History, Community And Talent Fuel The Dirt Bowl

With seconds left in the first half of the Dirt Bowl’s championship game, Jon Jon Henry intercepted an attempted behind-the-back pass, broke out in transition, found the top of the arc, stopped, eyed the basket for a split second and drilled a three, bringing his team Business As Usual within 5 points of its opponents, Newburg, as the buzzer sounded.

“Bang! I said bang!”emphatically responded Cornell Bradley, longtime voice of the Dirt Bowl, booming his signature catch phrase over the speakers as the crowd of thousands erupted.

There wasn’t a single seat available in the bleachers at Shawnee Park that Sunday night in mid-August. People clung to metal barriers surrounding the court, packing in 10 deep, which created an electric feel for the nation’s second-longest running outdoor basketball tournament that takes place in Louisville’s West End. 

Dirt Bowl legend, UofL champion and NBA Rookie Of The Year Darrell Griffith watched courtside with Mayor Greg Fischer. Dirt Bowl founders Ben Watkins and Janis Carter-Miller beamed as they watched the 50th tournament culminate. It was a reminder that even as basketball continues to gravitate indoors, The Dirt Bowl remains a juggernaut, bringing together some of the city’s best players and letting them compete for bragging rights. There’s nothing else quite like it.

Its rich history and the magnetic sense of community it generates have carried the event through five decades, even helping to ease neighborhood tension during the turbulent ‘60s, according to one organizer.   

Hall of famer Artis Gilmore, NBA champion Rajon Rondo and former pros Derek Anderson and Ron King have all played in the tournament.  

Griffith, who was drafted No. 2 overall by the Utah Jazz in 1980, credits the Dirt Bowl with propelling his basketball career.

“The Dirt Bowl was a big part of my upbringing, a big part of my aspirations to go to college and play college ball and to go pro, from watching pros playing in the Dirt Bowl,” Griffith said.

Anderson, who won the NCAA Championship at UK in 1996, before being drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers the following year, also said it gave him confidence for the next stage of his career. 

“It helped me become the player I was when I went to college and the pros, because I wasn’t nervous anymore,” Anderson said. “When I played in the Dirt Bowl, it was like, ‘Everybody is watching.’ You had peers, you had fans, you had a crowd of people just watching you.”

Back at this year’s Dirt Bowl, despite some 3-point heroics, Henry and Business As Usual didn’t pull off a comeback. After a physical and contentious second half, Newburg was crowned the 2019 champions.

Tyrell Means, a Newburg guard, had a critical bucket down the stretch, sealing the team’s victory. The former Ballard High School and IU Southeast standout has played pro ball in Germany, Greece, Canada, Turkey, China and Cyprus. He’s also made time for the Dirt Bowl every year for the past decade.

“There is a lot of respect for the winner and the team,” said Means after the game.  

“It’s a wonderful tournament. Fun atmosphere. You get to see everybody from different parts of the city come together and unite.”

Gerald Gray, who spent two seasons as a sharpshooter for the Harlem Globetrotters, played in his first Dirt Bowl in the kids’ division in the early ‘70s. As an adult, his team won the championship three times. And this year, he played in the old-timers’ game, where he connected on multiple threes.

“Someone has the torch and it’s always being passed down,” Gray, 56, said. “I just love it, man. You see the park now. It’s sold out. It’s sold out. And that’s how it used to be. No problems. Everybody is having fun. And just good basketball.”

The crowd at the 2019 Dirt Bowl championship game. | Photo by Scott Recker

Year One: ‘Play Against The Best’

Ben Watkins and Janis Carter-Miller started the Dirt Bowl in 1969. The two college students were home for the summer, working for the Louisville Parks Department. They were both assigned to Algonquin Park, which is also where Watkins — who, at the time, played basketball at Jackson State University in Mississippi — was getting in his off-season workouts. Word spread that he was practicing there, and other players started to join him. The pickup games led to a summer-long tournament, which got its name because the court at Algonquin was completely surrounded by dirt. That was somewhat of a positive thing for the Dirt Bowl’s first year, since it was obvious when a foot or ball went out of bounds. But, they had to move the tournament to Shawnee Park in the early ‘70s because the caliber of players that turned up in 1969 and beyond drew such large crowds.

