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March's Book
When Cuba Conquered Kentucky
by Marianne Walker

Bill:
Next on bookclub@ket, the year is 1952 and a high school basketball team from tiny Cuba, Kentucky is destined for success. Marianne Walker's When Cuba Conquered Kentucky tells the story of a group of boys sharing and reaching their coach's dream of winning the state tournament. Walker's true core account about shared dreams, hard work, and small town pride is more than just a sports story. It is the American dream come true long ago in rural Kentucky. Bookclub@ket starts now.

Rochelle:
You don't find this in a sports book, no offense to Pat Fortney or Rick Boes from the Courier Journal. But she's describing one of the mothers of one of these boys from this little town in Kentucky that went to the state championship which is just unheard of except maybe two or three times in history.

This is Alta Ruth Crittenden the mother of Howie Crittenden one of the boys.
"Although she was older than the mothers of Howie and Helen's friends, Alta Ruth looked even older than her age. She was tall and gaunt with limp brownish gray hair and soft brown eyes. Her complexion was dark and leathery from years of working outdoors. She had a way of tucking her head down toward her right shoulder as if she wanted only the left side of her face to show. A wide red birth mark that started in her hairline went down one side of her forehead and covered most of her right eye and her right cheek. Self conscious about the mark, she tried to conceal it by wearing her long straight hair parted on the left side and pulled down slightly over the right side of her face. She plaited her hair into one long braid, tied the end of the braid with a piece of twine and laid it over her right shoulder."

I could see this woman doing this and hiding part of her -- that's just about real people. ...Not necessarily about sports scores.

Wilma:
And yet it is a sports story of course, and right at the beginning something got me excited in the very first paragraph. The two players walked into the Phoenix Hotel. Well, I was there. That got me excited because when I was in high school Ashland.

Rochelle:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
We went to uh the tournament my sophomore, junior, and senior years and won the entire tournament my junior year. When they talk about the Phoenix Hotel I went -- I remember Phoenix Hotel.

(everyone laughs)

Wilma:
All the basketball boys and the coaches that we knew and it was exciting. So right from the beginning, I felt it was a basketball story, but much more than that because she does bring in the human element, but I have a passage too, and it's a basketball passage.
This is at the tournament. "Cuba took some short leads for the first four minutes, but then Hindman moved out ahead 29-28. When Garner Martin made another basket from the circle with 35 seconds to go, Jimmy Webb put Cuba ahead 34-33 but the quarter ended in a 37-37 tie and it was nip and tuck after that. In the fourth quarter Jimmy Webb scored a basket and Joe Buddy a free throw..." and so on so it goes. Especially at the end she gets into the excitement of the various games.

Rochelle:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
And I found that exciting too. So I think it's a basketball story. I mean we definitely know it's a basketball story, but there is so much more to it.

Bill:
Tom, as a sports writer and as someone who actually attended the game, tell us about what an experience that must have been.

Tom:
Well I agree with them that it was more than the sports story, but from my aspect of being there as a freshman at UK that time. same age as those kids. The way that the community and the first year I wasn't there but I read about it, but the way the fans, in fact, everybody but whoever they were playing, was for them. And, of course, they did the Harlem Globetrotter bit and when they came out on the floor for the first time the organist played "Sweet Georgia Brown."

The crowd was just unbelievable, and I think it probably helped Cuba. It probably hurt them the first couple of games because it put so much pressure on them, but it helped them after that. One of my favorite things in there was the editorial written by Larry Shropshire who was my boss at one time at the Lexington Leader.

(everyone laughs)

Tom:
He really wrote a scathing column for the local people. The first year they lost they beat Henry Clay, and then the second year they beat U High. The fans, even the Lexington, people were rooting for Cuba. He said they shouldn't do things like that.

(everyone laughs)

Tom:
And it might that the umpire, the referees maybe thought that too, but I don't think so. I think that they were that good a team. Everyone of those kids went on to play college basketball. Western wanted them all, but they went to Murray. The one thing I would like to know is why Rupp never looked at them. I don't know why Kentucky didn't; maybe it was the way they played, but it's such a great book. They came from the poorest of the poor as the author said. There is nothing worse than that, and the way they overcame that -- unbelievable.

(everyone laughs)

Bill:
Dava you are from a small town and whether it's a small town or a big city, there is no denying that basketball is king in Kentucky or has been for so many years. What do you like about the book in the way that it describes what it's like to be in a small town where sports, and certainly basketball, is king.

