SI Vault
William F. Reed
November 30, 1970
Now is as good a time as any to clear up some misconceptions concerning Frankfort, Ky., a modest city (pop. 23,500) only a few furlongs away from the heart of the famed bluegrass horse region. Frankfort, not Churchill Downs, is the state capital. Governor Louie B. Nunn, not Colonel Finger-Lickin' Sanders, lives in Frankfort and runs the state government. Ol' Dan'l Boone is buried in the city cemetery, not in Missouri, as a certain radical element from Show Me country recently claimed. And the only team in the whole basketball-crazy state to win a national championship last season was not one of the biggies—the University of Kentucky, Louisville or Western Kentucky—but Frankfort's own Kentucky State Thorobreds, one of the more remarkable teams in the undefined, unwieldy world of small-college basketball.
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November 30, 1970

A Tall Story From The Land Of Boone

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All this has happened since Lucias Mitchell arrived three years ago from Alabama State. Tall and thin, with large black horn-rims that give him an owlish appearance and a large wardrobe of wide ties, bright shirts and double-breasted blazers, Mitchell is a pleasant, articulate man with a fine understanding of human nature and ways for winning basketball games. Only 35, he finds it as easy to rap with students as to talk academics with a fellow professor; like many small-college coaches, Mitchell also teaches classes, in his case, health.

When he first arrived in Frankfort, Mitchell found the basketball program in sorry shape. The team's record the previous year had been a dismal 2-19 and it did not take him long to find out why. "They didn't want to practice, they didn't want to work on fundamentals, they didn't want to run, they didn't want to study," he says. "They wanted to tell the coach what to do, and I wasn't about to stand for that." The son of a former Army master sergeant, Mitchell believes in discipline, as his players soon found out. He moved them all into one dormitory. "We feel this was necessary for closeness," says Mitchell, who prefers the editorial we. He imposed an 11 p.m. curfew and set up a study hall. He insisted that hair and sideburns be trimmed.

On the court, Mitchell stressed fundamentals—even in warmups, State players rarely showboat—and he brought order to what had been a free-lance offense. He even made the Thorobreds play defense. By season's end nine players had rebelled and left the team, but Kentucky State's record had jumped to 10-15. Mitchell's most important achievement, however, was obtaining the services of Grant and Smith.

The two stars have much in common. Both came from small schools and rural Southern backgrounds, Grant from Clayton, Ala., in George Wallace's home county, and Smith from Macon, Ga., and both are quiet young men whose idea of a big time is playing each other in a game of pool. But while Smith did not begin playing basketball until his senior year in high school, and never started a game until college, Grant's shooting ability drew the attention of some 50 colleges—including Villanova, Davidson and North Carolina. Both decided to attend Kentucky State because of Mitchell. When he left Alabama to come to Kentucky, they followed—and with them the Thorobreds had the makings of a champion.

Grant gets his shot away with a quick flip of his wrist, and so far no defense has been able to stop him from around the circle. "He has radar," says Mitchell. "He hits even with a guy's hand right in his face. If Travis can get it off, he will put it in."

As for Smith, he is so strong and agile that his coach likes to call him "the next Bill Russell." Last spring Russell saw Smith when he was at State for a speaking engagement and proclaimed him "ready for the NBA."

But Grant and Smith are not the only Thorobreds. In 5'9�" senior Jerome Brister and 6' sophomore Jerry Stafford the team has two fine guards. And the smoothest all-round player on the team may well be a 6'8" senior forward, William (Bird) Graham, who was the No. 6 man last season. Graham is strong, a good jumper and shooter, and quick.

"We don't run the ball to Travis," says Mitchell. "Oh, sure, we've got a couple of plays for him, but we're not a one-man show. We go to Travis or Elmore only if we're in a tight spot. The reason Travis scores a lot is not because he's a gunner, but because he's such an accurate shooter. You can't put two men on Travis or Elmore, because we've got somebody else who can get loose and kill you."

Last season's success has paid off in several ways. The basketball budget has grown from $10,000 to $18,000, and this year's team will have new warmup uniforms, play on a newly refinished floor and have its games broadcast on local radio. But success creates its own problems, and one of the main ones is that now not many teams are anxious to play the Thorobreds.

Even so, Kentucky State scheduled 25 games and may well better last season's 23-3 record, which would leave Mitchell in an interesting predicament—where to go for postseason action. State belongs to both the NAIA and the NCAA College Division, and presumably would be invited to play in those tournaments, but Mitchell, like Oral Roberts, would prefer to play against some of the big ones in the National Invitation Tournament at Madison Square Garden. Only four years ago Southern Illinois won the NIT while still a small-college team and, while the Salukis had Walt Frazier and Dick Garrett, they did not have a Two Point Grant or an Elmore Smith. Mitchell relishes thoughts of the NIT. "Man, that would be nice," he says. "That would be interesting. You know, we've got a classic ball club here. We are for real."

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