Professional, or semi-professional basketball, was not a new concept to people in Eastern Kentucky in the early 1930s.
As early as the late-1920s teams such as the Paintsville Semi-Pros, Paintsville Globe Trotters, Betsy Layne Red Devils, Pikeville Independents, Pikeville Parrots, Pikeville Athletic Club, Elkhorn City Ramblers, Catlettsburg Maganns, and Ashland Aces were playing basketball games.
Companies and organizations even formed teams that traveled around playing other high school and college teams. These included the Lewis Furniture Company Bull Dogs (Ashland), Morrell Supply Company (Prestonsburg), Rice’s Drug Store (Paintsville), American Rollins Mill (Armco of Ashland), the Huntington (WV) Congregationalists, the Kenova (WV) Methodists, and Ashland Presbyterians.
Some of these “professional teams” had funny names, such as the Kentucky Korn Krackers (Ashland) and the Whoo Pflung Independents (Huntington, WV). However, all these teams allowed former players to continue to play the game of basketball while they worked and helped promote the game to another generation of kids.
One of those “former players” hoping to promote the sport was J. Earl Walker, coach at Paintsville High School. He had come to Paintsville High School in the fall of 1927, becoming the boys and girls basketball coach probably due to his playing experience at Western Kentucky University. By 1930 he had also become Paintsville High School’s athletic director and had established himself as a very good coach. In February 1932, he played in the biggest professional game in the Big Sandy Valley up to that time. He joined the Pikeville Parrots, an independent semi-professional team, as they prepared for a game against the Fort Wayne (IN) Hoosiers in Pikeville.
The Hoosiers were the American Basketball League (ABL) runners-up for the 1930-31 season and were considered to be “one of the greatest professional cage combinations of all time.” On January 28, 1932 the Pike County News reported that, “Tuesday, February 11, will be a red letter day for basketball fans of [the] Big Sandy River, for Pikeville will play host to the Ft. Wayne Hoosiers, the Professional Basket Ball Champions of the world.”
It appears that the game had been scheduled to bring “big league” basketball to the fans of Eastern Kentucky and to allow those fans and players to be able to watch basketball as it was meant to be played. The Pike County News stated, “… believing the fans of the Big Sandy Valley are anxious to see basket ball, as played by champions, the game has been scheduled for Thursday night, an off-night for all other teams in this section.”
The Pikeville Parrots had won 15 games while only losing 2 during the 1930-31 season. One of their wins was an 80-16 drubbing of the Paintsville Globe Trotters team, led by Coach J. Earl Walker. Their two losses were both to the Morrell Supply Company team of Prestonsburg, who were led by its two stars – French Maggard and Adrian Collins. Entering the 1931-32 season the city of Pikeville decided to form an athletic club for the purpose of “the benefit of Pikeville’s Semi-pro basketball Club… Instead of being classed as semi-pro, the Parrots will come under a professional handling as at last putting Pikeville in big time.”
By the time they arrived in Pikeville, the Hoosiers, representing the Pinkerton Tobacco Company of Toledo (OH), had won over sixty games with only nine losses. According to the Pike County News of February 4, 1932, “They have won four out of five from Brooklyn; three out of four from Chicago; four out of seven from the Renaissance Five, colored champions of New York; five out of nine from the Cleveland Rosenblum Celtics…” The paper went on to list the Hoosiers’ roster, which was loaded with talent and included some of the best-known basketball players of the time. These players included:
Captain Russell C. “Rusty” Saunders – He was a 6’2” forward who had played for the Brooklyn Acadians of the ABL in 1926, then played in five major league baseball games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1927 before returning to professional basketball. The Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal of October 27, 1934 said that, “Saunders is to basketball what Babe Ruth and the Dean brothers are to baseball…”
Maurice “Shang” Chadwick – He was a 6’6” center who had been a star for Crawfordsville (IN) High School and an All-American at Wabash (IN) College in the mid-1920s. On January 6, 1925 he scored 12 points as his team crushed the University of Kentucky 57-10 in what the local newspaper said, “The defeat was the worst ever sustained by any southern five at the hands of a northern opponent.” After college he joined the Original Celtics of the ABL in 1926, then spent the next six seasons with the Ft. Wayne Hoosiers.