Dava:
Well, I completely understand how this phenomenon of basketball and the Cuba team winning the state championship was such an event. I'm from Inez and I think the Inez high team -- it might have been 1954 -- won the state championship. I'm pretty sure it was in the 50s.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
My aunt would would kill me. It was her husband that was on the team.

(everyone laughs)

Dava:
But anyway, I remember just a few years ago I was talking to one of my friends in high school because in the newspaper there were still stories about it and people still talking about it. My friend looked at me, and he is like, "Oh we're never going to get over that."

And I guess it's hard for us to understand what a big deal it was because times have definitely changed even though I live in a small town. I'm sure a lot of the community has been lost and you know it's a different time from this book. Because you read about kids driving on the roads in a car that's just pretty much just a rim. Kids are hanging out the windows pointing the flashlights at the roads so you can find the way driving without brakes and just having a good time.

Rochelle:
I really regret things that changed.

Bill:
We don't have to remind anyone that there certainly was not television or there weren't many televisions. Radio was relied upon, but there were some phenomenal things going on as far as entertainment in small towns and, again, it was community supported.

Tom:
The whole county -- Graves County, I mean.

Everyone:
Uh huh.

Tom:
It was hard for me to believe that part of it because covering the games, I didn't know that. My kids went to Woodford County, and, boy, they didn't care much for people from Jessamine County and Franklin County, but down there everybody in the area was for Cuba -- the whole thing. The Paducah Sun Democrat wrote great editorials to support the team. Larry Shropshire said sarcastically that there must be 13,000 people here from the western part of the state. Somebody said there was one person left to run the mechanical milk things for Pet Milk Company.

(everyone laughs)

Tom:
That wasn't true but ...

Rochelle:
Go and milk all the cows.

Tom:
... but there were a lot of people who came, and the book said it was an eight hour drive in those days. I thought the other neat thing was that the coach bought a new car that Kaiser which I think got voted the worst car ever was built.

(everyone laughs)

Tom:
They didn't feel the school buses could make the trip to Lexington. Phoenix Hotel I mea that was great.

Wilma:
Yes

Tom:
But also did you notice that Doodle Floyd was smoking a cigar?

Rochelle:
Yes.

Wilma:
And cigarettes and so on.

Rochelle:
And it was okay.

Tom:
It was okay in those times.

Bill:
Tom again your reflections about being in Memorial Coliseum and I think you said that was only the second year for the state high school championship.

Tom:
Right, that was the second year that it was built even.

Bill:
Do you remember your own reflections on this overwhelming support for Cuba over Louisville Manual.

Tom:
Unbelievable, more probably then because I believe at that time Louisville Manual was the biggest school in the state. I think it was. And they had Cookie Grameyer who went on to play at UK and a couple other guys and by that time, of course, Cuba has this following. I told my wife, when I re-read the book, you almost feel sorry for these Manual kids.

There is one little group of red -- they all had their red on -- and then everybody else was cheering for Cuba, including some of the sports writers. Back then it wasn't quite the same as it was today. But I mean to allow the lady who is playing the organ to play "Sweet Georgia Brown." If I had been the Louisville coach, I would have been ticked off. I found out later that was Adrian Doran's wife, and he was from Cuba, which I didn't know.

Rochelle:
Oh my.

Tom:
But they didn't give it to Cuba. In almost every game they came from far behind to win it. It's just unbelievable. By allowing the kids to do certain things to let them free-lance, he was ahead of his time. And maybe I answered my own question; that's probably why Rupp didn't look at them. They were so different than what his style, even though he started the fast break. Everybody did their thing and as long as they did it right. He didn't care if they shot, as long as long as they were playing as a team. They did crazy things. I don't know how the author got all this stuff like when they would practice doing the moves of the Globetrotters.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Tom:
The coach brought the movie in for them to see. When they would play other teams, before the game they would go out there and do all this stuff so you can imagine the the fans did get behind them. But they had to win, if they didn't win, then you know then they would really be hurting, but they won.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Wilma:
I thought it was important to talk about the different rules in basketball now from that time. Because I know when I was in school you were allowed to freeze the ball very much, of course, the way Howie did. And that made for a very slow game. But you could if you got the ball and you were somewhat ahead, freeze it for as long as you wanted. Of course, now you can't do that at all. But I think it was important for us to know some of the rules of the game and some of the ways the games has changed in order for us to understand how Howie could hold the ball and freeze it and keep dribbling and nobody could get it away from him.

Tom:
Six minutes, can you imagine.

