Rupp Arena's Sweet Sixteen: In Kentucky, Any Boy Can Become a King

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Rupp Arena's Sweet Sixteen: In Kentucky, Any Boy Can Become a King

It may take a lifetime of work to become a good basketball player, but in Kentucky it only takes a four-day tournament to make you a legend.

The official name of the tournament is "The National City Bank Kentucky High School Athletic Association Boys State Basketball Tournament," but everybody simply calls it the Sweet Sixteen.

Kentucky is one of only three states in the nation where the basketball-playing minnows are paired with the whales. There's no division between big and small schools, or public and private; everybody gets invited to the postseason, but only 16 teams advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

There's no class system in Kentucky high school basketball and, ironically, the small schools have never asked for one.

Every team begins the season with one goal: "MAKE IT TO RUPP." If your team can just advance to the Sweet Sixteen, then who knows? Anything can happen.

Maybe it's the fact that most smaller communities have as many churches as people, and that kids know first hand about the shepherd boy who slew Goliath that causes this mentality. Or maybe it's due to stories of past Sweet Sixteens passed down from father to son, from grandfather to grandson.

For four days, over 20,000 fans show up to watch high school basketball games, and the championship game has all the pomp and circumstance of the NCAA Final Four or the NBA Finals.

In case you didn't notice, high school basketball is a pretty big deal in Kentucky.

In 1976, tiny Earlington didn't need a special class to knock off a school with five times their enrollment. In 1995, rural Breckenridge County did just fine for themselves in the finals against Louisville powerhouse Pleasure Ridge Park.

These are the teams that kids may or may not know throughout the state, but one thing they do know is that if they just win their regional and advance to Rupp Arena, anything can happen.

Hall of Famers Cliff Hagen, Wes Unseld, and Dave Cowens played in the Sweet Sixteen, as well as stars like Darrell Griffith, Jack Givens, Allan Houston, and Chris Lofton.

However, most boys in Kentucky do not dream of the NBA. Their dream is the opportunity to play on the home court of their beloved Kentucky Wildcats.

This was the case for my friend's son, who, as a reserve at Madison Central High school, will always count playing at Rupp Arena during the 2006 Sweet Sixteen as one of his life's highlights.

For others, the opportunity takes them from average high school student to legend.

The odds are great that nobody outside of Kentucky could tell you who Troy McKinley, Jermaine Brown, Pat Critchlow, Will Partin, and Robert Madison are, but high school basketball fans in Kentucky remember them. They went from unknowns to legends in a matter of days.

Paul Andrews' legendary 50-foot prayer not only earned his Laurel County team a state championship, but also a scholarship to play at Kentucky.

Richie Farmer took his well-earned stardom from legendary duels with Louisville Ballard superstar Allan Houston and parlayed that into a career as an elected official in state government.

Louisville's Preston Knowles went from a lightly-recruited two-star prospect to catching the eye of Rick Pitino with his play in the 2007 tournament.

If you can just make it to Rupp Arena, anything can happen.

The legends are of course legendary, but there is one player so revered, so mythical that he's simply known as "King."

In the Midwest they have Paul Bunyan; in Kentucky we have King Kelly Coleman.

Old timers all have a story about Coleman's high school exploits, and almost all of them are different. However, the common elements usually involve King Kelly drinking massive amounts of adult beverages and scoring over 50 points in a game.

Coleman might have been just another myth, part truth and part fiction, had he not made it to the Sweet Sixteen.

During his four-game run in the 1956 Sweet Sixteen, Coleman, averaged 46 points per game and poured in 68 points during the third-place game.

For King Kelly, the notoriety was a curse that he has only recently come to terms with and embraced after nearly 45 years in the basketball wilderness.

Not every boy who advances to Rupp Arena to play in the Sweet Sixteen will become a legend like Kelly Coleman, get the opportunity that Preston Knowles did, or even carry his team to a state title and fall into relative basketball obscurity like Pat Critchlow.

Most are just happy to get to play on the hallowed Rupp Arena floor.

If you can just make it to Rupp Arena, anything can happen.

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