“Once the college players came, we began to get a lot of pros,” Watkins said. “Back then, if you were a ball player in Louisville, you had to play against the best, and the best was the pros. We had the Kentucky Colonels.”

George Tinsley, who would go on to play four years in the ABA, including a season with the Kentucky Colonels, competed in the first Dirt Bowl. So did future Colonel Ron King and later NBA champion Butch Beard, as well as Nate Northington, who was the first African American to play football in the Southeastern Conference, or SEC, when he stepped on the field for UK in 1967.

“Back then, everybody played — man, it was something to be reckoned with,” said King, who is currently a recreational leader at the Newburg Community Center.

King was still in high school when he played in the first Dirt Bowl, and he said it helped shape his toughness as a player.

“When I was playing, they got this guy called Big Smitty,” King said. “He was like 6’4” about 235 — he was a roughhouse. I’m 6’3” about 165 to 170 pounds. So, I was going up, and he put an elbow under mine, and I fell on my face, bleeding from the mouth. He said, ‘Youngblood, if you’re going to play with the big boys, you’re going to get up,’ so I got up, bleeding all over my mouth. And he said, ‘Boy, you’re going to be all right.’ And I was all right. I wasn’t the biggest person, but I was tough.”

Watkins’ favorite memory from the first year is when playground legend James Caldwell dropped 44 points on eventual 1969 Dirt Bowl champions Newburg (yep, the same team that won in 2019).

“That was an outstanding moment,” Watkins said. “And that record still remains today. Nobody has had 45 point yet.”

In the summer of 1969, Caldwell had just finished two years at Kentucky State Reformatory, where he played in an intramural league. In the 2016 book “I Said Bang!” — an oral history of the Dirt Bowl from the Louisville Story Program — Caldwell remembered how the experience shaped him:

“But, I was a different player than folks remembered from my high school days. I wasn’t timid anymore. One game that first Dirt Bowl, I scored the 44 points. People said, ‘What happened to Caldwell?’ I was beginning to be the best I could be playing down there.”

And that’s part of the magic. 

The Dirt Bowl features basketball at a high level, without prerequisites or bureaucracy. If you can play, you can make some noise in the tournament.

“What else could you find where a high school or college kid could walk onto an outdoor basketball court and play against a pro, with a huge crowd?” Watkins said.

Off the court, the late ‘60s were loaded with social and political turmoil. The civil rights struggle was in full effect. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. That May, a riot broke out in Louisville in response to the possibility of a white police officer being reinstated after he was accused of beating a black man a few weeks earlier. Cars were burned. Stores were looted. Four hundred people were arrested. Two people were killed, including a 14-year-old boy, who was shot by the police.

Watkins said that part of the purpose of creating the first Dirt Bowl was to attempt to ease a bit of the tension.

“People were able to relax, take a breath,” Watkins said. “If nothing else, Saturday and Sunday, they’d get time to relax and enjoy themselves.”

The first Dirt Bowl in 1969. | Photo courtesy of David Cosby

Dirt Bowl’s Deep Legacy, Many Legends

It’s almost impossible to spend any time around the event and not hear about a high school Darrell Griffith dunking on a then-Kentucky Colonels center, 7-foot 2-inch Artis Gilmore. 

It’s a golden piece of mythology. And it still causes disagreements. 

Some people say it was so powerful that the game had to be stopped because the crowd flooded the court to celebrate. Some say it was overblown, that Griffith only dunked in the vicinity of Gilmore. Others say it never happened.

Griffith remembers it clearly though. 

“He got the rebound and everyone went down court. He was looking for somebody to make the outlet pass to, so they could go on the offensive end. He made the outlet pass, to I can’t remember who, but with not enough weight. I stole the ball, so it was just me and him. I could have laid the ball up or shot a jump shot, but I was a young, fearless guy,” Griffith said, laughing. “The park went crazy. You got this young, ninth, 10th grader, taking it to a pro and dunking on him. And that was a highlight moment.” 

“You always had to prove yourself, being young,” Griffith said. “And any opportunity to do that, as a player I did that.”

Another part of Dirt Bowl history that continues to have an impact is announcer Cornell Bradley’s catchphrase — “Bang. I Said Bang!” — which has become widespread slang for hitting a three. People use it in pickup games. ESPN announcers say it. Bradley, who has been commentating games at the Dirt Bowl since 1979, said that he coined the phrase in the early ‘80s.

