Now is as good a time as any to clear up some misconceptions concerning Frankfort, Ky., a modest city (pop. 23,500) only a few furlongs away from the heart of the famed bluegrass horse region. Frankfort, not Churchill Downs, is the state capital. Governor Louie B. Nunn, not Colonel Finger-Lickin' Sanders, lives in Frankfort and runs the state government. Ol' Dan'l Boone is buried in the city cemetery, not in Missouri, as a certain radical element from Show Me country recently claimed. And the only team in the whole basketball-crazy state to win a national championship last season was not one of the biggies—the University of Kentucky, Louisville or Western Kentucky—but Frankfort's own Kentucky State Thorobreds, one of the more remarkable teams in the undefined, unwieldy world of small-college basketball.
Last March, while most of the headlines were going to such major powers as UCLA and Marquette, Kentucky State traveled to Kansas City, Mo. and won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament. This may be a small-college tournament, but winning it is no small accomplishment. Each year the NAIA brings together 32 tough, talented teams for five full days of uninhibited basketball. To give some idea of the quality of competition, Willis Reed first gained national attention in the NAIA, and so did Dick Barnett and other pro stars. Only the strongest survive, and last March the strongest, clearly, was Kentucky State. The closest call the Thorobreds had was in the championship game, when they trailed Central Washington at halftime before coming back to win 79-71.
Only one player, a starting forward, has been lost from the team, so now Lucias Mitchell, the Thorobreds' bright young coach, is wildly optimistic about the upcoming season. Says Mitchell, matter-of-factly, "If you have five boys who can go, well, you can go. We've got a ball club that can go anywhere in the country and play anybody."
There are at least two solid reasons for Mitchell to feel the way he does. One is Travis (Two Point) Grant, a 6'8" junior forward who has a shooting eye that would impress Mr. Boone. In his first game as a freshman, Grant came off the bench and hit 10 straight shots to spark the Thorobreds to victory over Union (Ky.) College. He has not stopped shooting—or hitting—since. Last year he averaged 35.4 points, connecting on 69% of his field-goal attempts, most of them jump shots from outside. He scored 75 points in one game against Franklin (Ohio) University. At home games, when Grant hits a cold streak (that means two straight misses), the crowd and the P.A. announcer, who calls Grant "the Machine," as in "That's 40 for the Machine," wonder what is happening. Says Mitchell, "He's a great natural shooter. I don't think anyone can out-shoot Travis."
November 30, 1970
Of even greater interest to pro scouts, however, is State's center, Elmore Smith, another junior. Elmore stands 7 feet and weighs 230 pounds. He averages 21.6 points and 22.7 rebounds, and makes 60% of his shots. But he is especially impressive on defense, where he stands around the opponents' basket and dares anyone to shoot over him. Invited along with Grant and 44 other young stars to attend last summer's pre-Olympic camp at the Air Force Academy, Smith was the best big man in sight, better, many thought, than the highly publicized Tom McMillen. In one scrimmage Smith blocked 15 shots. To the Kentucky State P.A. announcer he is simply "E," as in "E blocks another one," and to Mitchell he is the best big man in the college game this season.
"I've seen Artis Gilmore," says Mitchell. "I even tried to recruit him when I was coaching at Alabama State. But in my opinion Smith is better because he's stronger and quicker. He's quick. Real quick. Extremely quick."
The campus where all these good things have been taking place sits atop a hill on the eastern side of Frankfort. Less than a decade ago it consisted of a few drab brick buildings, but today it is dotted with new structures that have sharp lines and bright colors—the result of a $14 million building program that began shortly after Dr. Carl Hill became president in 1962. The second-smallest state-supported college in Kentucky, with an enrollment of only 1,700, Kentucky State also is the state's only predominantly black college (blacks outnumber whites four to one). Afros, beards and other symbols of black consciousness are popular among the students, but the campus has been relatively tranquil since 1968, when a building was burned following the Martin Luther King assassination. The unusual harmony is due mainly to President Hill's enlightened administration (he spends much of his time in private conferences with students and supports policies that allow students to share extensively in school government), but some credit is given to the basketball team.
"The team has given the students something to be proud of, something else to think about," Hill says. "We thought we would have trouble after Kent State, but we didn't. We thought surely there would be trouble after Jackson State, but there wasn't. The reason, I think, is that our students were still enjoying the aftermath of the basketball championship."
Some think that a winning team also has helped draw the college closer to the predominantly white community of Frankfort. The commuting white students, for instance, formerly took little or no interest in campus affairs. But last winter many of them stayed around after classes to attend the games. And some of the white townspeople stopped holding the college at arm's length. Indeed, they took such an interest in the team's success that the black students became cynical. Says a cheerleader, "We never saw the mayor until we won the NAIA, but then it was we this and we that."
