The Early Years: Basketball in Far Western Kentucky

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Written by Sid Easley...

Far western Kentucky was basketball country; and farm boys from small rural high schools loved the sport.  In a day when recreation other than hard farm work was limited, young men spent hours on makeshift dirt courts, dribbling, shooting, playing horse, or rough house one-on-one.  Out of that hardscrabble competition there emerged some outstanding athletes.  Many of these young competitors, who would not otherwise have had the opportunity, matriculated to nearby Murray to play “college” ball.  It was their opportunity to succeed in life.

In the years from 1929 to 1959 five small schools in the eight county Jackson Purchase won the Kentucky state basketball tournament -  Heath, Sharpe, Brewers, Cuba and North Marshall - an amazing feat when compared with larger towns and more populated sections of the state.  The love people had for basketball and the excitement of having a team nearby created an avid fan base for Murray State.  Basketball was king in the Purchase area of Kentucky and has remained so to this day. It is this passion that has sustained Murray’s winning tradition through the years.

A New College and a New Gym

The bill establishing Murray State Normal School was passed in 1922; but the first classes were held in what is now Murray Middle School in September 1923. The first building on Murray State's campus was built with the $100,000 that Murray residents had raised to assure the school was built in Murray.  That first building was called The Administration Building, now Wrather Hall.  It contained classrooms, an auditorium, stage, orchestra pit, and a temporary gymnasium.  Classes were first held in that building in 1924.  

By 1925, with a substantial state appropriation, a new administration building, now called Wilson Hall was built.  This building contained more classrooms, a library, a bookstore, a gymnasium for boys' basketball, and a gymnasium for girls' basketball.  This enabled Murray State to field its first boys' basketball team.  

The university catalog from that year described the gym thusly,  “The new gymnasium is 50 feet by 70 feet and has seating capacity for 800 spectators.”

Murray resident Popeye Ross attended the college training school and recalled playing basketball  there, “I recall there was a good hardwood floor in the boys' gym, and the spectators would sit in a balcony on the west end of the gym. The boys' gym was on the ground floor on the north side of the building, and the girls' gym was right above it on another floor.”

“The cheerleaders led cheers in the balcony with the fans,” Thelma Bailey of Murray remembered.

Basketball in the Twenties and a Coach is Hired

Ross described the style of basketball at the time.

“There wasn’t much fast breaking in that day,” he said.  “No one shot a jump shot, and everyone shot their free throws from between their legs. All shots were two handed and shots from outside were always what we call set-shots. The real difference in the game was that the teams jumped at center court after every basket. Many games were low scoring, and in the early years there was no time limit in getting the ball across the center line.”

Carr and Wells knew there was no substitute for a good coach. They spent a lot of time investigating prospects and concluded that Carlisle Cutchin, a coach and teacher from Mayfield was the best leader they could find.  He was a scholar, a great teacher and loved athletics.   On May 12, 1925 Cutchin was hired and soon was assigned a plethora of responsibilities.  He was to teach mathematics and history, organize the physical education department, and coach the football, basketball, and baseball teams.  He was a perfect selection, and was an example of the multi-talented people Carr and Wells hired in those early days of the college.

The First Team and the Years 1926, 27, and 28

In the fall of 1925, the first year of basketball at Murray, 40 young men went out for the team.  After several weeks of what The Shield described as, “strenuous practice” Coach Cutchin divided the men into four intramural teams which competed against each other.  Out of those teams he selected the squad that would represent the new Murray Normal School.  

The first intercollegiate game at Murray was played in the Wilson Hall gym on January 17, 1926 against a team called Will Mayfield.  Murray Lost that first game 31 - 14.  Will Mayfield was a Baptist college then located across the Mississippi River in Marble Hill, Missouri.  It closed in 1934. They lost to Will Mayfield again in the second game of the season 40 - 19.

After only two games the winning tradition began. In the third game of the season the young Murray cagers experienced victory for the first time as they defeated Hall-Moody, another Baptist school located in Martin, Tenn. 27-25.  

The team went on to a winning season that year as they won their final game in February against Bethel College (from Russellville, Kentucky) 31 - 14. Their record for the first year was 9-5.   

The leading scorer for Murray Normal that first season was Preston Ty Holland who would later become a legendary high school football coach at Murray High and have the school’s football stadium named for him.  Holland led the team in scoring in 1926, 1927, and 1928, averaging 11, 11, and 9.2 points. The 1927 Shield said of him, “’Ty’ played the position of forward in fine style.  He was a little slow on the floor, but made up for this with his keen eye for the basket.”

Joining Holland on the '26, '27, and '28 teams was Auburn Wells, a local boy known for his strength and defensive ability. An outstanding athlete, Wells also starred on the football and baseball teams.  After graduation and graduate school he returned to Murray State where he became a respected political science professor, and a noted terror on the handball court.

The 1927 team also played in the Wilson Hall gym, and Murray again ended that year with a winning record, 11-9.  1928 was the last year games were played in the Wilson Hall gym and was also one of the rare years Murray State posted a losing record as they finished 8-9.  

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