GOAT debate: Champion 1961 Tomcats and 1928 Tomcats take it to court

ASHLAND, Ky. – The debate has raged for years in Ashland about which Tomcat basketball champion was the greatest of all time.

Was it the undefeated state and national champion 1928 Tomcats or those dominating 1961 Tomcats? Even the many who saw both teams play couldn’t decide. It was a coin flip. Or an argument. They both deserved the title of being the GOAT (greatest of all time).

During the 1961 season, even before those Tomcats were crowned state champions, the newspaper put together a group to rank the teams. They said No.1 belonged to the 1928 wonder boys who went 37-0. Winning the national tournament, which stopped in 1930, may have given them the edge. The best way to decide was if they could play each other but that wasn’t possible.

Until now.

The 1961 Tomcats, one of the greatest in state history.

It’s time to decide it on the court with a two-game simulation series between these Tomcat championship teams. Here’s some good news: There will be no travel involved since both of them played in the same gym. Warning to the fire marshal: There’s going to be more people in the gym than you’re going to like or is probably legal.

“They’ve talked about what would happen if we played since the day we came back from the state tournament in 1961,” said 61 Tomcat coach Bob Wright. “It’s funny because it’s not the players. They have so much respect for each other. These rabid Tomcat fans always want something to argue over. So I say, let’s play it and see what happens.”

The first game will be played with the rules from 1928 with jump balls after every made basket and no over-and-back penalty – players are free to roam anywhere on the court. There is no 10-second count to get it across the halfcourt line since there is no halfcourt line.

“This is going to be strange,” admitted Tomcat star Larry Conley. “But we’re ready. We’ll play it their way or any way. I just want to settle this thing once and for all.”

You’d have thought the championship of the world was being staged based on attendance and interest. They came two hours before tipoff and lined up in the parking lot outside. It was a sight to behold. There were a couple of fights as people pushed and shoved to keep their place in line. Attendance was going to be cut off at 1,500, but there was nearly that many already in line with cars coming down Lexington Avenue. Somehow scalpers already had a handful of tickets and they were going for $2 – a hefty fee in 1928.

Fans were allowed in about an hour before tipoff, racing to seats on their respective sides of the floor. The end zone seats were being reserved for dignitaries. The governor himself was supposed to make an appearance. That would be Flem D. Sampson, a Republican, who was the 42nd governor of the Commonwealth. That’s how big this game had become.

As the teams began warming up, they also started sizing up each other. That was easier for the 28 Tomcats as they looked at some tall timber on the other end of the floor.

The 61 Tomcats were big, much bigger than anybody they had faced. But don’t take that wrong. These 28 Tomcats weren’t afraid of anything and that included the mighty 61 Tomcats.

Within 15 minutes of the doors opening, there wasn’t a seat remaining in the gym. There was a dustup in one corner with a lot of yelling and finger-pointing, but ordered was quickly restored. They found out later it had something to do with the local bookie, who was trying to set a line. Impossible on this one. Just pick ’em.

No game was bigger. It was the Super Bowl of Tomcat basketball and the fanfare that came with it was magnificent aside from Gov. Sampson’s 10-minute speech before tipoff. Nobody seemed interested in anything that wasn’t basketball. A quartet from the 28 Glee Club choir sang the national anthem.

Both teams finished warming up and went to the downstairs locker room for last-minute instructions. It was kind of weird for the 61 Tomcats who, for this game were the visitors on the scoreboard and dressed in the visitor dressing room. There wasn’t much difference. The showers didn’t work well in either one of them.

Jimmy Anderson, the 1928 Tomcat coach, had been asked hundreds of times about what would have happened if these teams ever met. He was always complimentary of both teams, a true gentleman.

“I cheered for those boys, too,” he said. “A remarkable team for their day. I’ve never seen passing like that. The only team that comes even close was that 2020 team we played last week.”

The 1928-2020 two-game series, matching the only undefeated Tomcat teams in history, ended in a draw with each winning on the other’s floor.

And now this matchup was carrying some of the same intensity. Ellis Johnson, one of the 28 stars, wished his son, Ken, a member of the 61 team, well after warmups. Ken Johnson was a sophomore on the 61 team but didn’t see much action.

“We’ve talked a lot about this game and what would happen,” Ellis Johnson said of conversations with his son. “I guess we’re about to find out.”

The game was loud and it was full. The State Police had escorted Gov. Sampson in while the teams were in the downstairs dressing rooms. When they came back onto the floor it was so loud that it made your hair hurt.

“I guess when the governor of Kentucky comes to watch you play basketball, it’s a pretty big deal,” Wright said.

The game tipped off but the noise level never dropped. Not once. It was a constant roar.

