years have passed, but their legacy will live forever in the hollers of Knott County, Kentucky.


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Article written by Nick Roush

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

31 Comments for Reliving Mountain Basketball Tradition: 1928 Excellence

  1. N8
    1:05 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink


  2. Charlie Warrior
    1:12 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    My step-father, O.H. Taylor, was a freshman on that 1928 Carr Creek team. Part of the story about the team not having uniforms was true, according to Taylor. The team got uniforms for the state tourney and train trip to Chicago. In a commemorative Carr Creek yearbook, Taylor is pictured carrying a full coal bucket up the steep hill to the school as students kept the school’s furnace going in the winter.

  3. JPH
    1:15 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Cool story.

  4. Mattd
    1:17 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    What an awesome story. Really enjoyed reading it.

    1:23 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    #2) My recollection on reading about the 1928 Carr Creek team was that they did not have uniforms all season, and the attendees at the Regional Tournament in Hazard took up a collection to buy them uniforms for the State Tournament. I also read a quote somewhere about that team’s defense which said “They can’t play basketball, they just won’t let anyone else play either!”

    Nick: Great read, thanks for educating some of the younger members of the #BBN around us about the history of basketball in Kentucky.

  6. Eric
    1:33 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Great story

  7. FlatTopFeller Stuff
    1:51 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    That feller in the upper left was sporting the forerunner for Nerlen’s hair! No doubt he even had a UK cut into the back…. Great read, even greater heritage; “the more things change, the more they stay the same”!

  8. SeeNothing
    1:54 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Paul Blazer High wasn’t built until 1963. Other than that, great story. I don’t come here for facts anyway.

  9. chief_cat
    1:55 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Great read Nick! I always enjoy learning more about the rich history of basketball in the state. I look forward to more of these stories and hope you will include the story of the ’52 Cuba Cubs in one of your postings.

  10. AHS
    2:04 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Other than incorrectly noting Ashland High School as Paul G. Blazer (which it did not become until 1963), this was an awesome read! Go Tomcats!!

  11. bigbluetrue
    2:12 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Ellis Johnson worked at the Ashland YMCA in the early-mid 70’s. He had to be in his late 60’s early 70’s at the time. I think he did it because he enjoyed being around kids and athletics. As a kid, I used to love to hear him make closing announcements over the PA system, “Hurry, hurry, hurry! It’s now time for all good little boys and girls to get your things together because the Y is about ready to close.” I knew he played basketball at UK but didn’t know he was involved with helping to hire Adolph Rupp. Wow! Thanks for sharing.

  12. Melvit
    2:18 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Great post Nick! By today’s standards, a 13 – 11 3 OT win sounds like a snoozer.

  13. KG
    2:19 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    nothing like re-living the whyte, hillbilly racist “daze” of yesteryear

  14. The Wheels
    2:24 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    When I was younger and growing up in East KY in the 90’s. I recall older family members telling me of the an old school in which the ball team’s court was on the top of a hill and that if a player missed a shot, the ball would travel down the hillside.

    Happy to hear that it was actually true.

  15. bigbluetrue
    2:27 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    #13– Go back to the rock you came out from under– my guess it located somewhere in Louisville. It never fails to amaze me to see the many trolls from other teams who spend time on our board making stupid comments. Sorry that we have a proud history and all that you have is something that lasted about 15 seconds.

  16. Mack
    2:28 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    It wasn’t Paul Blazer High School in 28 but close enough, renamed in the early 60’s after Mr. Blazer donated big time for the new school. If not mistaken Ellis Johnson was a high school all American in both BB and FB.

  17. Spurious
    2:30 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    This is funny mostly because of the “near truth” about Oscar. First, Oscar grew up in Jeff which is not a coal mining camp. The nearest coal mining camp town to Jeff is Kenmont which is across the North Fork of the Kentucky River and several miles from Jeff. Oscar’s father was the post master of the Jeff post office and the nearest Oscar ever got to a farm was on the drive to Lexington. And, Oscar may have learned to play basketball, but not well enough to do so in public. If the goal is to romanticize mountain basketball better to do so with just a smidgen of accuracy, or with someone other than Oscar.

  18. Pabloco
    2:50 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Well done. This is perfect for the off-season. Keep it up!

  19. SeeNothing
    2:52 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Just got home from work and reread the story. So cool. Bet there are a million other stories around the state like this. I remember as a kid this team from Glasgow that was really great, and the big teams in the state were Louisville Male and Louisville Shawnee. Don’t even know if those schools even still exist I’ve been away so long out west. Oh, I was the guy who played for the Ashland Tomcats when we were rated number one all regular season. I’m not widely remembered since I was the last guy off the bench and only made one shot all season, a half court hookshot I had practiced in my backyard. More features like this please.

  20. gulfbreezecatfan
    3:06 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Great job ! need more info like this .

  21. Ridge Runner
    3:14 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Great story and as othes have said, I really enjoyed this. Thank you!

  22. Law-Trailer
    3:17 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    what happened to the work ethic out here? its certainly not a universal trait.

  23. Nick Roush
    3:36 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    17. Oscar’s Dad ran a general store, and actually talked about the details of ‘how to make money against the commissary store’ with me for about 5 minutes. I know that as fact, but you may have me on the other ones.

  24. East Kentucky
    3:47 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    If your going to talk MTN basketball and have to mention King Kelly Coleman. Many say is the best high school player ever. Any way story and after the ex-pats KSR needed one. Well done young man!

  25. bung
    4:01 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    That was a great look back….more please…

  26. EasternKentuckyCAT
    4:40 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    One of the best stories ever put on KSR! I have been a fan all my life and love hearing about the tradition and roots of basketball from around the state! I am also an eastern Kentuckian and just always thought it was something in the water!

  27. Weekend Reader
    6:23 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    #15 I don’t give a crap if #13 is a card fan or not. You have to validate the comment. I’m not going to insult the intelligence of the young black athletes we recruit. Don’t attack everybody you disagree with!

  28. Hemlepp
    7:02 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    If you want the whole story, check out Don Millers; “The Carr Creek Legacy” published 1995 Vantage Press. It’s only 126 pages, but it covers the History and makes it a very interesting read. Also covered is the Creekers 1956 State Champions in Chapter V. Oscar Morgan was the Coach of the 1928 team and Morton Combs Coach of the 1956 team.

  29. Steve Smith
    10:32 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    I remember the trophy cases in Ashland with the basketball trophies, and especially the 1928 national championship. It was a proud tradition that Ashland teams have tried to live up to ever since, and while I was in school we won Region 16 every year. We played against Dicky Beal’s Covington team in the Sweet 16. Man was he good (and fast)!

  30. backwoodzukfan
    10:46 pm June 3, 2013 Permalink

    Thanks , Really enjoyed reading this..

  31. BNClay
    8:41 am June 4, 2013 Permalink

    “Nylon nets cost too much to be washed away with the first storm that hit.”
    This is why I got a chain net when I was a kids. But that was also a bad idea, because after enough swished jumpers the friction turned the surface of my basketball as smooth as silk. You couldn’t really get any grip on the ball.