Carl Husta – He was a 5’11” forward who began his professional career in major league baseball – playing in six games for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1925. He then joined the Cleveland Rosenblum Celtics in 1926 of the ABL and spent the next four seasons playing basketball with them. In 1930 he joined the Original Celtics and played with Cleveland and Ft. Wayne in the 1931 season. He was later a member of the Kingston (NY) Colonials of the ABL in the mid-1930s. The Pike County News called him “the greatest guard now playing the game.”
Frank Shimek – He had played collegiate basketball at the University of Iowa from 1920-22 and had been a member of the Ft. Wayne Hoosiers of the ABL since 1926.
The Pikeville Parrots, led by Coach Jude “Cow” Williamson, went into the game with a record of only four wins and three losses. Among their wins were two against the Fleming (KY) Merchants, while one of their losses had occurred against Betsy Layne High School. Because of their sub-par record, and because of the fact that the local press was not giving them much of a chance against the talented Hoosiers, those in charge of the Parrots had invited some of the best local players to join their team for the game. These players had some professional playing experience having played for the semi-pro teams in the Big Sandy Valley. The players that would don the green and white uniforms for the Parrots included:
French Maggard – Originally from Knott County, he had played collegiately at Berea College where he had been named an All-State player in 1925 and had been called “one of the best players in the state.” On January 9, 1926 he scored 7 points in a 37-23 loss against the University of Kentucky. In 1928 the Berea Citizen recalled his playing days at the local college and had said that he possessed “the surest, sweetest crip shot in Kentucky in his time.” He played for the Betsy Layne Red Devils a semi-pro team from 1928 to 1935.
J. Earl Walker – Originally from Louisiana, he played for Ed Diddle at Western Kentucky where he was named to the 1927 All-State team. He had become the boys and girls basketball coach at Paintsville High School in the fall of 1927. He was described as “one of the best players in these parts” and a “tri-state man, making all-state in Louisiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky” by the Pike County News in 1928. On top of his coaching and administrative duties he was also a player/coach for the semi-pro Paintsville Globe Trotters.
Julian Harlowe – From Prestonsburg, he had played in college at Berea in the late 1920s. The Pike County News described him as “the best player ever appearing on a local court, and well known by all fans in southeastern Kentucky.” He also played for the Betsy Layne Red Devils a semi-pro team from 1928 to 1930 then he played for the Morrell Supply Company semi-pro team of Prestonsburg until 1932. The last record of him playing basketball was with the Prestonsburg Modern Drug Independents in 1934.
Robert “Bob” Harlowe – A younger brother to Julian, he also played at Berea College, but in the early 1930s. One of his teammates at Berea described him as a “rugged type player who wanted to win.” In January 1932 he was hired to be the boys basketball coach at Maytown and was also a teammate of his brother on the Morrell Supply Company semi-pro team of Prestonsburg.
Ralph Waddell – From Chuckey, Green Co., TN he played college basketball at Maryville (TN) College where he was the team captain in 1930 and his college yearbook described him as a “basketball-shooting demon.” He played for the Parrots in the 1930/31 season. He was the basketball coach for Pikeville College Academy, the college high school team, and for Pikeville College from 1931-1936.
Adrian Collins – Called a “Prestonsburg star” by the press, was a scorer who also played with the Morrell Supply Company semi-pro team of Prestonsburg in 1932. He later played with the Prestonsburg Modern Drug Independents in 1934.
Caney Potter - He was called “one of the best high school players ever developed in Pikeville” by the Pike County News.
The game, which was to be played at the Pikeville High School gymnasium, promised to be seen by a large crowd. The day of the game, the Pike County News ran the following promotion on the front page of its paper, “Tonight is the big night for Pikeville, as well as for Eastern Kentucky… The game will not be an easy one for the Hoosiers for the Pikeville Parrot squad has been strengthened by star players from all nearby Professional teams… Tonight is the first time in the history of Pikeville that a World Champion basketball team has visited this little city in the mountains.” Prior to the professional game a boy’s high school match between Pikeville and Maytown would be played. According to the Pike County News, “Those handling this game have made elaborate arrangements for accommodating the fans… Approximately 250 seats have been reserved, each of which will enable one to see every inch of the floor. In addition the gym affords room for four or five hundred standing fans and from present indications every foot of available space will be taken by the time the main attraction gets under way.”
