Reggie is gone.
After years of battling, Reggie Warford is gone. He died Thursday morning at his home in Pittsburgh, surrounded by family after a brief period of hospice care. The former UK guard was 67. I’ve always known exactly how old Reggie was because we share a birthday, Sept. 15. He was exactly one year older than I was.
Like too many he’s gone too soon but the fact that we had him for so long was an incredible story in itself.
He was the first black player recruited by Joe B. Hall, the second ever to sign a scholarship at UK and the first ever to graduate. He knew racism growing up in Drakesboro and he certainly encountered it, playing in the Southeastern Conference. He even ran afoul of it on his own campus.
While he was at Kentucky, Reggie collapsed after a heart episode. His coach told him he’d remain on scholarship but could never play again. After a couple of weeks watching practice, Reggie begged to be reinstated, vowing to sign any release the University put in front of him. He just wanted to play. He had to play.
“Without this,” he told Joe B., “I’m nothing.”
His heart issues never went away. As an adult, Reggie survived a kidney transplant and two heart transplants (the first was botched; with his chest open and his own ticker already removed, two doctors in the operating room argued about whether or not the donor heart was usable or damaged. They opted to wait on another, which worked.)
After all that, while on his personal comeback trail, Reggie contracted sarcopenia, a disease that destroys your muscles, including the ones that allow you to breathe. He knew this was a battle he couldn’t win.
He knew it when we sat down at his home three years ago so I could interview him for a documentary on his life. It was a project that at first I didn’t want to attempt. Now, I’m forever grateful that I did.
I had produced, directed, written and edited two other docs on UK basketball with another ex-UK guard, Cameron Mills, as executive producer. We had told the stories of the 1996 and ’98 NCAA title teams. He wanted to know what our next project would be. I mentioned Reggie Warford.
Cameron had no idea who that was (yes, I scolded him. Former UK players should have a vast knowledge of the history of the program whence they came, IMO). Once I told him Reggie’s story, one that ultimately would end in sadness, he insisted we tell it. I balked as I wasn’t sure I was up to it, nor did I know if Reggie would even be interested.
Undaunted, Cameron reached out to Reggie who was delighted at the notion. He was understandably proud of his legacy and wanted other UK players – black and white – to know who he was and what he went through as a black player in the 1970’s.
That’s why I found myself on the back deck of his Pittsburgh home with him and his wife, Marisa, conducting the first in-depth interview I’d done with him since his playing days wrapped up in 1976. That was the year he led the Wildcats to the National Invitation Tournament championship, back when it meant something.
It was the last year the entire 32-team tournament was held in Madison Square Garden; the following season the NCAA tournament field would be expanded and the early rounds of the NIT would be played on campuses. The last winner of the traditional NIT was Kentucky.
In his first three seasons of varsity basketball, Reggie scored a total of 24 points. In the title game with UNC-Charlotte, he scored 14, two on a layup following a steal he made with the game on the line.
I wrote about him and that tournament for the UK student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel. I wanted to write a column about his career; Reggie was hesitant and (typically) headstrong. “You guys never wanted to talk to me before,” he said. “Why do you want to talk to me now?” He knew the answer before he asked the question but he wanted me to know he was a proud man in charge of his life.
He finally agreed; I wrote the column and fortunately, Reggie’s mom loved it. He told me so, which bonded us from then on. I kept in touch with him periodically throughout his adult life that was fraught with challenges, not the least of which was his medical condition.
He successfully sued the Lexington Herald-Leader for libel after the newspaper included him in its series on NCAA recruiting violations at UK back in the 80s; he coached high school basketball until his health forced him to step away from the game he loved.
And then came the shattering diagnosis. The body he was so blessed to have — one that allowed him to play sports at a high level, to sing like a professional, to teach himself to play the piano by ear — was breaking down and there was nothing he or anyone else could do about it.
That’s why we produced the documentary. We knew there wasn’t much time left, although he stayed with us much longer than I thought he might. It’s not surprising. He was always a fighter, whether it was racism, opposing players or a frightening diagnosis, Reggie Warford never backed down.
I’m so thankful now. Thankful that Joe Hall recruited Reggie to Kentucky. Thankful that he gave me his time, for the newspaper piece I wrote and for the documentary we did. I’m thankful that Cameron brow-beat me into producing the doc. And I’m thankful that Reggie and I re-connected through the years.
And he was right. UK players – and fans – should know him. He was special.