Wilma:
Yes.

Dava:
That was pretty cool.

Tom:
Even in Dean Smith's four corner.

(everybody laughs)

Tom:
And it was boring but this wasn't boring. I can remember some of the games. One game went into overtime, and it wasn't a bit boring because the other team was trying like mad to get the ball.

Rochelle:
To get the ball.

Tom:
Away from them and they couldn't do it.

Rochelle:
That's great defense.

Tom:
Oh just unbelievable. I wish I could have seen it.

Bill:
Rochelle, did you have another passage?

Rochelle:
Well, one of the things that struck me was that there were several moments where you got a sense of how they became a true team. They started as eighth graders when the coach, who was then teaching, looked out the window and saw these little kids doing all of this stuff and some of that they did with little balls and there was no air in them. So they stuffed them with rags and they would pass them back and forth. These kids would walk or run miles playing on any hard space that they could get and how hard life was.

I wanted to read something to show from whence they came and I stick with the Crittenden family. She wrote about all seven of the boys who played the most -- the five starters and two others. Something about the Crittenden family stuck with me. And it talks about where they lived. "The flimsy three room house the Crittenden's lived in when the twins were infants was made out of logs that had not been weather boarded over. It was drafty and cold. In the winter snow would blow in through the cracks, in the summer rain and insects. The holes in the walls and floors got to be a serious problem because they were rat holes, something the Crittenden's didn't know about until after they moved in. At that time all ten children were living with the parents in this three room shanty.

The Crittenden's eventually moved into a larger house on the Effie Morris farm because they were all tenant farmers. It was a patched up old dog trot, a log house typical to those built in the Purchase in the 1850s. It had two large square rooms opening onto a central hall which was called a dog trot. This hall was used to wash and hang clothes and store firewood, tools, crocks, and buckets. The small kitchen in the rear had not been originally attached to the house, but someone at sometime had attached it by tacking it with weather boarding to the house. Each of the two rooms had a fireplace, one being used for cooking and all day long in the summertime the twins would play in the fields, gullies, and ditches around the house. There were no other children to play with them, and they rarely wore shoes because they all had hand me downs from the kids above. So you either got shoes that you wore for church and school and that was it."

And when you come from that and you're playing solely on heart. You know I really I I kind of skipped over some of the sports stuff to get back to the story about these people.

Bill:
She did an excellent job of painting that picture and on the heels of reading The Dollmaker last month and reading about some of these same conditions and how the Nevel's family went to Detroit which is even mentioned several times

Everyone:
In here again.

Bill:
They had to go to this industrial place.

Wilma:
And work and come back.

Bill:
Sure.

Rochelle:
I do want to say one thing because there is this tendency for people to look at old poor Kentucky -- barefoot and it's either Appalachia or it's the Purchase. I never felt sorry for the people that she wrote about. They were so content with the lives they had they made do and they loved each other and they had fun. They would never think that oh my life is horrible. I didn't hear one character throughout the book talk about anything being pitiful. Alta Ruth did cry one time in the kitchen when things got kind of bad, but these children were content with the things they had. Running seven miles up the highway and back down or...

Bill:
Uh huh.

Rochelle:
... being able to get a car whether it had brakes or not. And it was just such a wonderful way to do that without raising any type of pity. They had good lives; they had family.

Tom:
If you really develop a character like you expect a novelist, I mean you really felt like you knew these kids. Howie's mother never saw him play.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Tom:
The parents pretty much thought that they were lazy. They should be back milking the cows or whatever else they do. It's almost like a novel. If you wrote a novel like that, they would say this couldn't happen. I think I mentioned to you earlier in Indiana when they did the book and the movie "Hoosiers." This is a much better story.

Rochelle:
Oh I think so, too.

Tom:
Miland was a small town, but they didn't have to overcome what these kids had to overcome.

Bill:
Did Hoosiers come from a novel?

Tom:
I believe it did. I don't know that the name was Hoosier. It was a true story and it was not long after this because I was in school. Miland won the state tournament in Indiana two or three years after this happened. It was too bad that this one didn't surface a little quicker because it's a great story.

Bill:
Well let's go back to that earlier story. and Rochelle I can remember reading the same passage.

Rochelle:
Uh huh.

Bill:
But thinking at the same time and maybe I read it on a cold day and we all know how cold it gets in Kentucky.

Rochelle:
Oh yes.

