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Reggie Warford’s Hall of Fame credentials go beyond basketball

February 27, 2019 FieldsColumn

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Reggie Warford, shown coaching Muhlenberg County during the Mustangs’ run to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010. (Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer photo)

BY MIKE FIELDS

Remember Reggie Warford?

He was a basketball star at Drakesboro High in the early 1970s, a skinny, leaping left-hander who became the first recruit Joe B. Hall signed after Hall succeeded Adolph Rupp as Kentucky’s head coach. Warford helped the Cats win the National Invitational Tournament in 1976, and was the first African-American basketball player to graduate from UK.

“I guess no one wants to be forgotten,” Warford said in a phone interview from his home in Pittsburgh.

Warford has battled major health issues for the past 20 years, culminating with a heart transplant in 2014, and a kidney transplant in 2017. He has developed a pulmonary condition that restricts his breathing. The muscles around his diaphragm have atrophied. He’s on oxygen at night. He’s 64, wheelchair-bound, and courageously facing his mortality.

“I’m in my final stages here,” Warford said. “They’ve done everything they can do, and there’s nothing else to be done. I won’t get any better.”

Warford hopes to return to his home state at least one more time, to be inducted into the Dawahares/KHSAA Hall of Fame on April 27 in Lexington.

“I love Kentucky so much,” he said. “This would be a really nice thing. I am ecstatically happy and really humbled by it. God willing, and I’m still drawing a breath, I will be there.”

Warford’s basketball story is pretty remarkable, considering he found his way from a tiny high school in Muhlenberg County to the big stage at UK, and ultimately, Madison Square Garden.

His big break came during his junior year when Drakesboro won 33 games and made it to the 3rd Region finals before losing to an Owensboro team that included Jerry Thruston and Kenny Higgs.

Howard Garfinkel, at the time one of the most influential basketball scouts in the country, happened to catch part of that 1971 regional tournament and was impressed by Warford’s game.

“He thought I was one of the quickest and best shooting guards he had seen,” Warford said. “I wound up on national scouting reports as one of the top sleepers in the Midwest. People started comparing me to Bird Averitt (of Hopkinsville).”

After averaging 20 points as a junior, Warford averaged 27 as a senior and went from being recruited by smaller colleges — he originally committed to Austin Peay where Leonard Hamilton was an assistant — to being wooed by the likes of UK, Indiana and Notre Dame.

He still has some of the handwritten letters he received from Bobby Knight and Digger Phelps, among others.

Reggie Warford averaged 27 points in his senior season at Drakesboro.

“I wasn’t a sophisticated athlete. I was a country kid from a town of 800 people,” he said. “I didn’t know it was a big deal.”

Rupp sent Donald “Quack” Butler, a UK recruiter from Owensboro, to size up Warford.

“When Quack came in the gym, we thought he was Rupp. We didn’t know any better,” Warford recalled with a laugh. “We put on a show for him. During warmups, my teammates would throw the ball off the backboard, and I’d cup it and dunk it. After the game, Quack’s question to me was, ‘Could you play with 15 white boys?’ I said, ‘Well, can they play with me?”

Dale Todd, Warford’s talented backcourt sidekick, remembers Joe Hall also coming to take a look at Warford.

“He was sitting on the stage in our small gym, right there among all our supporters who were hollering and yelling the whole time,” Todd said.  “Reggie had about 45 points. He put on a show.”

Drakesboro had hopes of making it back to the regional tournament in 1972, but it lost to Central City in the district semifinals.

“The most disappointing loss of my life,” Warford said. “I remember Leonard Hamilton was there, sitting right behind our bench. At the end of the game, he came down, patted me on the back and said, ‘Don’t worry about it. You had a great career. Bigger and better things are going to happen to you.”

Hamilton was right.

When Rupp was forced to retire in March 1972, Hall took over as coach. A month later he was the featured speaker at Drakesboro’s post-season banquet, and Warford signed with the Cats.

Warford had to bide his time at UK behind Jimmy Dan Conner, Mike Flynn and Ronnie Lyons. He got a chance to play more as a senior, but mostly as a backup until he cracked the starting lineup late in the season.

Then, under the bright lights in Madison Square Garden, Warford had 14 points—twice his average — to help UK rally past UNC-Charlotte 71-67 in the NIT championship game.

That had to be the highlight of his college career, right?

“The highlight for me came after I understood what my significance was at the University of Kentucky,” Warford said. “I remember the first time there were five black players on the court for Kentucky. It was my junior year. Jack (Givens), James (Lee), Merion Haskins and Larry Johnson were already out there. I was the last one to get in the game. I remember standing there at the scorer’s table, realizing it was a big deal, a milestone.”

Reggie Warford was the first African-American basketball player to graduate from UK.

Muhlenberg County athletic director Jerry Hancock appreciated Warford’s cultural significance in nominating him for the KHSAA Hall of Fame.

“Reggie being a great player and coach from Muhlenberg County was only part of it,” Hancock said. “My gosh, he was a pioneer at UK. On top of that, he’s a great person. I’ve seen him give a lot of himself to help kids, giving back to the sport that helped him.”

Todd, a former coach and superintendent in Muhlenberg County, said “Reggie never met anyone that wasn’t his friend. He was just so personable.

“And he was a great teammate. I remember his spirit and desire to win.”

Warford, the son of a Pentecostal preacher, inherited an appreciation for the important things in life. For him, faith, family and fairness have always won out over basketball.

Warford remembers a special moment early in the 2009-10 season, after he had returned home from Pittsburgh to help take care of his ailing father, and to coach newly consolidated Muhlenberg County. The team, which included his sons Grant and Tiger, was in Graves County for a game against Brighton, TN. 

Rev. Roland H. Warford sat in his wheelchair courtside as his son and his grandsons helped Muhlenberg County to victory over Brighton. (A early clue that Muhlenberg County would reach the Sweet Sixteen a few months later.)

“We brought my dad into the locker room after the game, and I made my father’s son speech,” Reggie recalled. “I told my players, ‘You guys don’t understand what this means to me the way you played. My dad is closer to his sunset than his sunrise, and for him to see his family together like this is really, really special.’

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the locker room. I had my coaches telling me they needed to step outside and call their dads.”

Warford, now closer to his sunset than his sunrise, cherishes how his father, mother Valencia, his brothers Ronnie, Billy and Derrick, his wife Marisa, and his children have given him a full life.

And how basketball played a major role, too; how the game has rewarded him with this Hall of Fame recognition.

“When (KHSAA commissioner) Julian Tackett called to let me know I was in, I cried uncontrollably for two or three minutes at least,” Warford said. “Of all the honors this kid from Drakesboro could experience, this means more than anybody will ever know.”

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