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With World War II over the United States entered the 1950s primed to be one of two superpowers to rule the globe for the next four decades. Concerns with the Soviet Union were ever present, what with their nuclear armament program and the space race, but the United States had a booming economy that would produce a generation of young people that would be better educated and financially stronger than any previous group in the nation's history.

High school basketball in Kentucky during the 1950s was the last decade in which small, independent schools maintain a strong presence at the top of the rankings. School consolidations would begin late in the decade and would come to dominate the 1960s, seeing the rise of county schools and the fall of annual deep postseason runs by local schools.

The decade would also see the Supreme Court rule in Brown v. Board of Education that school segregation was unconstitutional. The ruling, sent down in 1954, would famously suggests school desegregate "with all deliberate speed," something many schools in the state followed as slowly as possible. Starting in 1957, the KHSAA allowed schools that housed only African-American students to join the association and participate in the postseason, provided they played at least half of their regular season games against white schools. Few schools participated in 1957, although nearly all black schools would play in 1958.

While desegregation was a welcome change to the educational world in the 1950s, it also brought an end to the Kentucky High School Athletic League. The KHSAL began play in 1932 and ceased following the 1958 season. Schools from across the commonwealth participated in one of eight regions with the champions advancing to the state tournament. Typically, although not always, held at Kentucky State University, the KHSAL tournament differed from the KHSAA's Sweet 16 in that there was also a consolation bracket for schools to continue playing even after a defeat. Just as the early KHSAA tournaments had served as an unofficial campus visit for the University of Kentucky, the KHSAL tournament played a similar role in recruiting students to Kentucky State in Frankfort, the lone historically black college in the state.

Louisville Central and Lexington Dunbar were the dominate black programs of the last decade of the league, a status they would both continue to hold in the KHSAA after desegregation. Hopkinsville Attucks, Madisonville Rosenwald, and Richmond were just a few of the schools that fielded top level teams during the KHSAL era. No black schools will be in the top ten of the 1950s, mostly because they only participated in a couple tournaments. Sizable success would come in the 1960s.

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This article is the fourth 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: Kentucky High School Basketball Best - Part 1 (The '20s)
Part 2: Kentucky High School Basketball Best: Part 2 - The 30s
Part 3: Kentucky High School Basketball Best: Part 3 - The 1940s

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1. Lafayette (71 points
District Championships: 7
Region Championships: 5
State Tournament Wins: 13
State Championships: 3 (1950, 1953, 1957)

Not since Lexington (Henry Clay) in the 1920s and not until Male in the 1970s would a single dominate a decade of high school basketball as thoroughly as Lafayette did in the 1950s. Coached by Ralph Carlisle, who compiled a 350-97 record at Lafayette from 1946-1961, the Generals won three of their six state championships during the decade. Lafayette had fallen to Cliff Hagan and Owensboro in the 1949 finals before roaring back to win it all in 1950. They'd then beat Paducah Tilghman in 1953 and Louisville Eastern in 1957. It was all part of a decade in which the Generals won five region titles and finished second twice.

Beginning in 1954, the title of Mr. Basketball was awarded to the best senior player in the commonwealth each season. Two Lafayette players, Vernon Hatton in 1954 and Billy Ray Lickert in 1957, would win the award and go on to careers under Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky.

Lafayette's glory days would come to an end after the '57 title when Lexington Dunbar, an all-black school just then allowed into the KHSAA, would beat the Generals in both the district and regional finals in 1958 and 1959, foreshadowing their own dominant run during the 1960s.

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Lafayette (white jerseys) and Paducah Tilghman (dark) players tumble during the 1953 finals

2. Clark County (63 points)
District Championships: 9
Region Championships: 5
State Tournament Wins: 13
State Championships: 1 (1951)

If Lafayette was clearly the team of the decade, the second best team resided a mere twenty-five miles to the east. Clark County won nine district titles and five region crowns during the decade. They'd post another thirteen wins at the state tournament. The biggest difference in the two programs was Clark County won just the one title in 1951, following up a loss to Lafayette in 1950.