The crowd, which was described as “one of the largest crowds it is believed to ever attend a single staging of basketball games here [in Eastern Kentucky],” packed into the gym early to witness the high school game and to hopefully locate a good place to watch the professional game. The crowd was not disappointed by the first game as the Pikeville Panthers defeated Maytown, 23-21, on a last second shot by B. Johnson. In the professional game, the Pikeville Parrots struck first, scoring the first two points of the game, but “the crowd of spectators were never in doubt as to the outcome of the contest” and the East Kentucky boys just did not have enough to overcome the Hoosier team suffering a 33-24 loss. The Pike County News said that the “excellent passing, together with the ‘know your job’ team work and the ‘hawk-eye’ shooting was the contributing factors of Ft. Wayne’s decisive victory.”
The score would have been closer, however the first five minutes of the second half saw both teams playing with the “Monkey Dribble” or two-handed dribble as it was known in the American Basketball League. The scoring during that “dribbling” exhibition did not count toward the game total. If it had, the score would have ended 33 to 30 in favor of the Hoosiers.
Julian Harlowe of the Parrots, “believed to be one of the best of this section” led all scorers with 13 points on five field goals and 3 free throws; Paintsville coach J. Earl Walker and former Berea star French Maggard both added 4. The Hoosiers had a balanced scoring attack led by their big 6’6” center, Maurice “Shang” Chadwick, who had 9. “Rusty” Saunders, Carl Husta, and Frank Shimek all added 8.
The game was officiated by Chuck Solodare a professional referee from the ABL who had been a former pro basketball player. He was later described by Charley Eckman who was an NBA coach and later a long-time NCAA and NBA ref, “Most of the officials in the 1940s were like Chuck Solodare. He had false teeth and he had to stop and take out his teeth before he blew the whistle. Because it was such a pain to mess with his teeth, he only blew the whistle about eight times a night - just enough to keep traffic moving.” Solodare did not affect theoutcome of the game as the Pike County News reported that, “There is not a doubt in the minds of the most ardent rooters of the local teams but what, taken as a whole, the Legionaires presented by far the best bunch of floormen ever to trod the hardwood court of a local gym.”
Frank Shimek and Frank Kowalczyk of the Hoosiers were even gracious enough to give an exhibition of free throw shooting to the crowd at halftime. The Parrots Bob Harlowe challenged Shimek and both made ten of twelve shots. Kowalczyk, whose record of consecutive free throws made was ninety, made fourteen consectuive shots from the charity stripe without a miss to win the contest.
After the game, the Ft. Wayne team continued south to play “the outstanding semi-pro and professional teams below the Mason and Dixon line.” For the Parrots, they had received a letter from another famous professional team from the East called the Original Celtics, led by future hall of fame players “Dutch” Dehnert and Joe Lapchick, who wanted a game against the Big Sandy squad. Unfortunately, the game never materialized and the star players who had joined the Pikeville Parrots returned to their regular teams and jobs. The Parrots, depleted by the loss of such great players and with only three of their regulars present, lost their next game to the Elkhorn City Ramblers 36-14.
J. Earl Walker coached the boys and girls basketball teams for five seasons at Paintsville with his last season in 1932. With both teams he compiled an overall record of 118-55 with four district championships and a 15th Region title with the girls team in his last season. That season the Comets defeated Wheatcroft 35-1, Gilbertsville 22-13, and Cloverport 18-13 to advance to the state tournament finals. In the state finals the Paintsville Comets lost to Woodburn, the defending state champions, 25-20. The Comets finished the season with the best record in girls history at Paintsville with 22 wins and only 2 losses.
Coach Walker left Paintsville High School, went back to school, and became an attorney. He opened a law office in Paintsville and later worked in that capacity for Ashland Oil. He died in Louisville on May 7, 1990, and was buried in Resthaven Memorial Park in Louisville.
Professional, or semi-professional basketball, was not a new concept to people in Eastern Kentucky in the early 1930s.
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