Earl “Brother” Adkins, one of only two players in Ashland Tomcat history to earn All-American basketball recognition, died Monday.
And basketball wasn’t his only sport. He also played football, where he was an All-State honorable mention running back, and he was elite in track. More than all that, he was an elite educator and a better person, a gentleman’s gentleman who stay connected to Ashland through regular conversations with high school teammates Jerry Henderson, Ralph Clere and Buffalo Hopkins.
Just how good of an athlete was the man everybody called “Brother?” Well, he was offered scholarships by both Adolph Rupp and Paul “Bear” Bryant. Need any more evidence?
He chose basketball because he loved the sport and he loved the Wildcats, listening to games when he was a boy and idolizing Ralph Beard. Wearing the blue-and-white was a lifelong dream come true although that dream was sometimes a source of great frustration, too.
Adkins’ career at Kentucky was star-crossed to say the least. Brother married his high school sweetheart, Beverly Newton, out of high school and that didn’t sit well with Rupp, who held it against him during his time with the Cats. Rupp assistant Harry Lancaster had told Adkins that he would be fine if he were to be married. But he was wrong. Rupp wanted his players to put basketball above everything else in their life at the time and Adkins couldn’t do it. Earl and Beverly lived on a married scholarship of $118 a month, which was supposed to take care of housing and food. Even in the mid-1950s, that was a stretch. He survived much of the time on one meal a day, he said in the Cats Pause interview.
“I couldn’t put basketball first,” he said in a 1986 interview in the Cats Pause. “And I understood how Coach Rupp felt about that. But I’d still do it in the same way. I could play college basketball and still be married.”
As a sophomore, the Cats were preparing to play Marquette in the NCAA tournament and Rupp told Brother he was going to start. But during the scrimmage he made two bad passes and Rupp yanked him out. Not only did he not start Adkins, he played only two minutes, shattering his confidence. He sat out the next season before returning for a redshirt junior season and senior season.
Eventually, though, Adkins was too good to not get in the game. He did become the first person off the bench for “The Fiddlin’ Five” and Rupp called him the best sixth man in the nation after the 1958 championship season. Adkins’ shooting touch from long range never left and he had some huge games coming off the bench including 26 points against Vanderbilt and had 14 points in the second half of a win over Georgia in Atlanta. He scored 199 points in three years on the UK varsity and averaged 5.3 points per game as a senior.
The 1958 NCAA tournament had only 24 teams and UK played twice at Memorial Coliseum and twice in the Final Four at Freedom Hall. Kentucky defeated Seattle-led Elgin Baylor, 84-72, in the championship.
Adkins’ path to UK was colored in Tomcat maroon-and-white, starring on a celebrated team of eventual Division I players in 1953 on one of arguably Ashland’s greatest teams. World famous marketing guru Jim Host was a manager on that team and still says they are the best Ashland ever produced – even better than the state champion 1961 Tomcats.
In 1953, Brother was selected as captain of the Courier Journal’s All-State Basketball team, voted All-American and given the title of Kentucky’s “Mr. Basketball.” Brother was MVP of the 1953 North-South All-Star Game and received the “Chuck Taylor” award as the top basketball player in the nation.
He credited much of his development to fiery Tomcat basketball coach George Conley, who drove his players in search of perfection. Bob Sang was one of his most mentioned mentors for Adkins in football.
But basketball was his game. He loved it, dreamed of playing for UK and one day making it to the NBA. He had a shooter’s eye with the patented two-handed set shot from his early days at Oakview Elementary and Putnam Junior High, to burning the nets at Ashland High School’s gymnasium on Lexington Avenue and the Ashland Armory where college basketball coaches from across the country got out their road maps to find this sharpshooter in Ashland, Kentucky.
His two-handed set shot swished through the nets on a regular basis as he averaged 20.9 points per game on the 1953 Tomcats that finished 28-4 and suffered a heartbreaking 46-44 loss to Paducah Tilghman in the opening round of the Sweet Sixteen. Ashland entered the tournament a clear favorite and ranked No. 1 in the state.
Adkins, who scored 1,386 points in his Tomcat career, was reminded at a reunion in the 1980s that he told a classmate before the season that he was going to be the No. 1 player in the nation and then he lived up to his own hype.
“Brother” Adkins joined Ashland greats on the Elks Wall of Fame in 1996 on Sports Day. He also is a member of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame.
After graduating and earning his master’s at Western Kentucky University, Brother spent 34 years in Kentucky’s education system coaching basketball at South Hopkins (also named the Tomcats), Union County and Harrodsburg high schools, principal at Cairo and Morganfield elementary schools and retiring from the Union County Board of Education, where he served as assistant superintendent.
By the way, the only other Tomcat basketball player to earn All-American honors was Larry Conley, who led Ashland to the 1961 championship and the 1962 state runner-up trophies. Conley also went to UK and became part of the famed “Rupp’s Runts.”
If you’re looking for a Tomcat basketball Mt. Rushmore, Adkins and Conley would be a good place to start.