Whether or not the basketball team actually has narrowed the gap between blacks and whites, there is an undeniable sense of purpose—or call it soul—at every Kentucky State home game. The gym's 3,000 seats always are filled early, and soon everybody is clapping, singing, yelling and swaying back and forth under the direction of State's hyperactive cheerleaders. There is a special cheer for hated rivals (such as Central State of Ohio and Tennessee A&I): "Go back, go back, go back to the woods/ Your coach is a farmer and your team is no good." There also are frenetic, highly choreographed cheers on behalf of the Thorobreds. The favorite is a song done to the tune of the Supremes' Someday Well Be Together Again ("Tonight we want victory, say it, say it, say it...."). After a win—State didn't lose at home last season—a fraternity drags out a huge bell and rings it, and then everyone adjourns to the Grill, where the cheerleaders dance on the tabletops and the good times roll.
All this has happened since Lucias Mitchell arrived three years ago from Alabama State. Tall and thin, with large black horn-rims that give him an owlish appearance and a large wardrobe of wide ties, bright shirts and double-breasted blazers, Mitchell is a pleasant, articulate man with a fine understanding of human nature and ways for winning basketball games. Only 35, he finds it as easy to rap with students as to talk academics with a fellow professor; like many small-college coaches, Mitchell also teaches classes, in his case, health.
When he first arrived in Frankfort, Mitchell found the basketball program in sorry shape. The team's record the previous year had been a dismal 2-19 and it did not take him long to find out why. "They didn't want to practice, they didn't want to work on fundamentals, they didn't want to run, they didn't want to study," he says. "They wanted to tell the coach what to do, and I wasn't about to stand for that." The son of a former Army master sergeant, Mitchell believes in discipline, as his players soon found out. He moved them all into one dormitory. "We feel this was necessary for closeness," says Mitchell, who prefers the editorial we. He imposed an 11 p.m. curfew and set up a study hall. He insisted that hair and sideburns be trimmed.
On the court, Mitchell stressed fundamentals—even in warmups, State players rarely showboat—and he brought order to what had been a free-lance offense. He even made the Thorobreds play defense. By season's end nine players had rebelled and left the team, but Kentucky State's record had jumped to 10-15. Mitchell's most important achievement, however, was obtaining the services of Grant and Smith.
The two stars have much in common. Both came from small schools and rural Southern backgrounds, Grant from Clayton, Ala., in George Wallace's home county, and Smith from Macon, Ga., and both are quiet young men whose idea of a big time is playing each other in a game of pool. But while Smith did not begin playing basketball until his senior year in high school, and never started a game until college, Grant's shooting ability drew the attention of some 50 colleges—including Villanova, Davidson and North Carolina. Both decided to attend Kentucky State because of Mitchell. When he left Alabama to come to Kentucky, they followed—and with them the Thorobreds had the makings of a champion.
Grant gets his shot away with a quick flip of his wrist, and so far no defense has been able to stop him from around the circle. "He has radar," says Mitchell. "He hits even with a guy's hand right in his face. If Travis can get it off, he will put it in."
As for Smith, he is so strong and agile that his coach likes to call him "the next Bill Russell." Last spring Russell saw Smith when he was at State for a speaking engagement and proclaimed him "ready for the NBA."
But Grant and Smith are not the only Thorobreds. In 5'9½" senior Jerome Brister and 6' sophomore Jerry Stafford the team has two fine guards. And the smoothest all-round player on the team may well be a 6'8" senior forward, William (Bird) Graham, who was the No. 6 man last season. Graham is strong, a good jumper and shooter, and quick.
"We don't run the ball to Travis," says Mitchell. "Oh, sure, we've got a couple of plays for him, but we're not a one-man show. We go to Travis or Elmore only if we're in a tight spot. The reason Travis scores a lot is not because he's a gunner, but because he's such an accurate shooter. You can't put two men on Travis or Elmore, because we've got somebody else who can get loose and kill you."
Last season's success has paid off in several ways. The basketball budget has grown from $10,000 to $18,000, and this year's team will have new warmup uniforms, play on a newly refinished floor and have its games broadcast on local radio. But success creates its own problems, and one of the main ones is that now not many teams are anxious to play the Thorobreds.
Even so, Kentucky State scheduled 25 games and may well better last season's 23-3 record, which would leave Mitchell in an interesting predicament—where to go for postseason action. State belongs to both the NAIA and the NCAA College Division, and presumably would be invited to play in those tournaments, but Mitchell, like Oral Roberts, would prefer to play against some of the big ones in the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Only four years ago Southern Illinois won the NIT while still a small-college team and, while the Salukis had Walt Frazier and Dick Garrett, they did not have a Two Point Grant or an Elmore Smith. Mitchell relishes thoughts of the NIT. "Man, that would be nice," he says. "That would be interesting. You know, we've got a classic ball club here. We are for real."