Bill:
And without any insulation at all in those houses so I think you got a real picture of life in the 40s and 50s and the conditions and apparently as Wilma and I discussed too, the Purchase area, like Appalachia, was an area that really had not gotten either state or federal funds to the degree that they did in the later part of the 50s and 60s. So they were really an isolated area. I think she did do her research and found out what the living conditions were.

Rochelle:
Marianne was also great with the context because she talked about how democratic that area of the Purchase was so nobody in Frankfort, nobody in Washington had to be bothered because they didn't need to get those votes; they had them already. Talk about the worst sense of being taken for granted. They didn't build roads, I mean like main roads and bridges over the rivers until the 40s. It was really like a place that didn't exist -- almost like Texas used to be only smaller, much smaller.

Tom:
But didn't it shock you though. I mean Alvin Barkley was there and he was vice-president. You would have thought some of that would have spilled in, but it was like she said it was nothing out there and they had some fairly well known people. Didn't Irvin Cobb come from that area?

Bill:
Uh huh.

Tom:
And yet like you say according to her it was worse than eastern Kentucky where I used to have to drive through.

Wilma:
But part of that, and I think she tied this in very well, also had to do with someone's success that these young boys had. First of all, there weren't a great many distractions. There weren't many things for them to do. She also pointed out -- and I this was an important point -- that in small schools at that time there would have been enough money to have bought all the football equipment that was needed to play football. So basketball was cheaper for the schools to provide and so basketball was an important sport. I think she does point out that a great many of the things that the young men did -- working on the farm and walking long distances and so on because of their specific conditions also made them stronger when it came to the last minutes of a game.

Rochelle:
Absolutely.

Wilma:
When it came to the fourth quarter as we all know it's important to have that stamina, and I think she brings out that -- that these young men had the stamina to stay in there.

Bill:
Do you think that Marianne or the book itself can be criticized though for glorifying all of this in the name of basketball. The mischievous mistakes that they made or the studying that they did not do. Is that played up a little bit too much.

Rochelle:
I just think if that is what she had done, it might have. But that's not what she did.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Rochelle:
I truly believe that this is not a story about a basketball team. This is a story about five boys who made good on a promise when they were twelve years old to do something great with their lives.

Wilma:
Oh, I think it is romanticized though. I mean how can it not be. You have a story that lends itself to over telling. And that's okay. I think though because that is the point of the story, but I do think it's a little over romanticized.

Rochelle:
Oh really?

Wilma:
Oh yes Rochelle.

Rochelle:
No.

Wilma:
(laughs) No you don't think it's over romanticized?

Rochelle:
No. As a matter of fact I thought she could have gone a little farther.

Wilma:
In what way?

Rochelle:
I think she missed some opportunities to be a little sappy or to sort of connect some things. It's almost like she laid it out like a news story. I don't think she went any farther than what actually happened. It would have been different if -- you know how people to wax a little. Columnists will throw in a little bit of their own perspective or connect the irony. She didn't do that. She just presented the stuff so you could see the ironies.

Like the year after the Crittenden family survived for a whole winter just on peanuts, frying them, parching them, baking them. He was stronger than he had ever been. You talked about how much their endurance was built by having to survive some of the things they did. She didn't comment on those things. I would have been tempted to say, "God can you believe that."

Rochelle:
You know.

Wilma:
Uh huh.

Bill:
Dava, in small towns today or in large cities or large school systems either, you can't get away with that.

Tom:
No, you can't spend the entire afternoon in basketball practice.

(everybody laughs)

Dava:
And not go to class. But uh.

Rochelle:
That was true. What was it -- noon until three?

Dava:
Three o'clock.

Rochelle:
How many players would love that schedule?

Tom:
And the teachers knew that -- I forget the boys name. He did their work for them. The one that mobilized the class.

Wilma:
Doodle, not Doodle.

Bill:
He was the manager.

Tom:
The manager of the ball team, and he assigned tutors that would actually do the work.

Wilma:
Donald Poynter.

Rochelle:
Donald Poynter

Dava:
Yeah, and that would never happen today. Of course.

(everybody laughs)

Tom:
Wasn't there a teacher that tried to do something, and she almost got fired. In fact, she left.

Bill:
Oh she did. She resigned at the end of the year.

Tom:
I think you went to Ashland, and I think you probably were there when Larry Conley was there.

Wilma:
He was in my class -- a good friend of mine.

Tom:
And he was undefeated. I covered those years for the paper.

Wilma:
He was a wonderful ball player.

