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Wayne Gaunce’s heart had sweet spot for Sweet 16

March 30, 2021 FieldsColumn

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BY MIKE FIELDS (March 30, 2021)

When Wayne Gaunce passed away three months ago, at age 87, Kentucky high school basketball lost one of its most ardent, devoted, and generous fans.

Gaunce, a Nicholas County native who moved to Glasgow when he was 30 and became a successful restaurateur and entrepreneur, attended every Boys’ Sweet 16 since 1950.

“The state tournament was a way of life for him,” said his son Patrick. “You knew that come March, he was going to Louisville or Lexington no matter what. That was a sacred time for him.”

Gaunce already had his tickets and hotel room for the 2020 Sweet 16 before it was canceled because of the pandemic. “It was the first time in 71 years he didn’t get to go,” Patrick said.

Wayne Gaunce

Wayne Gaunce’s love for high school hoops wasn’t limited to the state tournament.

He and his wife Pat had a place on Kentucky Lake, and from there he’d go watch Marshall County play, or drive to Missouri and Illinois to catch a game.

In his younger days, Gaunce also regularly went to the Louisville Invitational Tournament to get a peek at some of Kentucky’s best teams.

“He just loved watching the kids play and loved the atmosphere,” Patrick said.

Gaunce was also instrumental, through his philanthropy, in establishing and maintaining the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame.

He was a college basketball junkie, too, and became a big booster of Western Kentucky University when his friend Jim Richards was the Hilltoppers’ coach in the early 1970s. He remained a loyal WKU supporter for the rest of his life.

But the Sweet 16 occupied a special sweet spot in his heart.

Gaunce and his buddies, who included Vaughn Frey, Les Leech, Henry Dickinson, Tom Gobel and Tommy Harper, were fixtures in Freedom Hall and Rupp Arena for the Greatest Show in Hoops.

“Being there and seeing everybody was his badge of honor,” Patrick said.

Gaunce’s state tournament adventures changed over the years.

“My dad was a pool hustler until he was 19 years old. He ran pretty hard until he found his relationship with God in 1972, so his state tournament experiences prior to ’72 are a lot different than after ’72,” Patrick said with a laugh.

Gaunce’s favorite Sweet 16 was the one Glasgow, coached by Richards, won in 1968.

While the Scotties were cutting down the nets in Louisville, fans back home in Glasgow were celebrating at the Jerry’s restaurant owned by Gaunce.

“I didn’t get to see it, but I’m sure they were dancing on the tables,” Richards said. “Wayne would have wanted them to.”

Gaunce also reveled in underdog Edmonson County’s championship in 1976 – “Daddy loved the upsets,” Patrick said. — and Clay County’s glorious run in the 1980s behind Bobby Keith and Richie Farmer.

Gaunce was close with Wes Strader, too. WKU’s long-time radio play-by-play man for basketball and football, Strader was also part of the state tournament broadcast team and let Gaunce spend time with him on the air.

“Daddy didn’t know anything about radio, but his (microphone) was hot, so when he was talking to people in the crowd, Wes couldn’t get him to be quiet,” Patrick said.

Gaunce handled most of the planning for himself and his buddies for their annual state tournament pilgrimage.

“One of the funny stories he’d tell was one time he had handed out tickets to everybody and thought he had an extra book,” Patrick said. “So he went out and tried to scalp them. He didn’t realize he was trying to sell his own tickets. He thought he had left them in his room.”

Wayne Gaunce, left, with King Kelly Coleman in March 2019.

Over the years Gaunce went out of his way to get acquainted with as many coaches and players as possible.

“He tried to know everybody, that’s for sure,” Richards said. “He wasn’t just a bystander. He wanted personal contact with anybody and everybody who’d been involved in the game. Clem Haskins, Westley Unseld, King Kelly (Coleman) . . . he was around them all. He’d snuggle up to them and talk to them. He wasn’t bashful about trying to know someone personally.”

People who knew Gaunce personally counted themselves lucky.

Steve Riley was among them. When Riley was coaching at Barren County, he and his family got to be good friends with Gaunce and his family.

“Because of my basketball past, and because we went to church together, we had kind of a bond,” Riley said. “When I’d go see him at his office, our conversation would eventually turn to either high school or college basketball, usually both.”

Gaunce’s love for the Sweet 16 also rubbed off on Riley’s oldest son Matthew.

“He’s been to at least one session of every state tournament his whole life, and he’s 32 now,” Steve Riley said. “A lot of that has to do with Mr. Gaunce telling stories about his experiences.

“Matthew went to college at the University of Alabama, but he always made sure he got back to Lexington for at least one session every year. His fraternity brothers and friends couldn’t understand. They’d ask him why he’d go back for a high school state tournament and he would say, ‘You just don’t understand what it means to the state of Kentucky.’

“He got a lot of that inspiration from Mr. Gaunce.”

Richards was effusive in his praise for his good friend.

“Wayne was such a good human being. He was always so generous with his money to anybody and everybody. He was such a kind-hearted gentleman. No way could I say enough good things about Wayne Gaunce.”

Sadly, this year’s Sweet 16 will be missing one of its most loyal fans.

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