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Many of you probably are wondering, perhaps in perplexity or blissful ignorance, about why it is such a big deal that the gym and basketball court at Shelby County High School have been named in honor of iconic athletic star Mike Casey.
Many of you – dare I say most? – weren’t around Shelby County nearly 50 years ago, when Casey was establishing himself as a humble hero for the masses of boys and girls and the young and old who flocked to see him play.
Maybe all of this is seems big because some of those boys (blush) are getting old, adding the seasoning of age to a sauce liberally laced with nostalgia.
You are used to a world of instant visuals, when if CNN or ESPN misses something magical, there it is on You Tube with at least an amateur focus.
In the 1960s, when crewcuts had not yet given away to Beatle moptops, when the high tops were low, when Chuck Taylor’s name was the only one on a shoe and when a player’s knee socks were longer than his shorts, we had only grainy, black-and-white, still photographs and maybe some 8mm video shot by an assistant coach.
These are the archives that tell us the story of a guy like Mike Casey, whose name now will live long after a faulty heart stole his body.
Those who were there in his day, who darkened the doors of gyms from Shelbyville to Carrollton to Frankfort and many places in between and beyond, have only our mind’s eyes and our memories – both mental and heartfelt – to assemble an oral history of a man we all respected, admired and, in many cases, emulated.
So let’s roll a video projector of those images – admitting they are limited in scope and perspective but shot from the heart – back to when we first came to know why Mike Casey would become a legend, to a time when sports stars didn’t change schools to further their careers, when basketball, football and baseball were the only sports that mattered and when heroes were born early and remained with us long after the first gray hairs started to sprout.
Here’s what we see…
A skinny boy at Simpsonville Elementary shows an ability to shoot and handle a basketball better than most.…He extends his arms in front of his head to push in shot after shot….Sort of bowlegged. Not that fast or quick. Tough. Very tough. Passes, rebounds, scores. A true team player….A 6-foot-4 sophomore becomes a starter on a pretty good team, led by Ernie Simpson....A great era of Kentucky basketball. Westley Unseld and Clem Haskins were seniors that year….A disappointing loss to Oldham County in the 8th Region tournament….Followed by a preseason all-state player now leading a team that includes seniors Tony Price and Bill Willhite and his classmate Bill Busey….A player who does it all…His team averages nearly 100 points a game….There are no 3-point shots or shot clocks….His legend grows….The final of the Henry County Invitational in January, Casey-led Shelby County whips Butch Beard and top-ranked Breckenridge County….Readers flock to the newspapers to see the rankings…Shelby County is No. 1 in Kentucky….A loss to Ashland on a weekend road trip….A sweep to the first regional title since 1960-61, the year SCHS opened….Casey averages 23.8 points….The Rockets are considered among the favorites to win the state title….Fans flock to Freedom Hall…Casey leads opening victory….In a quaterfinal rematch, Beard and Breckenridge sadly end the season.…Tears flow….SCHS’s first All-State first team player is named Caesy.
A senior rated among the best players in the state….SCHS is picked by many to win the title….Rockets score as many as 120 in pounding regional teams….Traffic for home games backs up to west of the Masonic Home….Shelby trims Ashland in revenge game….People stand atop the stairwells at the corners of the upper decks in an overflowing gym….Rockets again No. 1….Invited to Louisville Invitational Tournament….Central ends perfect season….Another easy regional title….SCHS favored….Fans again line up for hours to get tickets….Three heart-stopping victories earn final against Male….Casey throws up before the game – he often did – but manages to put together 20-plus points in the final as SCHS wins, 62-57….Thousands line up on Sunday at I-64 exit in Simpsonville….Team rides atop truck, hoisting state trophy….Traffic snakes all the way up U.S. 60 to a pep rally in the gym.…Another packed gym…Goose bumps for all....Casey rejects many other offers to sign (along with Busey) with Adolph Rupp and Kentucky….Shelby’s first Mr. Basketball.
Casey is a left-handed-hitting shortstop on the baseball team….Team plays its way into state final….Wild, 17-inning victory on semifinals is live on WCND-AM….Hurry to UK for the final in the afternoon….Casey is out at home on a key play….Lafayette wins title….No. 1 leads sweep of Rick Mount-led Indiana in all-star series…..Leading scorer on UK freshman team….Top soph on cover of Sports Illustrated….Opens sophomore season by scoring 29, still a school record….SCHS packs the gym at Franklin County High School, and doors are locked….Casey and teammate Dan Issel sneak in through a locker-room window. Celebrities….2 SEC titles, 2 all-conference teams….Shelby County Fair, July 1969, word of car accident spreads….Broken leg.…Delayed senior season….Finishes after Issel and Mike Pratt are gone....Rupp’s last season….Top 5 scorer in UK history….Shot at Olympics, pros….Cut by both….Professional softball lures….All-American….World title with Jiffy Club of Louisville.
From there the story becomes less about the athlete and more about the man.
In Shelby County, Mike Casey was known by everyone and was considered a friend by everyone who knew him.
He always had a kind word, a friendly gesture, a man comfortable with his celebrity but also comfortable with those who saw him as a celebrity.
Casey would not have wanted to be considered a role model. He probably was amused by kids who mimicked that stiff-legged shot or waited outside the locker room to shake his hand. Flattered, perhaps. Attention was never lacking.
There once were photographs of that 1965-66 title team that hung in the SCHS gym, huge, cutout headshots of smiling stars. That gym has been updated a few times during the years. Those headshots are stashed way in a storage closet or a garage somewhere. Old news.
But that sort of lost relic doesn’t seem so bad today.
Because now the name of The Main Man is on the wall and on the floor.
As it should be.