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RIP, Gene Rhodes, who won state titles as player and coach

March 10, 2018 FieldsColumn


St. Xavier celebrated its 1958 state title. Gene Rhodes is sixth from left, wearing a hat. (Courier-Journal photo)

Gene Rhodes, who coached Louisville St. Xavier to the Sweet 16 title 60 years ago, died early Friday morning. He was 90. This is the story of his 1958 champs.

BY BILLY REED (March 10, 2018)

They were a team without a home because the old gym at St. Xavier High School, then located at 118 West Broadway, had a running track above the court, making shots from the corner impossible. So Gene Rhodes, the driven young coach with the perpetual 5 o’clock shadow, scheduled “home” games at Male, Central, Gottschalk Junior, and other schools that had normal gyms.

Rhodes wasn’t about to have his team practice at home, either, but since the other schools in Louisville were practicing in their home gyms, he decreed that the Tigers would practice at night, in a gym that wasn’t being used, sometimes as late as 7 to 9 p.m. The only starter who had a car was forward Jim McDonald, so the others had to bum rides, or walk in the cold, or borrow a car to make practice.

One of the places Rhodes used for his evening practices was Columbia Gym in downtown Louisville, a couple of blocks off Broadway. Sometimes the players would hear the fighters coming in to work out in their own gym downstairs. One of them was louder than the others, but they wouldn’t find out until later that his name was Cassius M. Clay Jr.

And so went the winter of 1957-’58 for the Tigers. They weren’t particularly big or athletic, so Rhodes used a ball-control offense and 2-3 zone defense as his equalizers. The thing that set them apart was that they were tough kids, from inner-city, blue-collar Catholic neighborhoods built around old churches and corner bars. One of their dads ran a bar, another was a cop. And so on.

A 6-foot-2 forward, the spindly McDonald was the team’s best college prospect, good enough for Adolph Rupp, coach of a dynasty at the University of Kentucky, to invite him to be a walk-on. But guard Eddie Schnurr, master of the two-hand set shot, got a scholarship to Notre Dame.

Both center Ben Monhollen, who had moved in from the country for his senior year, and ball-handling ace Larry Duddy went to Xavier, but came back home to play for Bellarmine, the relatively new private Catholic college on Newburg Road. The only starter who didn’t play college ball was Freddie Spatz, who helped the 6-3 Monhollen work the boards.

In Rhodes, they had the perfect coach. Although raised a Catholic, Rhodes went to high school at Male, where he teamed with Ralph Beard to lead the Bulldogs to the 1945 state championship. After one more year of high school, he entered the service then went to Western Kentucky State Teachers College to play for Uncle Ed Diddle, the tongued-tied genius known for waving a red towel during games.

After graduating from college in 1952, he worked in sales for a year before becoming the head basketball coach at the new Trinity High School. But when the St. X job opened in 1954, he jumped at the opportunity to coach at the more established school.

The 1957-’58 team, his fourth at St. Xavier, was hardly favored to win the State Basketball Tournament. In fact, the Tigers weren’t even favored to win their district. That was the second year that the all-black high schools had been allowed to play in the previously all-white tournament, and everybody figured that Central High, where that loud-mouth boxer name Clay was a sophomore, would easily make the 16-team field that would gather in UK’s Memorial Coliseum in Lexington, and perhaps even win the championship.

Indeed, on the way to a 23-4 regular-season record, the Tigers lost to the Yellow Jackets, and doggone if they didn’t draw each other in the first round of the 25th District at Male High. This time St. X won, 61-59, but it took a midcourt shot by Duddy to keep the Tigers alive for their two-overtime victory.

The Tigers then whipped Flaget, 85-59, and Manual, 74-62, to move on to the 7th Region in brand-new Freedom Hall. As it turned out, Manual was the last team to score more than 49 points against the Tiger defense.

As play began in Memorial Coliseum, Clark County was favored to give Coach Letcher Norton his second state title. The Cardinals were taller than many college teams. Their starting lineup was 6-6 Gary Lorenz, 6-7 Henry Corn, 6-4 Paul Smith, 6-2 Charlie Jett, and 6-5 Joe Ferris.

The Tigers opened with a 62-46 victory over Beaver Dam, then shocked all-black Lexington Dunbar, 44-25 in the quarterfinals. After that game, Rhodes lectured the team about not getting involved in any of the social activities swirling around the Lafayette Hotel, the team’s downtown headquarters. He specifically warned the players to stay away from girls.

Not more than a half-hour later, however, Rhodes was walking down one of the hotel’s hallways, trailed by student manager Mike Pollio (later the head coach at Kentucky Wesleyan, Virginia Commonwealth and Eastern Kentucky). He noticed that the door to one of the team rooms was open, so he poked in his head and found four members of the sophomore class chatting up some girls from another tournament school.

Unsurprisingly to anybody who knew Rhodes, he blew his stack. He immediately ordered the offending players to pack up and go home, even though it would leave him with a very short bench for the Tigers’ semifinal game against Monticello on Saturday morning. (In those days, the semis were played in the morning and early afternoon, the championship game that night).

The St. X starters stepped up and put the clamps on Monticello, earning a 58-48 win and a spot in the championship game. The other semifinal, pitting Clark County against Daviess County, was a war that went into overtime before Daviess County pulled out a 59-52 win behind 6-4 Bobby Rascoe (later a star at Western Kentucky).

“Rascoe was one of those kids who always was around the ball,” Rhodes said. “He had strong hands and wrists, and he got a lot of points on tip-ins. He could take it to the basket and finish.”

Many in the sold-out crowd brought transistor radios so they could listen to the UK Wildcats play Seattle for the 1958 NCAA championship. That game was played at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds in Freedom Hall, which could seat more than 18,000 for basketball.

Interestingly, both Rhodes and UK Coach Adolph Rupp had a superstar standing between them and a championship. With Rupp, it was Seattle’s Elgin Baylor, a smooth 6-5 player who practically invented the “small forward” position when he got to the NBA. Rupp’s strategy was to have forward John Crigler drive on Baylor, getting him into foul trouble, and it worked, the Wildcats winning 84-72 to give Rupp his fourth and final NCAA championship.

But Rhodes didn’t tweak anything in his 2-3 zone to stop Rascoe, except to make sure his players knew where Rascoe was at all times so they could keep him off the boards. “We pretty much bottled him up,”  Rhodes said.

Rascoe led Daviess County with 21, but none of his teammates scored in double figures. For St. Xavier, Monhollen  scored 23 and Schnurr 14. Once the Tigers were in control, Rhodes put the ball in Duddy’s hands and had him dribble until an open shot developed.The final score was St. Xavier 60, Daviess County 49.

A couple of years ago, Schnurr said there was only one reason the Tigers won that title 60 years ago. “Gene Rhodes,” he said. “I’ll bet there were at least 10 teams that had more talent than we did. But we had the best coach.”

On Sunday morning, the buses bearing the two champions passed each other near Frankfort on a stretch of still-under-construction Interstate-64.

“The UK bus had a police escort and a caravan of cars behind it,” remembers Pollio. “All we had was our little green bus. But there were some fans and boosters waiting for us at the school, and I think Ed Hasenaur (then the owner of a popular restaurant) had a party for us.”

And so did the team without a home find one in the most exclusive neighborhood of all, the one where Kentucky state high school basketball champions live forever.


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