The teams went back and forth with Harold Sergent’s driving layup making it an 8-4 advantage for the biggest lead of the first half. The 28 Tomcats led 20-19 at intermission and everybody in the gym was buzzing. Whatever size and strength edge the 61 Tomcats thought they had, seemed to have disappeared. What they found facing them was a raw-boned team that was just as strong and savvy on how to play their style of basketball.

“We could never get any momentum going because of the jump ball thing,” Sergent said. “Daggone it, we’d score and they have to jump it up. And I don’t know how many times we got our hand on the tip, but they ended up with the ball. I tell you what, too, Gene Strother and Ellis can flat-out play the game.”

The game settled into a defensive war in the third quarter. Only 11 points were scored by the two teams combined as both of them took advantage of a passing exhibition. It was hard to follow where the ball was going. There were no-look, behind-the-back and other passes that had the fans standing and cheering and wanting more.

But when the quarter ended, the 28 Tomcats had built on their lead to 26-24 when Strother, who led all scorers with 13, hit a layup off a rifle pass from Darrell Darby.

“I never saw it coming,” said 61 Tomcat Steve Cram. “It was in his hands and in the basket just like that,” he said, snapping his fingers.

Dale Sexton, who came off the 61 bench, put his team ahead 31-30 for the first time since the end of the first quarter. He added two more big baskets in the fourth quarter, too.

“Dale gave us a big boost there,” Wright said. “That was six big points. In a game like this, with the pace like it was, any basket was big. Three of them was a rally.”

The teams exchanged leads two more times and with the 61 Tomcat leading 35-34, Johnson got open for a two-handed set shot from the left wing that swished to make it 36-35 with only 22 seconds remaining. Gene Smith successfully tipped the ball to Conley on the jump and Wright called a timeout.

Strategy was set with Cram inbounding, but the play never materialized. Phipps came out of nowhere for a steal and began to run out the time. Sergent was in full pursuit of Phipps but his dribble hit a dead spot on the floor and he had to reach down for it. Sergent caught up and was able to back-tip the ball to Conley, who gathered it in and sped down the floor with time running out. It was a perfect 3-on-1 fastbreak – just what the doctor ordered for a team that made a living that way. The 28 Tomcats never knew what hit them. A dizzying display of passing, where the ball never touched the floor, ended with Bob Hilton banking in the game-winning shot off the fan-shaped backboard as the horn sounded. It was over and it was a stunning 37-36 victory for the 61 Tomcats.

“I don’t think we settled anything here tonight except to say these are two outstanding basketball teams with great players,” Anderson said. “We look forward to the rematch.”

In the other dressing room, Wright lit up a stogie he’d been given before the game.

“Sweet victory!” he said. “Tremendous play by Sarge to get that backtip. That last fastbreak was a thing of beauty. It was like the Mona Lisa. They ran it like it was taught.”

What about the rematch game with the more uptempo style?

“Get your tickets early,” Wright said. “It’s going to be a barnburner.”

Real life

Ashland’s 1961 team is regarded as one of the greatest champions in Sweet 16 history. They finished 36-1 and every game in the state tournament was won by double figures. All five starters earned Division I college scholarships.

Ashland’s 1928 team was state and national champion with a 37-0 record under coach Jimmy Anderson. They are one of only two unbeaten teams in Tomcat history, the other coming this year.

1961 ASHLAND (37) – Hilton 1-5 0-0 2, Cram 1-4 0-0 2, Conley 6-8 0-0 12, Sergent 2-6 6-7 10, Smith 1-3 0-0 2, Sexton 3-4 0-1 6, Daniel 1-4 1-2 3, Fairchild 0-0 0-0 0. FG: 15-34 FT: 7-10. Rebounds: 25 (Hilton 3, Cram 3, Conley 6, Sergent 2, Smith 7, Sexton 2, Daniel 1, Fairchild 1). Assists: 8 (Hilton 3, Cram 3, Conley 2). PF: 15. Turnovers: 7.

1928 ASHLAND (36) – Johnson 2-5 4-8 8, Phipps 1-4 1-1 3, Darby 2-6 0-0 4, Fullerton 0-5 0-0 0, Strother 4-6 5-5 13, Riffe 1-3 0-0 2, Barney 1-1 0-0 2, Hemlepp 1-1 0-0 2, Allen 1-1 0-0 2. FG: 14-30. FT: 10-14. Rebounds: 20 (Johnson 5, Phipps 1, Darby 7, Fullerton 4, Strother 3). Assists: 8 (Johnson 4, Darby 3). PF: 10. Turnovers: 6.

1961 ASHLAND        8         11         5         13       –         37
1928 ASHLAND        7         13         6         10       –        36

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