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Kentucky High School Basketball Best: Part 5 - The 60s

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If the 1950s can be considered the entrance of America into the role of superpower, the 1960s is when the challenges of that role became evident to all involved. Embroiled in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, focus shifted first to Cuba, where the US government initially failed to overthrow the communist government of Fidel Castro and then had to withstand a fortnight fraught with fear that came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the decade continued, the nation found itself further entangled in the escalating war in Vietnam and a draft facing many students upon completion of high school.


Life at home was in many ways just a challenging. The Civil Rights Movement, prominent in the minds of many at least since Rosa Parks in the mid-50s, boiled to the top with incidents in Selma and other places. Black leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., however, helped pave a way forward for desegregation and equal rights. One obvious change saw the almost nationwide desegregation of schools.


School desegregation for many Kentuckians was most noticeable on the playing fields and floors. The KHSAA had desegregated in 1957 and the Kentucky High School Athletic League ceased operations in 1958. Schools had been told through the Brown v. Board of Education case the desegregate "with all deliberate speed" and many began to do so in the mid-60s, often as part of a larger consolidation of small schools within a county.


A handful of black schools had tremendous athletic success during the decade, in particular Louisville Central and Lexington Dunbar. Central was state champions in 1969 while Dunbar was runners-up in both 1961 and 1963. Covington Grant and Hopkinsville Attucks both were key players in the state basketball championship race for much of the decade.


Individual African-Americans showed their incredible skills for teams throughout the decade, none more so than Wes Unseld at Seneca. Unseld was named Mr. Basketball in 1964 after leading the Redskins to state titles in 1963 and 1964. He would then go on to an outstanding collegiate and professional career. The doors were opening for all to succeed.




This article is the fifth of ten that will endeavor to rank the ten best programs in the state during each of the ten decades of Kentucky high school basketball. There is some science to the rankings: teams were awarded 1 point for a district championship, 2 points for a region championship, 3 points for each state tournament game won, and 5 points for a state championship.


Part 1: https://bluegrasspreps.com/ky-boys-basketball/kentucky-high-school-388637.html

Part 2: https://bluegrasspreps.com/ky-boys-basketball/kentucky-high-school-388648.html

Part 3: https://bluegrasspreps.com/ky-boys-basketball/kentucky-high-school-388672.html

Part 4: https://bluegrasspreps.com/ky-boys-basketball/kentucky-high-school-388731.html




1. Seneca (62 points)

District Championships: 8

Region Championships: 4

State Tournament Wins: 12

State Championships: 2 (1963, 1964)


No school dominated the sixties like Seneca and perhaps no school's basketball history is as tied to one decade. Seneca, whose first season was in 1960, won eight district titles, four region titles, and two state titles during the decade. The Redskins (the name was changed to Redhawks in 1994) also had back-to-back Mr. Basketball winners in Mike Redd in 1963 and Wes Unseld in 1964.


Freedom Hall hosted the 7th Region tournament each year of the decade and saw Seneca square off with the likes of Central, St. Xavier, and Male. A huge crowd of 7,500 was in attendance for the 1964 final when Seneca's Jesse Kirk hit a 25-footer at the buzzer to give the Redskins a 51-50 overtime victory over Male.


After winning the 7th Region, annually considered the toughest in Kentucky, success at the state tournament was almost guaranteed. Seneca fell to eventual champion Ashland in the second round in 1961 before coming back two years later in 1963 to win it all, a feat they'd accomplish again in 1964. Seneca would make one more appearance, this time in 1968, losing the championship game to Glasgow. Seneca has never again been back to the state tournament.


Seneca shot 1964.png

Seneca's Jesse Kirk lets go of the shot that won the 1964 7th Region tournament


2. Ashland (55 points)

District Championships: 10

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 10

State Championships: 1 (1961)


If Seneca is the best team of the 1960s, Ashland might be the most well-known. Led first by coach Bob Wright and then Harold Cole, the Tomcats won 264 games during the decade, most memorably the 69-50 victory over Lexington Dunbar at Memorial Coliseum to seal the 1961 state championship.


Ashland was unbeatable in district play, taking all ten crowns during the decade. By the end of the sixties Ashland had lost only seven district tournament games in their history dating back to 1927! The 1961 squad, led by junior Larry Conley, was extremely fast and considered by some the best team in state history. They rolled past Raceland, Greenup, Holy Family, and Russell in the district, twice scoring over 100 points. It was more of the same in the region as they scored over ninety each game in beating Russell, Prichard, and Clark County. They would win the state tournament the next week to complete a 36-1 season, their only loss coming to Lafayette during the regular season.


