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RIP, LexCath basketball coach Tommy Starns

August 14, 2020 FieldsColumn

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BY MIKE FIELDS (Aug. 14, 2020)

Tommy Starns, who made Lexington Catholic basketball competitive with the city’s powerhouse public schools more than 50 years ago, died last night. He was 86. Mark Starns said his dad had suffered a heart attack. 

Tommy Starns never got enough credit for being an outstanding coach. Competing in the 11th Region against coaching icons such as Al Prewitt at Henry Clay, Bobby Barlow at Bryan Station, Jock Sutherland at Lafayette, and Nolan Barger at Tates Creek, Starns managed to lead the Knights to the state tournament three times — in 1966, 1977 and 1985. He had 371 career victories.

Starns was a high school teammate of Al Prewitt’s at Henry Clay, and they played for the Blue Devils in the 1952 Sweet Sixteen.

Starns, an Air Force veteran, coached at Lexington Junior for four years before moving to Lexington Catholic in 1964.

Tommy Starns coached Lexington Catholic to the Sweet Sixteen in 1966, 1977, and 1985. (Herald-Leader photo)

I wrote the following story about Starns for the Lexington Herald-Leader in March 1985, after the Knights won the 11th Region and were getting ready to play in the Sweet Sixteen. Starns had already announced he was retiring after the state tournament.

BY MIKE FIELDS 

He sees the final game coming, the final walk onto the court, the final pre-game huddle, the final basket, the final victory, or the final defeat. It will all be over sometime this week for Lexington Catholic Coach Tommy Starns.

No wonder his emotions are a jumbled mess.

One minute he’s cackling like a kid as he sends his Knights through practice in preparation for the Sweet Sixteen.

The next minute he’s sitting in his office, fighting back tears as he talks about how much he’ll miss coaching when he calls it quits after this week’s Boys’ State Basketball Tournament.

Saying good-bye to basketball is tough for the 51-year-old coach. That’s only natural after 20 years and 371 victories at Lexington Catholic. But Starns isn’t just another coach who’s had enough and wants out.

This is a man who came close to death five years ago and who credits his recovery to his family and to basketball.

He doesn’t want to quit now, but he has no choice. The year-long illness in 1979-80 has taken its toll, and Starns simply isn’t physically up to teaching biology all day, putting in long hours in the gym, then going home at night and working on scouting reports.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he said, “and I just can’t do it anymore.”

That point could be argued. Starns has done a superb job this year, keeping a free-spirited, talented team on course to the Sweet Sixteen. This season has been one of Lexington Catholic’s finest, with a 27-5 record and the 11th Region championship. Starns has applied himself to all the details, doing his best to give his Knights an edge against the basketball-rich public schools.

But along the way, Starns has been reminded of his physical condition. He caught the flu in January and couldn’t shake it. For the first time in his career, he missed a game because he was sick.

“I think that scared him,” said Starns’ wife Phyllis. “He was afraid he wouldn’t be able to finish the year. He just got so tired and worn down by all the work, I think he realized he made the right decision to get out at the end of the season.

“But when you look back on what he went through a few years ago, it’s amazing to think he was able to come back and do all this before he did decide to quit.”

Starns’ brush with death began in September 1979 when he went into the hospital to have a polyp removed from his colon.

“It wasn’t any big deal,” he said. “The polyp might never have caused a problem, but it might have developed into colon cancer. So it came out.”

Starns went home the next day and figured he’d be fit in time for the basketball season. But two days later he was back in the hospital. His colon had been perforated and he had gas gangrene. He was unconscious and in critical condition.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “I was in and out of consciousness so much. But I think I realized I was in trouble and that death was a possibility.”

Starns was transferred to Duke University’s hospital, where doctors operated on his abdominal wall.

“They didn’t know if he’d make it through that surgery or not,” his wife said. “I had to drive to Durham (N.C.) with my sister-in-law, and she wanted to know if I wanted to stop along the way to call ahead and see how he was. I said no because I didn’t want to know if he didn’t make it.”

Starns did make it, but he was at Duke for two more months fighting for his life.

“I don’t remember much about it at all,” he said, “except that the whole time there seemed like something out of that old TV show, ‘Dark Shadows’, where everything was dark and depressing.”

Starns was finally moved back to a Lexington hospital in mid-November, right before Lexington Catholic’s season-opening game. But he was still in serious condition and wasn’t close to being able to go home, much less attend a basketball game.

The Knights had named Tommy Huston interim coach, and Starns still had months of recovery ahead.

Once his recovery looked good, Starns still had to battle depression. His youngest son, Mark, was a senior at Lexington Catholic. It had been his dream to play for his father. But it wasn’t meant to be.

“My doctor finally agreed to let me out for one day to see Mark’s last game, but then the game got snowed out,” Starns recalled. “That kind of thing didn’t help my depression.”

It wasn’t until the summer of 1980 that Starns’ digestive tracks were reconnected and he was able to eat food again, for the first time in a year.

His first meal?

“I headed for Ponderosa (Steak House),” Starns remembered with a laugh.

It wasn’t until two years later, though, that he was ready to coach again. But until then the thought of returning to the court kept his recovery progressing.

“I always wanted to get back in it,” he said. “It was so depressing to go to a game and watch the kids and realize how much I missed coaching.”

Once he returned, Starns was rejuvenated.

“It was just what I needed,” he said.

Starns wasn’t just talking about basketball.

In his years at Lexington Catholic, he coached the girls’ cross-country team to three state championships, the girls’ track team to a state title (and 13 consecutive region crowns), and the boys’ track team to a state-runner-up (and seven region titles).

In basketball, Starns has led the Knights to the state tournament in 1966, ’77 and ’85.

The man is an institution at Lexington Catholic, where he will remain as a teacher and athletic director after he’s through with coaching.

“I’ve had chances to go to other schools,” he said. “I even agreed to take the job at Bryan Station once. I think it was in 1967. But the kids at Catholic got so upset that they talked me out of it. They had me out on my front lawn until 3 o’clock in the morning trying to convince me to stay.

“Yes, Catholic has been something special to me and my family.”

Oh, yes, Starns’ family.

When Lexington Catholic takes on Mason County tonight in Rupp Arena, the coach won’t be the only Starns working for the Knights. His son Mark will be at his side on the bench as a volunteer assistant. His son Rick will be the team’s scorekeeper. His daughter Susan, who helps keep the clock at Lexington Catholic home games, will be in the stands along with her sister Diana.

And, of course, Phyllis, Starns’ wife of 32 years, will be there to lend her vocal support, too.

“When I was sick and in the hospital for that long of a time, I finally realized that for so many years I had dedicated most of my time to other people’s children,” Starns said, “and that I had let my own children grow up right in front of me without watching them like I should.

“Since then I’ve tried to make up for that. I’ve tried to cram their lives into mine, and I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it.”

And the family has shared fully in Starns’ final, most successful season.

When Lexington Catholic came from behind to beat Tates Creek for the region title, the tears flowed freely as the coach, his wife, and their sons and daughters celebrated more than just a basketball victory.

This comeback involved a man and his family.

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