King of the Bluegrass still reigns as top holiday tourney

December 19, 2016 FieldsColumn

Lloyd Gardner, left, and Stan Hardin have been putting on the King of the Bluegrass since 1981.

Lloyd Gardner, left, and Stan Hardin have been putting on the King of the Bluegrass since 1981.

BY MIKE FIELDS

LOUISVILLE – The King of the Bluegrass has reigned as the best high school holiday basketball tournament in Kentucky — and one of the best in the nation — for 36 years now.

It was the brainchild of then-Fairdale Coach Stan Hardin and assistant Lloyd Gardner, who came up with the idea on the bus ride home after the Bulldogs played in a Christmastime tournament in Ocala, Fla., in 1980.

“My philosophy was, if they could have a tournament like that in Florida, which isn’t a basketball state, we should be able to do it in Louisville,” Hardin recalled.

“We decided right then to put it together,” Gardner said.

They went to the Fairdale administration and got the go-ahead, as long as it didn’t cost the school anything. Hardin went looking for a sponsor, found RC Cola, and the tournament became a reality.

The inaugural King of the Bluegrass Holiday Classic began 35 years ago today – Dec. 19, 1981 – in an inauspicious way. A scoreboard went on the fritz and the fire department had to bring in a ladder to fix it before the first game could tip off.

That was NOT a sign of things to come.

The King of the Bluegrass was good from the get-go, then kept getting better and better, with a mix of Kentucky teams and out-of-state teams providing high-quality competition.

Hardin credited Gardner for bringing in top-notch national teams, starting with Baltimore Dunbar in 1982. Dunbar won the tournament that year with a roster that included three players — Reggie Williams, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Lewis — who would eventually be first-round NBA draft picks.

In 1984, Dobbins Tech of Philadelphia came to town with a team featuring Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers.

kobstateBut Hardin and Gardner agree that Rex Chapman was the biggest drawing card ever for the King of the Bluegrass. An overflow crowd stuffed the main gym to see the Apollo star in 1985, so officials closed the doors and stopped selling tickets. That didn’t keep fans from trying to find a way in.

“They tore the gutters off the front of the school trying to crawl up ’em and get in the library through a window and come down that way,” Hardin said. “It was something else.

“After the game, I went in the locker room and Rex said, ‘Coach, is there any way I can get out of here without having to go through that crowd?’ So I took him out the back door and we walked all the way around the gym, and he got on the bus to go home.”

Chapman is one of 24 players who played in the King of the Bluegrass and went on to be named Mr. Basketball. Fifteen teams that have played in the December tournament have gone on to win the Sweet Sixteen the following March.

This year’s Forcht Bank King of the Bluegrass includes eight teams ranked in the Courier-Journal’s preseason top 10, and the top six players, including Mr. Basketball favorite Taveion Hollingsworth of defending state champ Paul Laurence Dunbar.

Fairdale has a glorious basketball tradition of its own, thanks to Hardin and Gardner. Under Hardin, the Bulldogs won back-to-back state championships in 1990 and ’91 (no school has repeated since then). After Hardin stepped down as head coach, Gardner took over and guided Fairdale to the 1994 state title.

Hardin is almost as proud that the Bulldogs have won the King of the Bluegrass three times (1987, ’90, ’93). “I really thought we’d never win it,” he said. “I didn’t want to put on a tournament where people thought we were setting it up so we would win it. I just wanted to get the very best teams in here. That was the most important thing.”

The most important ingredient in the King of the Bluegrass’ sustained success has been the community’s involvement. The tournament’s lifeblood is its volunteers.

“We only pay two ticket-takers, police (for security) and the referees,” Gardner said. “The community steps up and helps out with everything else.”

That includes putting together a hospitality room that for one week every December rates a 5-star review.

On Sunday night, a standing-room only crowd in Stanley Hardin Gymnasium watched No. 1 Bowling Green (led by eighth-grader Zion Harmon) edge No. 6 Ballard, and No. 2 Trinity slip by No. 8 Fern Creek in quarterfinal action.

Hardin and Gardner were there, of course, to watch and make sure everything was running smoothly, even though Hardin hasn’t coached at Fairdale in 25 years and Gardner left the sidelines 11 years ago.

“This is my home,” Hardin said. “And I’ll do anything I can to help.”

Henry Clay won the very first King of the Bluegrass title. Greg Bates hit two free throws with :01 left to give the Blue Devils a 71-69 victory over Paducah Tilghman in the finals.

Henry Clay won the very first King of the Bluegrass title. Greg Bates hit two free throws with :01 left to give the Blue Devils a 71-69 victory over Paducah Tilghman in the finals.