1961 all tournament.png

1961 All-Tournament team. Three Ashland and two Dunbar players are in the front row.


3. Shelby County (43 points)

District Championships: 4

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 8

State Championships: 1 (1966)


Ask people of a certain era who was the best high school player they ever saw play and many will say Mike Casey from Shelby County. The 1966 Mr. Basketball winner, Casey would lead the Rockets to a state championship that same season before moving on to a prolific career at the University of Kentucky. Casey's three point play in round one helped beat Knox Central and he'd score 23 in the finale against Male.


Shelby County, formed in 1960 from a consolidation of three county schools, was in a brutal district from the start. City rival Shelbyville knocked off the Rockets three times in district play and Lincoln Institute would do the same twice. Shelby County would win five region titles in their first decade and performed well at the state. Besides their 1966 title, Shelby advanced past the first round in each of their four other appearances.


Shelby County 1966.png

Shelby County rides a firetruck in the victory parade in 1966


4. Louisville Central (38 points)

District Championships: 6

Region Championships: 3

State Tournament Wins: 7

State Championships: 1 (1969)


Few schools in the commonwealth can claim as much athletic success at Louisville's Central High School. An all-black school prior to desegregation, Central won the KHSAL state championship five times. The Yellowjackets finished second another five times, cementing themselves as the best black basketball team in Kentucky. It wouldn't take long after joining the KHSAA for Central to stake claim to the same title in a new association. Central won six district titles in their first full decade and would win region championships in 1965, 1967, and 1969.


Central had been led by William Kean, who won 791 games as coach from 1923-58. They would have two coaches in the early part of the sixties. Edward Adams, 74-22 from 1959-62, and Kenneth Anthony, 63-17 from 1963-65, both had short stints. Central had their greatest success, however, once Robert Graves took over. Graves would win 466 in his twenty years at the helm, including the 1969 state title.


Central's 1969 team was one of the finest offensive clubs in state history. The Jackets scored 146 points in a district tournament win, 101 in the region, and 101 again in the state championship game against Ohio County. It remains the highest scoring output in finals history. Mr. Basketball Ron King, who later had his number retired by Florida State and was drafted by the Golden State Warriors, scored 44 points in the finals, still a record for a member of the winning team in the championship game.


Central 1969.png

Central High School, 1969


5. Lexington Dunbar (37 points)

District Championships: 5

Region Championships: 4

State Tournament Wins: 8

State Championships: 0


If Louisville Central was the most successful school to emerge from segregation in Kentucky, Lexington Dunbar was a close second. The Bearcats had been champions of the KHSAL in 1948 and 1950. They would have an immediate impact in the KHSAA, winning the always tough 11th Region six times in an eight year span. And they're ranked fifth in the decade while only playing eight of the ten seasons!


Dunbar, led by coach S.T. Roach who won 513 games from 1944 to 1963, advanced to the state championship game twice during the decade but came up short to Ashland in 1961 and Seneca in 1963. The school would close following the 1967 season, integrating throughout Fayette County and ending the era of segregated schooling within the county.


Dunbar 1963.png

Dunbar's Bobby Washington goes for a layup in the 1963 final


6. Owensboro (34 points)

District Championships: 9

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 5

State Championships: 0


After a decade of relative struggling, Owensboro, the most successful program in state history, began to emerge once again as a basketball power in the 1960s. Owensboro won nine district titles in ten years and took home Third Region titles another five times. Longtime coach Bobby Watson, who won 524 games from 1958-80, won five games at the state tournament but ironically none with 1961 Mr. Basketball Randy Embry - the Red Devils had fell to Henderson County in the region final.


Owensboro's best state performances came in 1960 when they lost to Monticello in the semifinals before beating Hopkinsville Attucks in the third place game and again in 1963 when they were defeated by Lexington Dunbar in the state semifinals. For the purpose of these rankings, Owensboro and Breathitt County accumulated the same number of points, but Owensboro was given the edge due to three more district titles.


Owensboro 1963.png

Owensboro's 1963 state runners-up


7. Breathitt County (34 points)

District Championships: 6

Region Championships: 5

State Tournament Wins: 6

State Championships: 0


Eastern Kentucky is an area of the state oft considered most in love with basketball and that love is as strong in the 14th Region as any. The region had produced state championship teams from Hazard, Hindman, and Carr Creek prior to 1960. No 14th Region club won the state title during the decade (in fact, none have won the championship since Carr Creek in 1956), but the most successful team of the decade was Breathitt County.


Led by coach Fairce Woods, five times Breathitt County won over thirty games in a single season. The Bobcats would win six district titles and make five appearances at the state tournament. While there, Breathitt would win games, including state semifinal appearances in 1961, 1962, and 1967. Breathitt finished fourth in 1961, falling to Wheelwright in the last ever state tournament third place game. Perhaps as notable, the 1967 Breathitt County team became crowd favorites for wearing their shirttails out, short white socks, and black tennis shoes - all unique at the time but also showing the free-flowing nature of the 1960s!


