- The Graves County Boys: A Tale of Kentucky Basketball, Perseverance, and the Unlikely Championship of the Cuba Cubs by Walker, Marianne
In the early 1950s a basketball team from a tiny rural high school in western Kentucky began a run of success that was as unlikely as it was dominating. Although Cuba High School boasted barely one hundred students its basketball team, dubbed the Cubs, made it to the state high school championship in 1951 and returned in 1952 to claim the title.
Author Marianne Walker recounts this oft-overlooked tale in her book The Graves County Boys. Obviously the story of a small-town high school team taking on more talented squads from urban areas during the 1950s, sounds familiar due to the success of the 1986 movie “Hoosiers.” That film was loosely based on the Milan Indians who claimed the Indiana state championship in 1954, the smallest school to ever win a single-class state title in Indiana. [End Page 534]
The Cuba Cubs and the Milan Indians stories are remarkably similar. Both involve a single-minded coach, an unusually talented group of players, and an unsuccessful initial run for the title that paved the way for their championship run. They also share the theme of an isolated rural region of the country facing-off against a more affluent urban region; a conflict reflecting the rapid societal changes overtaking the nation at that period.
It is a compelling narrative that slips easily into one-dimensional storytelling conventions typical in sports journalism; the plucky underdog bests the powerful rival. Walker sidesteps this deftly and provides a more nuanced view of her subject.
Led by coach Jack Story, who was also the school’s principal, the Cuba Cubs barreled through the 1951 season and then the playoffs only to be defeated in the final by Louisville Manual. The team, made up of colorful and talented players such as Charles “Doodle” Floyd and Howie Crittendon, immediately committed themselves to the next season and then succeeded in making their pledge come true.
The Cubs did not rely on talent alone. They shrewdly used the rules of the era to their advantage. The lack of a shot clock gave them the ability to simply hold onto the ball once they got a lead, and the skill of the players ensured they would retain possession despite the opponent’s best efforts.
Walker touches on these elements in the first few chapters, but the bulk of The Graves County Boys concerns itself with detailed biographical sketches of the team and those people who played a role in their historical run. It is these details that give the book credence beyond just a colorful recounting of the cherished tale. It also raises some interesting questions about the role of the sport in the commonwealth during the mid century.
Walker recounts how the players on the Cuba team enjoyed a star status that created friction in the Cuba community particularly as their fame expanded across the state. Walker illustrates the permissive attitude toward the actions of the players when they violated rules or neglected their studies. There were also tensions with opposing squads that found themselves cast in the unwelcome role of the foil in the Cuba team’s underdog story.
These dynamics can be juxtaposed with the popularity of Adolph Rupp’s University of Kentucky squads in that era and the troubling issues that arose in relation to that squad during the same time period. In 1951, Kentucky basketball was shaken by a point-shaving scandal that led to the revelations of numerous National Collegiate Athletic Association violations for which the program was penalized. While Rupp denied any knowledge of the point shaving, the judge in the case specifically criticized the famed coach and the school for creating an atmosphere for such violations to occur.
Clearly the excesses of the Cuba players were not on the same plane as described in the Wildcats’ case. But the similar permissive...