In the following excerpt—the prologue from Outside Shot: Big Dreams, Hard Times, and One County’s Quest for Basketball Greatness—author Keith O’Brien introduces us to Billy Hicks, coach of the Scott County High School basketball team and a legend in Kentucky, as he and his players take the floor on the eve of what would turn out to be their momentous 2009-2010 season.
The old-timers were closing in now, reaching for the coach’s elbow, clutching for the cotton of his shirtsleeve, hands moving down his forearm, grasping, as he tried to slip unnoticed through the crowded gymnasium.
Billy Hicks, reeking of the chili and barbecue that he had been cooking all week, didn’t want the attention. The idea of having to talk about basketball with strangers seemed to make his frayed khakis cinch just a bit tighter around his waist and creep up his hips. But they had him now; Hicks knew it. As much as he may have wished to hole up in his windowless, cinder-block office near the basketball court and disappear amid the clutter of his desk, Hicks could not avoid the Scott County fans, thousands of them, surging through the gym over the course of the night.
“Where’s Coach?” they kept asking. “Where’s Coach at?”
Outside, a cold November darkness had fallen on the bluegrass of central Kentucky. Downtown, on Main Street, the antique stores, banks, and county offices had all been closed for hours. If you wanted a drink, you could get one at Galvin’s, downtown’s only bar. But tonight, most people were here in the gym, waiting for their first look at the Scott County High School basketball team, their beloved Cardinals, in the team’s annual preseason intrasquad scrimmage. Never mind that the game didn’t count or that the season wouldn’t officially begin for three more weeks. Like Thanksgiving or Christmas, this night, Meet the Cards, was a notable event in the county, a holiday, really, circled on calendars for months in advance. The boys had been talking about it since August, itching to put on a show. One of them would play tonight with three broken bones in his face. “It hurts,” said Zach Bryant, a backup point guard. “But I’d rather be out there playing.” The scrimmage, many of them agreed, was more important than some of the actual games they would play in the months ahead. Because to suit up tonight meant that you were somebody, a county boy, a round ball star dressed in Cardinal red.
“Anybody grow since last year?” one fan asked Hicks now as the people cornered him near his office.
“How ’bout Ge’Lawn?”
“How’s Dakotah doing?”
The boys had been practicing their dunks for days, hoping to impress the fans with rim-rattling tricks during warm-ups. “You gonna throw one down for me tonight or what?” students asked the ballplayers that day at school. And the players promised, yes—dunks would be thrown down, shout-outs would be given. “I’m gonna throw one down,” one player told an inquiring student, “and then point at you.” That made the student smile.
And now the time was growing closer, the people were gathering. The varsity scrimmage wouldn’t start for another ninety minutes, but already the parking lot outside was full and the concession stand was bustling as people lined up to buy the chili and barbecue that Hicks had cooked to raise money for the school. The food was going fast while the questions kept coming.
“How’s the bench, Coach? You got a lot of depth this year?”
“Any interest in retiring, Coach?”
“Sounds like you’re still enjoying it, Coach.”
“More so than I ever have,” came Hicks’s reply.
His answer was usually that he had ten years left in him, at least eight, no fewer than seven. He was only fifty-seven years old; what else would he do? But the truth was more complicated than that. These days, Hicks was always grousing about how the game was changing. The boys were different and the county was, too. Just over a decade earlier when Billy Hicks brought home Scott County’s first state title, the coach had stood in this very gym and nearly wept before the crowd. Overcome by the moment, Hicks, standing at a podium beneath one of the basketball hoops, covered his large rectangular head with one of his thick hands and fought the tears that were coming.
The county adored him then—and with good reason. People here had always longed to win the Kentucky state basketball tournament, a contest unlike almost any other in the country. Here, there are no divisions—no 6A, 5A, and so on. In Lexington’s Rupp Arena, home of the University of Kentucky Wildcats, where the tournament takes place, big schools face small schools and country boys from coal-mining hamlets take on inner-city kids from Louisville. It isn’t about pitting same against same, or making sure kids take home trophies. Kentucky doesn’t care so much about fairness. What people want here is excitement, to see who’s best, plain and simple. And what they like about the format is its purity, its mathematical simplicity. Sixteen teams, playing for one title, over four days in March.
The crowds are known to exceed 20,000 people. And just making it to Rupp, just playing before these crowds, is considered a great achievement. In 1983, the first time Scott County ever made the Sweet 16, the team spent the week visiting every school in the county. Pep rallies became a daily event. And on the day of the county’s first game at Rupp, the county courthouse shut down at noon and the schools at 10:30 in the morning. It was, according to one student, “the most exciting thing around here since electricity.” And so, fifteen years later, when Hicks not only led the county back to Rupp, but actually took home the title, shocking just about everyone, people in Scott County did everything but declare a public holiday to mark the moment. “This is not a pep rally,” said Gregory Figgs, the high school principal at the time, surveying a sea of jubilant students at one celebration that March. “This,” he explained, “is an educational experience.”
In the months that followed, Billy Hicks received enough fan mail to fill a large plastic bin. Old friends and total strangers, fellow coaches and former players, politicians and preachers, children and the elderly, county executives, fans from rival teams, the mentally ill, and even referees—they all wrote Billy Hicks to praise him or just thank him. “God bless you and all the boys,” said one fan. “I will try to pray for you regularly,” said another. “It really feels like we all won,” wrote a local pastor at the time. For a rare moment, it seemed, people living in the rolling hills north of Lexington actually felt proud to call the county home. One letter put it this way: “You put Scott County on the map.” And another told Hicks that, essentially, he had changed everything. “The people of Scott County now smile a little bigger, stand a little taller, and look for people they can tell where they are from,” the fan wrote. “Here’s to the one that will last forever!”
But now, just over a decade later, even as fans sought out Hicks at Meet the Cards to shake his hand and wish him well, some people were doubting him. In the hallways at the high school and the aisles of the local Walmart that fall, there were whispers: The old coach didn’t have it anymore . . . The county would lose this year, just like it had last year . . . These boys, this team—something just felt wrong. People could feel it—perhaps Hicks most of all. Like a man standing in the surf and watching the sand around his feet being washed out to sea, Billy Hicks could almost feel the ground beneath him giving away. He was sinking, inching ever deeper into a world where child athletes called the shots and their parents demanded athletic greatness at seemingly any cost, while these fans, this county, longed for the innocence of a not-so-distant past.
“It’ll be a good year,” said one fan, nodding now. “It’ll be a good year.”
“Hope so,” Hicks replied. “We’ll see.”
And then it was time. In the locker room, the boys were pushing for the door, shouting, their knees bouncing with nerves. On the court, the cheerleaders were waiting, lined up on the baseline, shrieking, fists in the air, growing louder by the minute.
Red! White! LET’S GO!
The boys bounded onto the court. The county fans stood up and cheered.
It was nearly winter in Kentucky. Soon, there would be snow in the hills and a blanket of frost laid out on the bluegrass. It was time to play basketball.
Excerpted from Outside Shot by Keith O’Brien. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Read our Q&A with author Keith O’Brien from the February 2013 issue.
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