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.
Last March, while most of the headlines were going to such major powers as UCLA and Marquette, Kentucky State traveled to Kansas City, Mo. and won the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) tournament. This may be a small-college tournament, but winning it is no small accomplishment. Each year the NAIA brings together 32 tough, talented teams for five full days of uninhibited basketball. To give some idea of the quality of competition, Willis Reed first gained national attention in the NAIA, and so did Dick Barnett and other pro stars. Only the strongest survive, and last March the strongest, clearly, was Kentucky State. The closest call the Thorobreds had was in the championship game, when they trailed Central Washington at halftime before coming back to win 79-71.
Only one player, a starting forward, has been lost from the team, so now Lucias Mitchell, the Thorobreds' bright young coach, is wildly optimistic about the upcoming season. Says Mitchell, matter-of-factly, "If you have five boys who can go, well, you can go. We've got a ball club that can go anywhere in the country and play anybody."
There are at least two solid reasons for Mitchell to feel the way he does. One is Travis (Two Point) Grant, a 6'8" junior forward who has a shooting eye that would impress Mr. Boone. In his first game as a freshman, Grant came off the bench and hit 10 straight shots to spark the Thorobreds to victory over Union (Ky.) College. He has not stopped shooting—or hitting—since. Last year he averaged 35.4 points, connecting on 69% of his field-goal attempts, most of them jump shots from outside. He scored 75 points in one game against Franklin ( Ohio) University. At home games, when Grant hits a cold streak (that means two straight misses), the crowd and the P.A. announcer, who calls Grant "the Machine," as in "That's 40 for the Machine," wonder what is happening. Says Mitchell, "He's a great natural shooter. I don't think anyone can out-shoot Travis."
Of even greater interest to pro scouts, however, is State's center, Elmore Smith, another junior. Elmore stands 7 feet and weighs 230 pounds. He averages 21.6 points and 22.7 rebounds, and makes 60% of his shots. But he is especially impressive on defense, where he stands around the opponents' basket and dares anyone to shoot over him. Invited along with Grant and 44 other young stars to attend last summer's pre-Olympic camp at the Air Force Academy, Smith was the best big man in sight, better, many thought, than the highly publicized Tom McMillen. In one scrimmage Smith blocked 15 shots. To the Kentucky State P.A. announcer he is simply "E," as in "E blocks another one," and to Mitchell he is the best big man in the college game this season.
"I've seen Artis Gilmore," says Mitchell. "I even tried to recruit him when I was coaching at Alabama State. But in my opinion Smith is better because he's stronger and quicker. He's quick. Real quick. Extremely quick."
The campus where all these good things have been taking place sits atop a hill on the eastern side of Frankfort. Less than a decade ago it consisted of a few drab brick buildings, but today it is dotted with new structures that have sharp lines and bright colors—the result of a $14 million building program that began shortly after Dr. Carl Hill became president in 1962. The second-smallest state-supported college in Kentucky, with an enrollment of only 1,700, Kentucky State also is the state's only predominantly black college (blacks outnumber whites four to one). Afros, beards and other symbols of black consciousness are popular among the students, but the campus has been relatively tranquil since 1968, when a building was burned following the Martin Luther King assassination. The unusual harmony is due mainly to President Hill's enlightened administration (he spends much of his time in private conferences with students and supports policies that allow students to share extensively in school government), but some credit is given to the basketball team.
"The team has given the students something to be proud of, something else to think about," Hill says. "We thought we would have trouble after Kent State, but we didn't. We thought surely there would be trouble after Jackson State, but there wasn't. The reason, I think, is that our students were still enjoying the aftermath of the basketball championship."
Some think that a winning team also has helped draw the college closer to the predominantly white community of Frankfort. The commuting white students, for instance, formerly took little or no interest in campus affairs. But last winter many of them stayed around after classes to attend the games. And some of the white townspeople stopped holding the college at arm's length. Indeed, they took such an interest in the team's success that the black students became cynical. Says a cheerleader, "We never saw the mayor until we won the NAIA, but then it was we this and we that."
Whether or not the basketball team actually has narrowed the gap between blacks and whites, there is an undeniable sense of purpose—or call it soul—at every Kentucky State home game. The gym's 3,000 seats always are filled early, and soon everybody is clapping, singing, yelling and swaying back and forth under the direction of State's hyperactive cheerleaders. There is a special cheer for hated rivals (such as Central State of Ohio and Tennessee A&I): "Go back, go back, go back to the woods/ Your coach is a farmer and your team is no good." There also are frenetic, highly choreographed cheers on behalf of the Thorobreds. The favorite is a song done to the tune of the Supremes' Someday Well Be Together Again ("Tonight we want victory, say it, say it, say it...."). After a win—State didn't lose at home last season—a fraternity drags out a huge bell and rings it, and then everyone adjourns to the Grill, where the cheerleaders dance on the tabletops and the good times roll.