Letcher Norton led the Cardinals from 1945-53 before taking a two-year stint at Charlestown High in Indiana. He'd return after two years to hefty paycheck. The Courier-Journal reported in April 1958 that Norton was paid more than every college coach in the state besides Adolph Rupp, Ed Diddle, and Peck Hickman. But he also won. Clark County was 24-1 in district play during the decade, 19-5 in the region. Only Ashland and Olive Hill were able to beat the Cardinals (at this time Clark was in the 16th Region).

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Clark County (dark jerseys) and Cuba (light) battle for a rebound during the 1951 finals

3. Hazard (41 points)
District Championships: 7
Region Championships: 4
State Tournament Wins: 7
State Championships: 1 (1955)

If you're talking about Hazard basketball in the 1950s, then you're talking about Johnny Cox. Cox wasn't Mr. Basketball in 1955 (that went to Kenny Kuhn at Male), but he got the biggest prize, leading the Bulldogs to the state championship. Twenty-three years after their first title, Hazard would win again behind 127 points from Cox during the tournament, a state record that would then be obliterated by Kelly Coleman of Wayland the next year.

Hazard had little trouble during the 1955 tournament, beat Glasgow, Pikeville, Newport, and Adair County all by at least eight points. Hazard has made fifteen trips to the state tournament since winning in '55, but they've never been past the semifinals. Johnny Cox would go on to score 1,461 in his career at the University of Kentucky, winning a national championship in 1958 and was named first-team All-American in 1959.

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Johnny Cox

4. Pikeville (39 points)
District Championships: 9
Region Championships: 6
State Tournament Wins: 6
State Championships: 0

An early mountain power who played in five state tournaments from 1921-1926, Pikeville didn't come back on the statewide scene until a 15th Region championship in 1949. The stage was then set for a decade in which the Panthers won six region crows, albeit without ever winning a state title. Pikeville's best run came in 1957 where they advanced to the semifinals before falling to eventual champion Lafayette. Pikeville would beat Russell County in the third place game.

Pikeville in a sense became a victim of what they weren't. John Bill Trivette's clubs won 239 games during the decade and had three players named first team all-state, but they didn't have the compelling story line of fellow 15th Region clubs Inez, who won the 1954 state championship, or Wayland and "King" Kelly Coleman scoring in waves in 1956. Pikeville has won just two state tournament games since 1957.

5. Manual (36 points)
District Championships: 3
Region Championships: 3
State Tournament Wins: 9
State Championships: 0

Manual spent much of the 1920s and 1930s at the top of the heap in Kentucky high school basketball. The 1940s weren't as kind to the Crimsons but the 1950s saw a return to form. Manual won three district titles - a group that still included Male, St. Xavier, and Flaget - in the decade after not competing in a district during the previous decade (you'll remember the four Louisville city schools were guaranteed a spot in the 7th region tournament).

Three region titles meant three state tournament berths at Memorial Coliseum, a tournament in which Manual always played well. Never champions, Manual managed to make the finals twice, losing to Cuba in 1952 and North Marshall in 1959.

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Manual's 1959 state runners-up

6. Cuba (33 points)
District Championships: 3
Region Championships: 2
State Tournament Wins: 7
State Championships: 1 (1952)

With a Howie and a Doodle winning a state title should be a piece of cake! Tiny Cuba High School, deep in southern Graves County and with an enrollment of under 200, advanced to the state final in 1951 before falling to Clark County. The Cubs wouldn't be denied in 1952. Led by first team all-state players Howie Crittenden and Charles "Doodle" Floyd, Cuba rolled to a 37-5 record and knocked off Manual to win the title.

Led by Jack Story, who had begun his coaching career at Fairbanks High in Graves County as a 19-year old(!), Cuba played a style that seemed to resonate with the fans. Many compared them to the Harlem Globetrotters, a comparison the team didn't exact shy away from. However, coach Story would leave for Mayfield the next season and Cuba would never again reach the same heights. Cuba High would close in 1977 with students then going to Sedalia High.

