Is it time to end Kentucky-Indiana All-Star series?

April 8, 2016 FieldsColumn

Rex Chapman of Apollo and Kris Miller of Owensboro were on the cover of the 1986 Kentucky-Indiana program.

Rex Chapman of Apollo and Kris Miller of Owensboro Catholic were on the cover of the 1986 Kentucky-Indiana program.

BY MIKE FIELDS

Tradition is getting thumped by reality when it comes to the Kentucky-Indiana All-Stars basketball series, so maybe it’s time to invoke a mercy rule and pull the plug on the games.

It’s sad to say goodbye to what was once a vital, rousing event, but it’s even sadder to watch it slowly wither away.

My suggestion is to keep naming Mr. and Miss Basketball, keep naming boys’ and girls’ all-star teams, and continue to honor the top players at a banquet the night before the boys’ Sweet Sixteen.

Just don’t play the games against Indiana anymore after the series wraps up this June.

I’m not alone in my opinion. Allen Feldhaus Jr. and Chris O’Hearn, a couple of state championship coaches who’ve also led the Kentucky All-Stars in recent years, agree that the series can’t be resuscitated.

“When some kids don’t even show up (to practice), when nobody’s coming to games, when you don’t have money to house and feed (the players) well, it comes to the point where you need to do away with it,” Feldhaus said.

“My thoughts?” O’Hearn said. “I think we’re fighting a losing battle.”

Mr. Basketball Allan Houston of Ballard and Miss Basketball Lisa Harrison of Southern were on the cover of the 1989 Kentucky-Indiana program.

Mr. Basketball Allan Houston of Ballard and Miss Basketball Lisa Harrison of Southern were on the cover of the 1989 Kentucky-Indiana program.

Once upon a time, Kentucky-Indiana was the premier high school all-star game in the nation.

Remember the good ol’ days?

In 1966, a sold-out crowd of 16,800 in Freedom Hall watched Kentucky, led by Ted Rose and Mike Casey, crush Indiana, led by Rick Mount, 104-77. A week later, a sell-out crowd of 14,756 in Butler Fieldhouse saw Kentucky beat the Hoosiers again, 77-67.

In 1976, Indiana swept the Bluegrass boys, who were led by Darrell Griffith, in front of 15,780 fans in Freedom Hall and 17,426 fans in Market Square Arena.

In 1986, the rivalry still drew big crowds when it had a marquee star, like Rex Chapman, who led Kentucky to a sweep over Indiana. The two-game attendance topped 27,000.

Fast forward to today and the series is a shell of its former self. Attendance the last three years combined: 22,500. Kentucky’s side of the ledger is embarrassing: 1,500 fans in Freedom Hall in 2013; 1,000 fans in Transylvania’s Beck Center in 2014; 834 fans in the Beck Center last year.

I can’t imagine many people showing up for the games in Bellarmine’s Knights Hall this June.

Mr. Basketball John Pelphrey of Paintsville and Miss Basketball Mary Taylor of Marshall County were on the cover of the 1987 game program.

Mr. Basketball John Pelphrey of Paintsville and Miss Basketball Mary Taylor of Marshall County were on the cover of the 1987 game program.

I used to love the Kentucky-Indiana rivalry. My first experience was in 1974. I sat in the upper reaches of Freedom Hall and got my first glimpse of a skinny, mop-haired kid named Larry Bird, who helped Indiana beat Kentucky, which had the dynamic duo of Jack Givens and James Lee.

I covered the series for the better part of three decades and witnessed its decline into irrelevancy as Kentucky hosted the games in Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, Bowling Green and Owensboro. The Kentucky Lions Club has sponsored the Kentucky side of the rivalry and has done what it could to keep interest alive, but it’s fighting forces beyond its control.

Feldhaus, who coached the Kentucky All-Stars after guiding Madison Central to the 2013 state title, has a unique perspective on the Kentucky-Indiana series. He also played in it in 1981, and his dad, Allen Sr., coached the Kentucky All-Stars in 1982.

Feldhaus thinks the main reason the event has lost its appeal is because the landscape of high school basketball has changed so much.

“Now you get to see all the good players during the regular season because teams travel to all these classics and tournaments,” he said. “Back when I played and my dad coached, you didn’t have all these classics and tournaments, so the only opportunity you had to see the best players in the state was the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star game, especially if they didn’t get to the state tournament.”

Feldhaus also thinks the honor of being named an all-star has lost its allure. 

“Back when I played, it was the ultimate goal as a senior high school basketball player to make the Kentucky-Indiana All-Star team,” he said. “Now, even when kids make it, a lot of times they don’t even show up.”

Kids have been spoiled by AAU summer hoops and travel teams where they’re treated like stars before they’ve reached puberty.

“After that, these kids don’t want to come stay in a Super 8 or a 60-year-old dorm for a week (with the all-stars),” O’Hearn said. “It takes a lot of money to do this game the right way, and the money’s just not there.”

Mr. Basketball Charles Thomas and Miss Basketball Ukari Figgs were on the 1995 cover.

Mr. Basketball Charles Thomas of Harlan and Miss Basketball Ukari Figgs of Scott County were on the 1995 cover.

College coaches have contributed to the decline of the series by requiring players to report to campus early, making them unavailable for all-star practices and/or games.

When Feldhaus coached the all-stars in 2013, Dominique Hawkins and Derek Willis were so worn out by practices with UK that it affected their play against Indiana.

Last year Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball Camron Justice was already at Vanderbilt and didn’t take part in the all-star series. Neither did Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, Caleb Swanigan, who was in Colorado practicing with a U.S. national team.

O’Hearn, who coached Mason County to the Sweet Sixteen title in 2008, was an all-stars assistant to Feldhaus before serving as Kentucky’s head coach in 2014. It wasn’t an enjoyable experience for him.

Three of his best players — Quentin Snider (Louisville), Justin Johnson (WKU) and Jordan Green (WKU) — couldn’t practice because they were tied up with their colleges. Two other players didn’t show up for practice. That left O’Hearn with only seven players before a few Paul Laurence Dunbar players offered to practice with them.

“It’s hard to compete (with Indiana) when you can’t even really practice,” O’Hearn said.

That brings us to the losing bottom line of the series, at least on the boys’ side. Indiana has swept Kentucky seven years in a row, won 31 of the last 34 games and leads the 75-year-old series 92-42.

“For it to be a good rivalry, you’ve got to get a few wins,” O’Hearn said. “And attendance keeps dwindling and dwindling. I don’t see how it’s going to survive.”

Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins and Miss Basketball Makayla Epps were on the 2013 cover.

Mr. Basketball Dominique Hawkins of Madison Central and Miss Basketball Makayla Epps of Marion County were on the 2013 cover.