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I, along with thousands of other Kentuckians, was deeply saddened to learn of the tragic death of Kentucky basketball legend Mike Casey.
I first heard about Mike Casey when we were both 16 years old and playing in the Kentucky State Men’s Fast Pitch Softball Tournament. I played for Falmouth Farm Supply, and Mike played for the Shelbyville Jets. He was a little taller than I (his 6’4” to my 6’1”), but we both played shortstop and batted left-handed.
In those days, fast pitch softball was THE game of summer and dominated by much older gentlemen. Although we never knew each other at the time, I am sure many of the older gentlemen thought the future of the game was in good hands with talented youngsters like Mike Casey and Jack Wright coming along. Unfortunately, fast-pitch softball died out after that season and was replaced by slow pitch.
My next connection with Mike Casey was a result of high school basketball. The year was 1965, we were both juniors, he played for the Shelby County Rockets, and I played for the Pendleton County Wildcats. At that time Shelby County was one of the top-ranked teams in the state, and although they had several stars, Casey was their ultimate. Casey got a lot of media coverage in the state’s largest newspaper, The Courier-Journal. I, and a lot of other high school basketball players who thought they were something special at that time, was quite envious of one Mike Casey.
I remember the first time I saw him play basketball. It was at Grant County High School, and for some reason there were two games that night. The first game was Shelby County versus a team that I cannot recall, and we played Grant County in the second game. It was obvious why The Courier-Journal raved so much about Casey. He was simply one magnificent high school basketball talent. All of his moves were so graceful. He would lead fast breaks with thoroughbred like skill. He passed the ball to teammates with finesse, his shooting accuracy was incredible from either long distance, or close to the basket, and more than anything else, he was an incredible leader.
That same year, I lead Pendleton County to the State Tournament for the first time in our county’s history, and Shelby County was one of the favorites to win. Unfortunately, we lost our first game, but Shelby County was a quarterfinalist.
A couple of weeks later, The Courier-Journal listed Mike Casey as the top player of the 8th Region for the next season and Jack Wright as the top player of the 10th Region. During that summer I worked construction in Carroll and Trimble counties, both 8th Region competitors of Shelby County. I remember telling folks I was the 10th Region counterpart to the 8th Region’s Mike Casey. Fat chance of that being true, but I guess high school kids just need to do those things. You think?
Anyway, my senior year in high school didn’t compare to Casey’s. He was by far the best player in the state, named Mr. Kentucky Basketball, and led Shelby County to the state championship and went on to a great career at UK.
My connection with Mike Casey fast forwards to 1970. After enlisting in the United States Army in 1968, and returning from Vietnam in the spring of 1970, I am stationed at Fort Knox and living in Louisville. In The Courier-Journal Sports section I see something about major-league slow-pitch softball played at Bluegrass Park. I go to Bluegrass Park to watch the games and am flabbergasted by the caliber of talent I witnessed. However, somehow I talk my way onto a team known as Omer’s Boys, from Shelbyville, and playing shortstop for Omer’s Boys is the one and only Mike Casey. Because of Casey’s sensational abilities at shortstop – he was just as slick on the ball field as he was on the basketball court – I quickly became a starting outfielder.
In those days, there was only one class of slow-pitch softball, not the multifaceted classes that came along in the years that followed. In those days, you put together the best group of players you could find, strap on your spikes, go to battle, and may the best team win.
In 1970, Omer’s Boys won the state championship, the national regional championship (beating national powerhouse Louisville Jiffy Club in the finals), and won two games and lost two in the national championship. Again, just like with Shelby County and the University of Kentucky basketball teams, Mike Casey was the supreme leader for all to follow.
In 1972, Mike Casey and I were softball teammates again. This time it was for Jiffy Club, and that year Jiffy Club won the national championship. The team was the greatest accumulation of amateur talent I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Casey was a leader of the team, but one of many.
I have told you all of the above to lead up to the following.
With the entire claim to fame and all of the glory that has deservedly been bestowed upon this mountain of a man, Mike Casey was one of the most giving and caring individuals I have ever known.
He could have easily been an arrogant egotist, but he was a wonderful person who loved to make folks laugh and enjoy themselves when around him. He was so at ease with himself and so at ease with his place in the world, he made everyone around him feel at ease also.
Obviously, he knew how great of an athletic talent he was, but to know him, you would never know he thought of himself in such high esteem.
Kentucky has lost a great athlete, a great citizen, a great ambassador, and I have lost a great friend.
For those who knew him the closest, his nickname was “Doogie.” Although I never found out where that nickname came from, or what it meant, I will simply say, “Rest in peace, Doogie. You have lived a wonderful and very rewarding lifetime, you have been an inspiration to thousands of Kentuckians, and all of us wish you a fond farewell.”