Remembering Douglass Demons basketball
BY MIKE FIELDS
Sixty years ago today, Henry Bell, John Burdette, Paul Price and their Douglass High School basketball teammates walked into UK’s Memorial Coliseum and made history.
On Feb. 27, 1957, Coach Charles Livisay’s Demons became the first black school to compete in Lexington’s 43rd District tournament, capping the first season of integration when black schools were allowed to compete as KHSAA members.
Bell recalled being overwhelmed by the Coliseum’s expanse. “It was just so big. I was like, ‘wow!’ Our gym at Douglass was real small; the court was only 35 x 60. A shot from the corner was only a 15-footer. A regular (high school) court was 50 x 84.
“The Coliseum was a college court so it was 10 feet longer than that. After I ran up and down it a couple times, my tongue was hanging out,” Bell said with a laugh.
Burdette remembered the Coliseum’s strange acoustics. “It was like it was soundproof,” he said. “Your couldn’t hear the ball bounce, I guess ’cause the place was so big. It was like your ears were stopped up.”
Nevertheless, Douglass adjusted to their new surroundings and routed the Nicholasville Tarantulas 87-45.
Later that evening, Dunbar played in its first KHSAA district tournament and blasted University High 73-36 in the Coliseum.
Both Douglass and Dunbar lost in the next round of the district. Henry Clay clipped the Demons 46-44, and Lafayette beat Dunbar 64-50. (Lafayette went on to win the state championship that year.)
Douglass never did qualify for the 11th Region tournament before the school closed in 1963.
Dunbar, meanwhile, won the region six times (1958, ’59, ’61, ’63. ’64, ’65) under Coach S.T. Roach, and was state runner-up twice (1961, ’63), before closing in 1967.
Twenty-three years later, a new Paul Laurence Dunbar High School opened in Lexington. After Dunbar won the Sweet Sixteen title in 2016, the Bulldogs paid homage to the Bearcats’ legacy.
Fifty-four years after Douglass closed, a new Frederick Douglass High School will open in Lexington this fall. Bell and Burdette hope the new Douglass will remind people just how good the Demons were in their heyday.
According to the Kentucky High School Basketball Encyclopedia, Livisay coached Douglass for 25 years and had an overall record of 411-228.
His best Demons’ teams were in the mid-1950s, highlighted by a Kentucky High School Athletic League state title in 1954, and a national runner-up finish to Louisville Central in 1956. Douglass was led by Walter Miller, who averaged 29 points during that 48-team national tournament.
In the four seasons from 1953-56, Douglass won 101 games.
Bell described Livisay as a “big ol’ teddy bear. A good guy, a nice guy, and a fundamental coach, We never played a zone defense. It was always man-to-man.”
Price, who played as a tall, rangy eighth-grader for Douglass, said Livisay “was a real good coach. He would get into you if you messed up, but he wasn’t running up and down screaming all the time.”
Livisay, a Dunbar graduate, was involved in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. A few years after Douglass closed, he became an assistant coach at Bryan Station. He died in 1990 at age 77.
Douglass had its share of stars, especially in the 1950s, when it and Dunbar would stage epic battles in Dunbar’s bigger, packed-to-the-rafters gym.
Miller was among Douglass’ best players, along with Price, Ronald Taylor, Amos Burdette, his brother John; and Henry “Red” Bell and his brother George.
John Burdette’s versatility made him a standout. A talented ball-handler, he could score inside and out. He tried to emulate Harlem Globetrotters’ dribbling wizard Marcus Haynes. “People paid to get in the games, so I’d give them a show,” Burdette said.
But Burdette conceded his older brother Amos was better. “He was one of the best Douglass ever had.”
John Burdette was impressed by Henry Bell’s ability to score in bunches. “He was like a fireball. He was a tremendous shooter. He could’ve played in today’s game,” Burdette said.
Bell set a city scoring record as a senior when he poured in 54 points in a 108-65 victory over Lincoln Institute of Simpsonville in Dec., 1957. “I couldn’t miss; I was radar that night,” Bell said recently. “Coach took me out after three quarters or I probably would’ve had 75 or 80 points.”
Bell’s city record stood for 32 years until David DeMarcus of Sayre had 59 points in a 119-36 rout of Millersburg Military Institute. DeMarcus hit a state-record 17 three-pointers despite playing only 2 1/2 quarters.
In Bell’s playing days, there was no three-point shot. If there had been, “no telling how many I could’ve scored.”
Bell later had a long career as a high school and college referee. He officiated in six boys’ state tournaments (including the 1977 and ’78 finals) and two girls’ state tournaments.
Bell and Burdette both said they’re pleased that Lexington’s new high school will be named Douglass, and they’re hoping its boys’ team can enjoy the kind of success they had in the 1950s.
“It’ll be good and fine to have Douglass playing basketball again,” Bell said.
Follow these topics: FieldsColumn