ESPN’s ‘Southern Hoops’ documentary debuts Monday night. Adolph Rupp plays a big role.
From now until the postseason, Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays will be the only time to catch Southeastern Conference basketball.
Starting this week, however, Monday nights will also offer a reason to tune in.
The latest installment in the ESPN Films series is a seven-part documentary called “Southern Hoops: A History of SEC Basketball” — and the series debuts at 9 p.m. Monday on SEC Network.
As expected, Kentucky will be a major focus.
The Herald-Leader was granted an advance viewing of “Part One” of the documentary series — subtitled “Naismith to Rupp, 1930-1959” — and it’s nearly all about UK basketball.
The opening scene of the initial episode features an unmistakable visual: a horse farm in Kentucky. And the first words of the seven-part series allude to UK’s starring role in what’s to come.
“Like so many other great stories, you might say it all began with a journey,” narrator Omari Hardwick says. “It was 1930, in the throes of the Depression, and Adolph Rupp drove straight from Illinois to Lexington, Kentucky. He was interviewing for the job of head basketball coach at the University of Kentucky. And when he arrived, he was hardly impressed by what he saw.”
Before the opening credits even roll, viewers hear the voice of Rupp recounting his earliest days in Lexington and recalling seeing “all these little shanties” in the area that would ultimately be home to Memorial Coliseum, which opened 20 years after his arrival.
The background is set in those first couple of minutes: Lexington as a typical Southern city of the time, a place that didn’t care much about basketball, with a job — leading the Wildcats — that peers had actively told Rupp, a high school coach in Illinois, not to accept.
Of course, Rupp did accept, and in August of 1930 he made the trek to the Bluegrass.
“I finally bundled the few things I had and drove down here,” Rupp says, “all the time wondering, ‘Did you make a mistake or didn’t you?’”
What follows is the earliest history of SEC basketball, which is, effectively, an early history of Kentucky basketball. The Wildcats dominated the league in those days, and Rupp presided over the domination, becoming one of the giants of the sport and a name synonymous with college basketball.
UK greats Dan Issel, Cotton Nash and the late Mike Pratt are interviewed about Rupp’s demeanor and demanding expectations, with black-and-white footage of some of Kentucky’s practices from those days rolling as they speak.
“He wanted perfection,” Pratt says. “He just expected you to go out and do what he had trained you for.”
Ups and downs at Kentucky
Those formative times for Kentucky basketball are celebrated, highlighting the Fabulous Five team that won the 1948 title and began a run of three titles in four years for the Cats, the construction of Memorial Coliseum — called “a fitting temple” for UK basketball — and the Fiddlin’ Five team that won the 1958 championship, which would turn out to be Rupp’s final NCAA title.
The documentary explores the manner in which basketball became a way of life in the commonwealth, with UK as the beacon for Kentuckians’ growing infatuation with the sport.
Richie Farmer talks about growing up in rural Kentucky and the importance of basketball across the state. Places like Carr Creek, Inez and Wayland — small in size, large in local sporting significance — are mentioned. Basketball as a way of life in the commonwealth is made clear.
“The single greatest unifying force in the state was basketball,” former Courier Journal sportswriter Dave Kindred declares. “It was never football. It was never politics. It was never horse racing, even. It was basketball.”
Of course, there were negatives around UK’s rise to the top, too.
The college basketball gambling scandal that led to the arrests of star players Alex Groza and Ralph Beard — and, ultimately, the cancellation of the Cats’ 1952-53 season — is covered in detail. And Rupp’s own complicated history with race relations is discussed.
University of Kentucky professor Dr. Gerald Smith, a Lexington native, helps add context to the importance of UK basketball, its overall effect on the state, and the fact that the Black population of Kentucky was left out of the Wildcats’ success.
“Without question, Lexington was rigidly segregated — from housing to education to public accommodations,” Smith says. “African-Americans knew their place — working either on the farms or as domestics or in some sort of manual labor.”
It’s noted that Rupp had a Black player on his Illinois high school team before coming to UK, that he helped Jim Tucker — a local high school star from Paris — get a scholarship at Duquesne in the early 1950s, and his relationship with Don Barksdale, the only Black player on the 1948 Olympic team, is also examined.
But it can’t be ignored that Kentucky did not have a Black player in a varsity game until the 1970-71 season and that the program wasn’t fully integrated until Joe B. Hall took over as head coach a couple of years after that.
The seven-part series is directed by Fritz Mitchell, who previously led a similar ESPN series focused on SEC football and has also directed two films in the network’s “30 for 30” series: “The Legend of Jimmy the Greek” and “Ghosts of Ole Miss.”
There are interludes throughout the first installment of “Southern Hoops” to highlight Louisiana State star Bob Pettit, the success of Alabama under head coach John Dee, and one longer segment on the early life of legendary coach Pat Summitt, but Kentucky is the star of the show in episode one, and it’s clear the Wildcats will remain main characters moving forward.
Future installments of the series will include Hall and the 1978 UK team winning the national title, the rebuilding of the program under Rick Pitino, the historical significance of Tubby Smith’s arrival, and the rejuvenation of Kentucky basketball in the John Calipari era.
Part two, which debuts Feb. 6, will focus on the transformation of the South — and, by extension, SEC basketball — during the civil rights movement. The role Rupp’s Wildcats played in the 1966 NCAA title game against Texas Western is a topic of study.
“Over the next decade — the sixties — Adolph Rupp would be immersed in one of the great conflicts of the 20th century: civil rights,” narrates Hardwick, setting up episode two. “The Black athlete was the coming story of sports, especially basketball.”
Each episode of “Southern Hoops” will first air on SEC Network at 9 p.m. Mondays, starting this week and ending with part seven on March 13, the day after Selection Sunday.
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