Breathitt County 1967.png

Breathitt County (with shirts tucked in) poses for 1967 team picture


8. Breckinridge County (33 points)

District Championships: 3

Region Championships: 2

State Tournament Wins: 7

State Championships: 1 (1965)


Alfred "Butch" Beard might not be the greatest player in Kentucky high school history but few can say they had as good of a basketball career. Beard led Breckinridge County to two region titles in the 1960s, both times advancing to the state championship game. The Bearcats (they wouldn't become the Tigers until absorbing Irvington High in the fall of 1965) fell to Seneca in 1964 before beating Covington Holy Cross in the 1965 state title game.


Beard put up thirty points in the 1965 final at Freedom Hall, a place he'd have even great success in during his four years as a Louisville Cardinal. He would later be an NBA first round draft pick and was the starting point guard for the 1975 NBA champion Golden State Warriors.


Breckinridge County continued to field solid teams but they played in a district with Ohio County, who had great success in the late-60s, and a region that included the likes of Owensboro and Central City. Breckinridge County wouldn't make the state tournament again until 1995, when the rural county came out of nowhere to win a second state title.


Breck 1965.png

Breckinridge County players point out their rural county on the map in 1965


9. Glasgow (30 points)

District Championships: 4

Region Championships: 3

State Tournament Wins: 5

State Championships: 1 (1968)


Glasgow was always a solid program but the Scotties went to another level once they absorbed all-black Bunche High School in 1964. Glasgow would win district and region titles in 1965, 1966, and 1968. The culmination came in '68 when the Scotties rolled through Covington Catholic, Thomas Jefferson, Caneyville, and Seneca to win their only state championship.


In the 1968 final, first team all-state Jerry Dunn poured in 33 points for the Scotties. Dunn would go on to have a standout career just down the road at Western Kentucky University, helping lead the Hilltoppers to the 1971 NCAA Final Four. Glasgow would play in only one more state tournament, in 1977, and have not won a state tournament game since 1968.


Glasgow 1968.png

Glasgow's cheerleaders were beside themselves as they won the 1968 championship


10. St. Xavier (30 points)

District Championships: 6

Region Championships: 2

State Tournament Wins: 5

State Championships: 1 (1962)


Much like the previous decade, St. Xavier squeezed in the top ten of the decade mostly on the merits of their 1962 state championship. St. X won six district crowns, three times falling to bitter rival Flaget. The Tigers won the always tough 7th Region in both 1962 and 1969.


Coached by Joe Reibel, who took over his alma mater in the fall of 1961 one year after graduating from Bellarmine College, St. Xavier compiled an impressive 34-1 record and a state championship. St. X beat defending champion Ashland by four in the final. Mr. Basketball Mike Silliman scored 23 points in the championship game victory.


Reibel would remain at St. Xavier through the remainder of the decade, taking the Tigers back to the state tournament in 1969. He would leave to coach at Bellarmine where he won 346 games. St. Xavier has continued to field competitive teams but have played in just one state tournament since 1969.


St. Xavier 1962.png

St. Xavier 1962

Edited by gchs_uk9
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Mike Silliman of St. X went on to play for Bob Knight at West Point where he averaged nearly nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds for his 3-year career. He also was the third leading scorer for the champion USA team in the 1968 Olympics, behind Spencer Haywood and Jo Jo White.

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Mike Silliman of St. X went on to play for Bob Knight at West Point where he averaged nearly nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds for his 3-year career. He also was the third leading scorer for the champion USA team in the 1968 Olympics, behind Spencer Haywood and Jo Jo White.


That's awesome. Thanks for the info. I'd never heard of him before doing this project.

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@gchs_uk9 I know CovCath had quite a bit of success in the late 60's. How did the Colonel's point total for the 60's stack up? Close to making this list?


Just on the edge. Four district championships, 3 regions, 3 state tournament games won during the '60s to finish ranked 18th. They won another 4 districts, 2 regions, and 1 state tournament game in the 70s to finish 35th. The problem for CovCath was that they went to the state five straight times but it overlaid two different decades.

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  • 2 months later...
13 hours ago, Oldtomcat said:

How close was Earlington on points?

29 points, one shy of the top ten. Only winning the district three times during the decade was what held them down. All but one of the teams above them won at least four district titles and most won between six and nine. That wasn't necessarily their fault as they competed in a district with solid clubs like Madisonville, Madisonville Rosenwald, and even South Hopkins toward the end of the decade.

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