It took me a little while to collect my thoughts on the passing of the late Joe B. Hall. I suppose I should have had this column ready as we all knew the end was near. But it’s hard to imagine a UK basketball season without him. Even now, typing about it just doesn’t seem right.
Like a few (older) people on the UK beat, my career, such as it is, paralleled much of Joe B’s life in the Big Blue Spotlight, from maligned head coach to the beloved, de facto Grandpa to the Big Blue Nation. There were so many interesting turns along the way.
The first time I ever met the coach, when I was a young, wide-eyed writer for the UK newspaper, he invited me to his house. Me. To his house. The Kentucky basketball coach. Me. Gulp.
We had been talking about the hose job in the 1972 Olympics, the one that cost Team USA the gold medal in men’s basketball. Hall had been part of the coaching staff that helped prepare the team, as he had a profound interest in growing the game internationally.
The coach explained to me that the Russians had benefitted in part from a bizarre set of rules regarding how timeouts were called in the international game. He had the information back at his crib and invited me to come by and check it out.
Turns out, he was right but all I could think about was, Here I am in Joe B. Hall’s house. Heady stuff for a kid new to covering UK basketball.
This was right around the time when his critics were the harshest. Most of them were upset that Adolph Rupp had been forced to retire and of course, there was that evil strain of “fans” who were terribly upset that Hall had stepped up integration of the Kentucky team.
As I’ve written before, Rupp did attempt to recruit African-American players. But he believed the man who broke the color barrier for UK needed to be a Jackie Robinson-type – one capable of withstanding the hatred but also, a superstar who would leave no question that he belonged.
Hall disagreed with Rupp (not that the Baron gave weight to anyone else’s opinion). He believed the best way was to recruit black kids from Kentucky who were solid players, students and citizens, which is exactly what he did.
Reggie Warford became his first black signee and went on to become the first African-American basketball player to graduate from UK. Larry Johnson, Merion Haskins, Jack Givens and James Lee would soon follow, as well as a host of other black players who helped Hall’s teams to three Final Fours and a national championship.
As we all know, Joe B spent only 13 seasons at the helm before retiring to a life of banking, fishing and breakfast at Wheeler’s. And then, ironically enough, came a second career as a member of the media.
If you covered his team, there was a pretty good chance you’d get sideways with Joe B about something. I ticked him off a couple of times. Once I was right, and once I was dead wrong.
In 1979, when I was working for WVLK radio, I broke the story that Melvin Turpin intended to commit to Kentucky but had to spend a season at a prep school to prop up his grades. Joe was livid, as he was recruiting another big man named Ralph Sampson and thought my revelation might cost UK his services. Turned out, Sampson announced for Virginia, even though he allegedly had let the Kentucky staff know he was heading their way.
I was doing my job on that one and defended my actions to him and chief recruiter Leonard Hamilton.
But on another occasion, I screwed up.
Several months later, I was tipped off that Hall had suspended Sam Bowie and Dirk Minniefield for disciplinary reasons and had kicked budding superstar Dwight Anderson off the team. I rushed to Memorial Coliseum and encountered the coach, talking to some other people.
With my tape recorder rolling, I asked him about the moves and while he seemed surprised that I knew, he would confirm only that Anderson was no longer with the team. I rushed back to the radio station and went on the air with my report.
I stated that sources told us three players were disciplined but Hall would confirm just the one. My story included a soundbite with the coach, talking about how the team would have to adjust in the upcoming game.
However, in my haste, my copy included the word “players” – plural, meaning I was reporting that Hall had actually confirmed all three would be disciplined. He had only confirmed one and when he was told of my report, he assumed that I had doctored the interview to make it sound as though he’d said something he didn’t.
The next time I approached Joe B, he told me he’d never speak to me again. I was puzzled, but back at the station my boss, Ralph Hacker, explained my mistake. I was mortified and within minutes went back on the air, explained my gaffe and apologized. Joe forgave me.
I wasn’t the only media member with whom he butted heads and now, after retirement, here he was with a press pass, working college basketball games for ABC-TV. He was terrific.
And wouldn’t you know, we became broadcast partners when Hacker decided in 1992 that WVLK would broadcast the entire Ohio Valley Conference Tournament, being held in Rupp Arena. The coach and I were paired up in some of the games and we had a ball. He was insightful, funny and at one point, downright silly.
