PAINTSVILLE — The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) was formed in 1917 for the purpose of governing the schools in the state who participated in athletic competitions. They established rules for the schools to follow in athletic competitions and outside of competition to promote fair play.
In Eastern Kentucky, a major KHSAA investigation occurred in 1926 that resulted in the awarding of the 15th District basketball tournament to Paintsville High School, the first time the school ever hosted the event.
On February 13 of that year, Thomas J. Greenlee, coach of the Pikeville College team, sent in a letter of protest citing by-law Number 12 concerning the eligibility of the Pikeville High School squad. The rule read, “When a team or school pays a salary to any player that school shall be suspended from the Association for the remainder of that school year; on second offense it shall be suspended from the association for the incumbency of the principal.” What was in question was the alleged payment of $140 to former Pikeville player James Johnson.
Along with his letter of protest Coach Greenlee submitted an affidavit of Mr. Johnson to the KHSAA which stated in part that T. W. Oliver, principal of Pikeville High, made a verbal contract with James Johnson to engage in athletics for which service he was to receive $30 per month for three months and an additional $50 to pay off a bank note at Day and Night National Bank in Pikeville. However, Principal Oliver submitted a second affidavit of James Johnson to the KHSAA on February 22, 1926 in which he denied he ever received any money or anything of value for his service as an athlete at Pikeville High School. Four other affidavits were submitted by Mr. Oliver which all said that no one who played or ever played athletics at Pikeville High were ever paid for their services. One statement even said that “if James Johnson made an affidavit to the effect that Pikeville High School was paying him one cent or other amount that same is false.”
More evidence was submitted by other schools in the area that claimed Pikeville was unethical in its basketball program. Louis Ellis, a student at Ashland High School, made an affidavit that stated that the coach of Pikeville High School made an offer to him of $60 per month and expenses to come to Pikeville and join their basketball team. William May, a student at Prestonsburg High School, also submitted an affidavit. He stated that J. A. Runyon, the business manager of the Pikeville High basketball team, offered to pay him and a schoolmate, Adrian Collins, all of their expenses to the State Tournament in Lexington if they would cast a vote for Pikeville High School to host the 15th District Tournament. William May stated that he also received a $50 check as an advance payment for his vote. However, his conscience got the better of him as he stated that “he decided to have nothing to do with the said agreement and destroyed said check and voted his true sentiments and convictions in regard to holding the District Tournament.”
The KHSAA had to rule on the matter before the 15th District Tournament, scheduled for the first week of March 1926. It appears that the ruling was handed down on Tuesday, March 2, 1926. The statement released by the KHSAA reads: “The evidence submitted in this case is not sufficient to technically convict Pikeville High School of paying its players. However, it does indicate that this school and its methods in athletics are under suspicion by its neighbors. This case is sufficiently aggravated to warrant the Board of Control to take the tournament from Pikeville and award it to Paintsville. To say the least, no high school, a member of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, should so conduct its athletic program that its practices would subject it to such an investigation as has been necessary in this instance. Conduct such as this school has been accused of violates every principal of clean athletics for which the Kentucky High School Athletic Association stands.”
The KHSAA went on to note that it had been reported that several of the Pikeville players did not even live in the Pikeville school district and that it would take the school several years to outgrow the animosity of the neighboring schools. A final warning was then issued to Pikeville High, “It appears that the school has been over-ambitious in the development of athletic teams and has possibly been indiscreet in some of its overtures to good players in other schools. Furthermore, it appears that the fans about town have possibly been instrumental in bringing about the present condition of affairs. This investigation should be sufficient warning to Pikeville High School that if its team is protested again on similar grounds in the future that it will be good reason for suspension.”
The beneficiary of Pikeville’s disgrace was Paintsville High School, who would be hosting their first ever district tournament. On Thursday, March 4, 1926 the front page of the Paintsville Herald carried the headline – PAINTSVILLE GETS DIST. BASKET BALL TOURNAMENT. The town went all out in its preparations for the tournament and as the paper reported, “Paintsville High School has one of the best playing courts in this section of the country and all teams will have an equal chance to win the district honor. A number of people in the valley have already made arrangements to be in Paintsville for the games and reservations are being made every day by out of town people. Both the Rotary Club and the Kiwanis Club have made extensive arrangements to take care of the visitors and make them feel at home.”
The Paintsville High boys and girls teams would both face teams from Pikeville High and, according to the Paintsville Herald, were preparing very hard for the games. “Coach [Maurice] Backer is holding closed practice sessions with the Comets and Tigers every day getting them in shape for the fracas and from the way the teams have been running the last few days they will be in tip-top shape for the Tournament.” Unfortunately for the Tigers, the game against Pikeville proved to be “one of the roughest games of basket ball to be played in this section of the country” according to the Paintsville Herald. The paper went one to describe that, “Everything was displayed in this game except basket ball. Both sides have some clever aspirants for Jack Dempsey’s title and with a little more form would probably qualify for that place.”
The game started out with a quick Tiger basket by right forward Lee Marsh and it seemed that the two teams were on their way to playing a very good game. However, it went downhill from there. According to the Paintsville Herald, “The good work could not hold out because of the intense feeling between these two teams. First one little crooked move and then another and the game progressed like a kettle of water starting to boil; first a few bubbles, then a few more, and then the whole liquid starts in a boiling rage…” Both captains were disqualified in the third quarter for slugging. L. Morris, Pikeville’s right forward, was taken from the game with a torn ligament and Douglas Ramey, left forward for Paintsville, was body blocked in the last quarter and knocked unconscious.” It is not clear who won the fight, but Pikeville won the game in another blowout, 26-9, to end Paintsville’s season.
Pikeville went on to win the 15th Region title for the third year in a row. In the KHSAA State Tournament at Alumni Gym in Lexington, Pikeville defeated Harlan 21-10 in the first round before falling to Louisville St. Xavier 24-17 in the quarterfinals.
The final word of the season came from the Paintsville Herald on March 11, 1926 as it summed up the season.
“This district composed of all of the Big Sandy towns from Louisa up has had an interesting season, but with a lot of wrangling. Pikeville was reported to the State Committee for playing outside salaried players. The fight was hot and the district tournament was changed from Pikeville to Paintsville and one player of the Pikeville team was disqualified… Pikeville and Paintsville played in the tournament and it was a slugging match instead of a basketball game. Spectators were much displeased with it. Fights like the one that has been going on in this district will soon kill athletics in the schools… Clean athletics should be in every school.”