Tom:
People don't realize how big athletics were -- well maybe even today. In those years it was huge, and they wonder why kids today when they get to be pros why they think they don't have rules because when they were back playing for Cuba, it was probably worse there then than it is today. They all got college scholarships; the managers got college scholarships.

So was it bad? I don't know. As far as romanticizing, I didn't think it really needed to be because everything happened for the best. I think if they would have won the state tournament in their junior year it wouldn't have been as good a story.

(everybody laughs)

Tom:
I mean they had to come back and win it again.

Dava:
The spirit of the people in this book: this overwhelms me. That's what I think the book does the best job at is getting through to this. I am amazed by Doodle Floyd who had a brother James who was obviously the favorite son by the way the story was told, and then he went through the tragedy of discovering that his brother, his best friend, passed away and his parents you got a feeling that he was just mentally neglected. They were so overcome by this loss, and they just thought basketball was foolishness They thought Doodle wasn't going to amount to anything. But he still had the whole clownish spirit and entertaining everybody, and I really am amazed by that.

Rochelle:
But basketball did that for him. If he hadn't had his teammates and his coach while going through that. He thought that his brother's death was his fault.

Dava:
Uh huh.

Rochelle:
Because he might have had that epileptic seizure in the outhouse. He fell and hit his head. All while he was lying in the front yard, and he thinks he might have been able to do something. No one will ever know whether there was anything he could have done, but he was with him all the time except that moment. So he blamed himself and for somebody to not be there for you to lean on when you are going through that kind of guilt. If he hadn't had his team, I don' know that he would have turned out as well.

Tom:
What do you all think about the section where they all went off to the pool room and they caught them and they came back and the coach paddled them.

Bill:
Yes.

Tom:
I forget if that was their junior year or senior year. Could you imagine that?

Dava:
One of them was married.

(everybody laughs)

Wilma:
Turned on the loud speaker.

Everyone:
That's right.

Wilma:
So the school could hear it.

Bill:
Because I was going to say that would be against the law in some areas of the country.

Rochelle:
I tell you that is what's missing -- good old discipline.

(everybody laughs)

Tom:
They used to do that in grade school when I was a kid but not in high school. I can not ever imagine a high school player getting paddled, but that shows you whether you let the academics slide or whatever.

Bill:
Coach story.

Tom:
He was tough.

Rochelle:
I don't think he let them slide. There was that passage where he talked about how they wouldn't be able to get college scholarships if they didn't do the work. He found some work for them to do, like letting then take the Home Ec class to make sure they got their credits. But I think he pushed them just enough so he knew they would be okay.

Bill:
I did find in a couple places where he allowed them when they weren't playing well. He didn't call a time out or he allowed them go on and lose the game and maybe that was a lesson that he was trying to teach them too.

Rochelle:
That is a good lesson. I think that is the best way to do it.

Bill:
They couldn't continue to operate like that. Could this story happen again? Not in fiction but in real life? Is this something that just could occur in the 40s and 50s? It's happened since then, but have we lost that era?

Dava:
We have more to entertain us now. And there is not the sense of mobilization of a community. I'm sad to say that. When I was in high school if my team would have won the championship, I would have been happy, but it wouldn't have been the end all be all.

Bill:
Uh huh.

Dava:
That this was.

Rochelle:
I think it could happen. But the odds are really great. I guess it was like three or four years ago that little college team that was in the NCAA on a fluke and actually went past the first round. I can't even remember -- see that's the sad...

Bill:
Gonzaga.

Rochelle:
Yes, you know I rooted for them. I didn't even know where it was. I went where is it? Give me a map so I had some sense, but I was just so proud that this little school with these guys who were playing their hearts out got to go to the NCAA tournament. When they won a game I mean it was just the most amazing thing. You like those little Cinderella stories and you hope that that might happen. That she covers that too, Marianne does by saying that because of all the school consolidations there are very little tiny schools in tiny towns where there is that type of feel about it -- that parochialism and family because everybody is sort of split up. But there is still a few left, and I would love to see one of them do something like this.

Bill:
Tom and Wilma what about it? Do you think this can happen again in Kentucky?

Wilma:
You mean a school this small simply because we hardly have high schools this small any more.

Bill:
There are still even small county schools.

Wilma:
There are small county schools.

Narrator:
Join us at ket.org for a live on-line chat with Marianne Walker. The author of When Cuba Conquered Kentucky.

Tune in next time on bookclub@ket when we'll discuss Kinfolks by Gurney Norman.

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Last Updated:  Thursday, 08-Jan-2009 13:20:31 EST