This weekend we honor those who serve. I don’t need to preach their importance or demand gratefulness. Instead, I’ll share a story you may have never heard about one of Kentucky’s finest men.
Cliff Barker was a two-time National Champion for Adolph Rupp, but his journey to the top of college basketball wasn’t typical. After his freshman season at UK, he enlisted into the Army Air Forces to fight in World War II. A gunner in a B-17 Bomber, his plane was taken down in enemy territory. He was captured in Germany and spent 16 months as a prisoner of war. From his New York Times obituary:
He filled idle time in prison camp by bouncing and passing a volleyball, the only ball he could find. When he returned to college, his ball-handling skills were remarkable.
”He had good hands, exceptional hands,” his Kentucky teammate Kenny Rollins said. ”His hands were very sensitive to the ball. And he was able to visualize things on the floor that other people couldn’t see.”
After an experience like that, I’m sure Rupp seemed like a softie on his return to college. A member of the Fabulous Five, he won back-to-back championships and an Olympic gold medal in London. After college, he started a short-lived pro team with Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, the Indianapolis Olympians. He spent his remaining years teaching and coaching high school basketball in Indiana before passing away in 1998.
Barker’s name might not catch the ear quite like his teammates — Groza, Beard and Wah Wah Jones — but his remarkable story is a tale that every Kentucky fan should know.
Barker is one of many Kentucky basketball stars who served in the armed forces. BigBlueHistory.net has compiled a comprehensive list.