'He just knew how to play'

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Shelby County native Mike Casey posthumously joins the state’s high school basketball hall of fame, along with a couple of people who expressed a lot of respect for him: Butch Beard and Larry Conley.

By Josh Cook

ELIZABETHTOWN – Mike Casey has been inducted into Hall of Fames before.

However, for Casey, the late Shelby County High School star and University of Kentucky standout,  his induction into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday night would’ve been especially meaningful, Casey’s daughter and his sister said.

“I think this one would be really special to him because it’s home, this is where it all started,” Laura Lake said, standing in front of a framed poster of her father inside the historic State Theater in downtown Elizabethtown. “Daddy loved Shelby County. It’s a blessing.” 

Added his sister, Masha Miller: “He loved high school basketball.”

Casey, who was Kentucky’s “Mr. Basketball” in 1966, when he led the Rockets to their first state championship, was a member of the KHSBHF’s 17-member second class. Before Saturday night’s ceremony there was a reception in which the inductees mingled with friends, family and each other.

“It’s been great to hear about him,” Miller said of her brother, who is also a member of the Kentucky Athletic and UK Athletics Hall of Fames. “Someone said, ‘He was a great basketball player, but he was a better person,’ and that’s what you want to hear.”

“It was the coach of Breckinridge County,” Lake chimed in. 

In Casey’s final two seasons at Shelby County he led the Rockets to a 63-3 record. One of those losses was to eventual state champion Breckinridge County in the 1965 Sweet Sixteen quarterfinals.

“Great player,” Alfred “Butch” Beard, Mr. Basketball on that Breckinridge County team and fellow KHSBHF inductee Saturday night, said of Casey. “He was a great all-around player. He didn’t do anything that was flashy. He just played hard. He was a winner.”

Casey and Shelby County had beaten Beard and Breck in the final of the Henry County Invitational earlier that season. 

“Then we were fortunate to beat them in the State Tournament,” Beard said. “I’m really happy to be going in [the KHSBHF] with him. I wish he was still here. We would’ve had some very interesting conversations.”

Beard chuckled and added: “I wonder if the lies would’ve been even better.”

The next season Casey led the Rockets to the state championship, beating Male, 62-57, at Freedom Hall. Casey, who finished his career with 2,088 points, tallied 23 points in the title tilt.

After finishing his career at Shelby County, where the gymnasium now bears his name, he went on to UK.

“I always accused Mike of being...I said he was the best slow white player I’d ever seen,” said Larry Conley, whose career at UK ended the season before Casey arrived. “He didn’t have any blazing speed, couldn’t jump, but he just knew how to play. 

“I know if players watched film of him they’d say, ‘That’s the guy I want to be guarding.’ But then during the game you’d look up and he’d have twenty points, eight rebounds and six assists.”

Casey, who ranks 14th on Kentucky’s all-time scoring list (1,535 points) and ninth in career scoring average (18.7 points per game), was a 3-time All-Southeastern Conference selection for the Wildcats.

“Excellent shooter,” Conley added. “In today’s jargon we’d call it the mid-range game. He had that fifteen-to-eighteen-foot jump shot. He was deadly.”

Like many others, Conley believes that if Casey hadn’t broken his leg in a car accident before UK’s 1969-70 season that the Wildcats would’ve won what would’ve then been their fifth national title (instead Big Blue fans had to wait until 1978).

“If he wouldn’t have gotten hurt, I think we would’ve had another national championship,” said Conley, a former star at Ashland High School.

Conley, Beard and Casey were the first three inducted into the KHSBHF Saturday night as part of the “’60s Sensations.”

In addition to them KHSBHF inductees included former boys’ greats Johnny Cox, Howard Crittendon, Joe Fulks, Allan Houston, Billy Ray Lickert, Linville Puckett and J.R. VanHoose; former girls’ greats Donna Murphy, Jaime Walz Richey and Sharon Garland and legendary coaches Howard Beth, William Kean, Letcher Norton and Bobby Watson. They joined the KHSBHF’s inaugural class of Ralph Beard, Roy Bowling, Ralph Carlisle, Rex Chapman, “King” Kelly Coleman, Richie Farmer, Darrell Griffith, Geri Grigsby, Cliff Hagan, Clem Haskins, Clemette Haskins, Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Bobby Keith, Jim McDaniels, S.T. Roach and Wes Unseld.

In all 100 players will be inducted into the Hall of Fame’s “Centennial Class” by 2018 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Kentucky high school basketball.

Although the two didn’t play together at UK, Conley said he and Casey were friends until Casey passed away in 2009.

Conley, who now broadcasts college basketball games, recalled going to see Casey at the Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville shortly before he died.

“He had all these tubes coming out of him, and I asked him, ‘If I take one of those tubes out, will you go flying across the room?’” he recalled. “He said, ‘Don’t make me laugh; it hurts.’”

Conley said he sat with Casey for “about two hours” and watched a Kentucky game on TV.

“All he did was complain about the way they were playing,” Conley recalled with a laugh.