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Cuba Cubs 1952 state champions

7. Clay County (33 points)
District Championships: 9
Region Championships: 6
State Tournament Wins: 4
State Championships: 0

One of the most successful programs in state history makes their first decade appearance in the 1950s. Clay County won their first district tournament in 1937 when they were still known as Manchester High. A year later they absorbed Fogertown and changed their name to Clay County. They'd bring in Big Creek, Flat Creek, and Laurel Creek in the 1940s, along with James "Spider" Thurman to coach the team. Seventh district titles, twenty-nine regions, and a state championship in 1987 are the results. But the 1950s was where it all began.

Clay County won every district tournament game it played in during the 1950s until the last one, a surprise one point defeat to Oneida Baptist in the 1959 district final. They would beat Oneida Baptist in the first round of the district the next week (at that time there were no restrictions on district champs playing runners-up in the first round) and go on to a sixth region crown.

The state tournament was often the toughest part for Clay County. Four times in the fifties the Tigers won their opener but then lost in the quarterfinals. For all of their success it wouldn't be until 1985 that Clay advanced to at least a semifinal. Thurman would coach until 1962, compiling a 324-97 record. He would also coach a young Bobby Keith, who would later win 693 games and the school's only state championship.

8. Newport (30 points)
District Championships: 7
Region Championships: 4
State Tournament Wins: 5
State Championships: 0

Newport High School's glory years were about to conclude by the end of the 1950s with the abandonment of numerous businesses (both legal and illegal) and a move by many toward the suburbs of northern Kentucky. Seven district titles, four region championships, and five wins in the state tournament proved that Newport still had some gas in the tank.

Newport regularly defeated a mixture of Campbell County district teams in the early fifties, before settling into a northern Campbell district in the late fifties that was comprised of Bellevue, Dayton, and Newport Catholic. The ninth region was still somewhat rural, with Holmes the only city team through much of the decade. Covington Grant, a former member of the KHSAL, joined the 9th Region in 1957 and would beat Newport in the region final in 1959.

Newport's best state performance in the decade was a runner-up finish to Inez in 1954. The Wildcats would go back again in 1955, this time falling to eventual champion Hazard in the semifinals and to Henderson in the third place game. Newport has won a state tournament game since.

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Lawrence Redmond, Mr. Athletic, Newport High 1954. Redmond scored 21 points in a state championship game loss to Inez.

9. Henderson (27 points)
District Championships: 5
Region Championships: 2
State Tournament Wins: 6
State Championships: 0

Rarely do schools change names during the course of a decade. Henderson High might have changed names, but they kept on winning. Known as Barret Manual Training School (although commonly referred to as Henderson), the school officially changed its name to Henderson High School at the end of the 1955 school year. Henderson had some early success, including a championship in the 1916 state invitational tournament, but had never had much luck at the highest level.

Everything changed in 1955. Henderson beat their brand new neighbors Henderson County in the district final and then romped over Clay, Owensboro, and Dixon to win the region. The Purple Flash would fall to Adair County in the state semifinals. Henderson would be back again the next year, but would again come up short, falling by four to Carr Creek in the championship game.

Henderson would hold on for another twenty years but their best days were in the past. The Flash would win four more district titles but never again made it to the Sweet 16. They would close after the 1976 season and merge in to existing Henderson County.

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A dejected Henderson High team accepts the 1956 state runner-up trophy

10. St. Xavier (26 points)
District Championships: 2
Region Championships: 2
State Tournament Wins: 5
State Championships: 1 (1958)

Of course, it wouldn't be a breakdown of top programs of the decade without St. Xavier, the only school to finish in the top team of each decade to this point. St. Xavier, champions in 1958, gets the slight nod over Carr Creek, Inez, and North Marshall who each won state titles in the decade. St. X played in the brutal Louisville city district along with Male, Manual, Flaget, Shawnee, Ahrens, and eventually Central and the Tigers only won two district crowns. They would win the same number of region titles, representing the 7th Region in both 1955 and 1958. The '58 club bettered Daviess County in the championship game, finishing the season 32-4.

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St. Xavier's Jim Showalter signs autographs for girls after the Tigers won the state title