I mentioned to him during a break how different he was, compared to when he was coaching. And while being freed of the tremendous yoke of coaching pressure was key, there was more. “Having your guts carved up changes a man,” he said.
He was talking about the colon cancer surgery he’d undergone in 1988. As we know by now, it’s a form of the dreaded disease that can be completely rectified but only if it’s caught early. Hall was one of the lucky ones.
Having that second lease on life seemed to have liberated him, allowing him to return to what I’ve been told was the same sort of fun-loving Joe B. Hall that he’d been, prior to accepting the gargantuan responsibility of following Rupp.
The ’78 championship won over a legion of UK fans but the pressure on Hall was unimaginable. I actually asked him about it in a pre-season interview for the Kernel, in fall of 1977. By now I was in my last year at UK and felt comfortable enough to tell him that people were saying, If he doesn’t win it all this year Joe Hall should be fired.
His response? “Fire me, then.” And he went on to explain just how much has to come together – luck, healthy players – for a team to win the NCAA championship. He wasn’t arrogant or hostile. He was just a guy relying on the toughness that came from being a former UK player and an alum now sitting in the hottest seat in the Commonwealth.
After the Wildcats brought home the trophy they celebrated with a victory rally in Memorial Coliseum the next day.
Some media types had characterized it as the “season without joy,” a reference to the business-like approach Hall and his players had adopted. Of course, had they fallen short the same commentators (and fans) would have roasted them forever.
The Cats had first dispatched Arkansas and then Duke for the national title. The Razorbacks had beaten Notre Dame in what would be the last consolation game in the history of the Final Four. That meant the Irish had lost twice that weekend.
On stage at the rally, Joe B referred to the critics who slammed him and his players for not having enough fun. “Fun?” the coach fairly roared. “Notre Dame had fun!” The crowd went nuts. He was having his fun now.
A few years later his team lost the Dream Game to Louisville, which led to the annual series with the Cardinals. Hall opposed the move and appeared before the Athletics Board, pleading his case.
Several years later, he admitted he was wrong, that the annual affair was good for the state and good for college basketball. And it fed into his second career with the media, when the late Dick Robinson, taking note of the success of the radio show hosted by former rivals Sonny Smith (Auburn) and Wimp Sanderson (Alabama), in 2004 suggested The Joe B and Denny Show. It was an instant hit.
Former rivals who more than once publicly traded barbs, Hall and Crum meshed immediately on air. They had a non-stop, steady stream of guests – most of them famously high-profile. Some (blush), not so much. But when Joe B and Denny invite you to go on the air with them, you jump at it.
The show ran for nearly 11 years, ending in 2014 only because the Lexington station that carried the show, WVLK-FM, was changing formats.
By then John Calipari was on the job, sitting in the chair Hall once occupied. To his everlasting credit, the new guy immediately recognized the elder coach as someone who should still be a part of the program. That’s why Hall ended up on the bench during the Blue-White game early in Calipari’s tenure as an honorary coach.
The Nation’s affection only grew from there. Once a year, it seemed, Joe B was the “Y” when the cheerleaders spelled “Kentucky” on the Rupp Arena floor. There was the time the Rupp crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to the former coach.
When Calipari moved his team into a new dorm, the “Joe B. Hall Wildcat Lodge” was obsolete. But Calipari kept him relevant, seeing to the life-sized statue of Joe B. that sits outside the dorm today.
One of my all-time favorite TV pieces was my interview with that statue, voiced by the real Joe B. himself. I called the coach and told him of my idea. He loved it and when I showed up at the radio station, ready to record the interview, Joe had a list of 21 jokes and one-liners, ready to deliver. All I had to do was ask the questions. The hardest part was deciding what I had to leave on the cutting room floor. (Shameless plug: You can find it on YouTube.)
Whenever we needed him, journalists could reach out to the venerable one for insights about a game, a moment or a player, as though all we needed to do was scale the mountain that is Kentucky basketball. Waiting at the top was the learned veteran, ready to dispense his vast knowledge, with a side of wit and charm.
Anyone who ever shook his hand could feel the strength of this native son, a Cynthiana product who won a championship both as a player and then as the coach of his beloved Wildcats. He succeeded and endured because Joe B. Hall was Kentucky strong. That’s why he’ll never be forgotten.