No matter where you live in Kentucky or what month it is, Kentuckians are ready to talk basketball.
With summer all-star games, college recruitment and NBA playoffs in the news, it seems fitting to tell a basketball story that has been lost to the ages.
In 1955, a young man from Woodburn set out to enroll at the University of Kentucky, knowing his family would pay his way for the first two years and after that he was on his own.
Jay Atkerson began high school at Warren County High School as a freshman hoping to make the basketball team. When he didn’t, his coach, Eddie Diddle Jr., asked him to be the team manager.
“I was all in,” Atkerson said. “I’d get to go to all the games and still be a part of the team.”
By the time he was a senior, Atkerson knew he wanted to be a coach and teacher.
“Eddie told me his dad would be needing a manager for his team at Western,” he said. “He said Hardin McLane (who went on to be a successful coach) would be leaving and I could step right in with a full scholarship. I talked to coach Diddle ... even spent a couple of nights in Diddle Dorm.”
Atkerson turned down the offer. He had his heart set on going to the University of Kentucky. But he still had not lost sight of being a college basketball manager, and a family friend helped him meet UK coach Harry Lancaster, Adolph Rupp’s longtime assistant.
“Coach Lancaster made the decision, and he said I was the first to express an interest in the manager’s job for the season ahead. I was really surprised,” Atkerson said.
One might think that students would be lined up to be a part of a basketball team that had won NCAA titles in 1948, 1950 and 1951. They weren’t, and the young man from Woodburn became the team’s student manager.
“That first day of practice when I walked in, I was shocked at how much of a business affair it was,” Atkerson said. “Practices were tough. Rupp was very hard on his players ... no clapping, cheering or laughing. No one spoke but Rupp and Lancaster.”
Atkerson, far from a full scholarship, got books for his efforts in that first year.
“My sophomore year I got books and tuition and by my junior year I was up to books, tuition and one meal a day, and had become head manager and with that I also got four tickets for every home game,” he said.
The entire time Atkerson was at UK, Rupp never called him by his name. Always, it was “manager.”
“One day Rupp said, ‘manager, where are you from?’ ” “I told him Bowling Green. ‘That’s a damn lie, you’re from Woodburn.’ ”
By the time 1958 rolled around, little did Atkerson know what was in store for the team. The Wildcats had plodded their way to a 23-6 record and the Southeastern Conference title, but despite that, they were ranked no higher than ninth in one poll and 14th in another. This was one of the reasons Rupp referred to his team as “fiddlers.”
“They fiddle around and fiddle around and then finally pull it out,” Rupp said. “They’d be good at a barn dance. You need violinist to play in Carnegie Hall, and we don’t have any of these.”
From then on it was “The Fiddlin Five.”
With Johnny Cox, John Crigler, Vernon Hatton and Adrian Smith, it would be a long time, if ever, before that many Kentucky boys would start for a Wildcat squad – much less win a national title. Ed Beck of Georgia was the other starter. By 1958, the number of teams invited to play in the NCAA Tournament had been increased from 16 to 24 teams, and schools were usually assigned to play their games within their own geographic area.
And the Wildcats hit the jackpot.
Playing the first- and second-round Mideast Regional in the relatively new on-campus 11,500-seat Memorial Coliseum, the Wildcats disposed of Miami (Ohio) and Notre Dame to advance to the Final Four in, you guessed it, Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
The rest is history as Kentucky and Rupp won their fourth NCAA title with wins over Temple and then Seattle and the great Elgin Baylor in the championship game. For Rupp, who was forced into retirement at the age of 70 in 1972, it would be his last.
That championship game has been talked about and discussed for decades, and Atkerson had a hand in what happened.
“The Final Four back then was played on back-to-back nights, Friday and Saturday,” Atkerson said. “Right after we beat Temple, coach Rupp and coach Lancaster already had their game plan on how to beat Seattle and especially Elgin Baylor. It was Saturday afternoon when Coach Rupp called my room. I think we were staying at the Kentucky Hotel, and he said, ‘manager, go over to the Seelbach Hotel and get some film a man has for us.’ That film and the man Rupp spoke to showed how Kentucky could beat Seattle by getting Baylor in foul trouble.”
Everything Rupp had planned went out the window once they placed the film in the projector and turned it on. What the mystery man told and showed proved to be the key to the Kentucky win.
Atkerson is full of memories of being a part of one of the greatest basketball programs in history. He enjoys passing them on in hopes they are not lost to passing decades.
“Coach Rupp never seemed to get close to any of his players, and small talk was out of the question,” Atkerson said. “During my time there, we were at his house maybe twice during the holidays to watch a football game.”
The stories kept coming.
“Coach Rupp asked me one time to go with him to the TV station where he did his Sunday night coach’s show,” he said. “He drew a play up for TV and told the audience all about it, and then on the way home he said, ‘You know that play I drew up ... let’s try it out tomorrow and see how it works.’ ”
Atkerson said two of his big responsibilities were keeping the gate and referring practice scrimmages.
“The gate was a big thing for Rupp. It was one of those accordion gates, and I had the key. At 3 p.m. it was locked and if one of the players wasn’t on the floor he missed practice. The only player I remember getting locked out was Roger Newman.”
Once the gate closed, it didn’t open again until practice was over.
One afternoon, Atkerson heard someone banging on the gate to get in. It was Louisville Courier Journal sportswriter Larry Boeck. He was late and wanted in.
“I let him in, and Coach Rupp was upset with me,” Atkerson said. “So sometime later, Boeck was late again and this time I wouldn’t let him in. Rupp got upset with me this time for not letting him in. ‘He’ll kill us with what he writes,’ he screamed at me. ‘Let him in.’ ”
After that 1958 championship season, Atkerson still had one more year of college. Majoring in physical education and biology, he still wanted to be a coach. Every opportunity he had he spent with Lancaster, who also served as the Wildcat baseball coach. Atkerson, when asked, became the team’s student manager and it gave him some quality time to spend riding to the games with the coach.
Keeping his eye on his goal, after graduation he landed a coaching job at Bristow High School, a small school on the outskirts of Bowling Green.
“I couldn’t believe it, the Carrier twins were there and they were real good,” he said. “Darel was a great scorer and Harel was like glue on defense. And then there was an eighth grader coming along ... Rich Hendrick and he turned out to be a great player, too.”
The kid from Woodburn ended up coaching four years at Bristow and seven in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“I learned a lot from coach Rupp,” he said. “Being on time, discipline, responsibility and having a plan. I appreciated it years later.”
In 1959, Atkerson married his wife, Caroline, whose family had moved to Chattanooga.
“I didn’t want to send coach Rupp an invitation,” Atkerson said. “I didn’t want him there. But my mother sent him one anyway.”
However, to his surprise, a silver casserole bowl arrived in the mail from Rupp and his wife, Esther.
“I would never have thought he remembered me or would ever acknowledge me,” Atkerson said with a laugh.
Today, the Atkersons live on a picturesque 32-acre piece of heaven that backs up to Drakes Creek in Simpson County.
With scrapbooks full of pictures and old newspaper articles waiting to be reread, Jay Atkerson enjoys the story behind his unlikely journey from Woodburn to the top of the college basketball world.
Get up, get out and get going!
– Gary West’s column runs monthly in the Daily News. He can be reached by emailing email@example.com.