“One year, we had a machine down here that was like a clicker,” Bradley said. “And when somebody would make a three-pointer it would go boom, boom, boom, boom. It would make a noise like that. The next year, we didn’t have that. So, when somebody would shoot a three, I would say, ‘Bang. I said bang.’ And that’s how I started that.”

While there’s an astounding amount of jaw-dropping stories about the Dirt Bowl and its past, the tournament has also had its struggles. It didn’t happen for a few years in the 2000s, due to an increased amount of violence in the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as waning funding and support. Mayor Fischer was instrumental in reactivating the Dirt Bowl in 2012. He said it was important to work through the issues and bring back something that was so pivotal to the community.

“It’s just something that’s unique, not just in the city but in the country,” Fischer said. “And Louisvillians take a lot of pride in that — that’s why it’s important that it keeps going on.”

The 1982-84 Dirt Bowl champs IMAGE in action. | Photo courtesy of David McConico

New Rules, Attitudes Change Dirt Bowl

Like outdoor basketball everywhere, AAU — an amateur sports organization that gets kids in front of scouts at an early age — has had an impact on the Dirt Bowl. Because it can make or break an early career path, many young players of a high skill level focus on AAU in their off-seasons. It was the path taken by Louisville native and current Golden State Warriors guard D’Angelo Russell, who played a year at Central High School, before transferring to Montverde Academy in Florida, which led him to become a five-star recruit, playing for Ohio State University and being selected No. 2 overall in the 2015 NBA Draft.

“AAU is a big milestone for anybody,” Russell told ESPN for an article titled ‘Playground Basketball Is Dying.’ “If you’re not playing AAU, you’ll be lucky to get out of your own city. AAU helps any kid. You get to play in front of top colleges, play with the top players, against the top players. You get to make a name for yourself every day you play.”

Despite this, the Dirt Bowl remains a place where park heroes and rising neighborhood kids can take on people who play basketball as a full-time job, although the professionals who play these days are mostly overseas guys, since the current NBA landscape is much different than it used to be. There’s more money, restrictions and training camps in the NBA and the NCAA in 2019. Although both college and pro players still are allowed to play in outdoor tournaments, it’s becoming less likely that players who are under a large contract — or are about to sign one — will play any sort of playground basketball. 

But, even though the Dirt Bowl is known for its caliber of players, some who have gone on to long careers, Watkins said there are plenty of other tournament competitors who went on to have a positive impact on their neighborhood. 

“There are players that come here, and maybe not even had scholarships, but went on to become better people, better people in their community,” Watkins said. “Working out together. And playing together. And forming a unity with the city.”

Janis Carter-Miller, who played basketball at Kentucky State University before her jazz career took her to places such as Las Vegas and Paris, said that it’s been incredible to see something she helped conceptualize carry on this long. 

“We think we’re just adding something to the program, right,” Carter said. “Fast forward 50 years and the program is still going on. As you get older, and you look at things: This is a part of my legacy now. Who woulda thunk it?”

2019 Dirt Bowl champs Newburg. | Photo by Scott Recker.

Back To The Future: ‘Really Something Special’

“This is what we do.”

“We won this in 2013. We done did this before.”

We’re just back where we’re supposed to be.”

“We’ll repeat next year.”

The comments flew out at a rapid pace as the 2019 Dirt Bowl winners from Newburg stood in front of media cameras, shortly after they accepted their championship trophy. Small fireworks exploded on the court, while the barbecue truck and the fried fish tent packed up. The winners hung around for a bit, accepting congratulations and answering questions, as the hazy, partially-hidden sun began to set.

The Dirt Bowl is part block party, part history lesson, part unique setting for extremely competitive basketball. The multicolored rubber court is a state-of-the-art way to protect the player’s knees and feet, but the event still has a way of making you feel like you’ve teleported to a bygone era, a time when vibrant playground basketball with dense crowds happened in cities across the United States.

While a myriad of things has led to the decline of outdoor ball, it’s three words that surface over and over again that point to the Dirt Bowl’s longevity: history, tradition and community.

“I think it means everything,” said Daijia Ruffin, a former University of Alabama basketball player, who played in the 2019 women’s Dirt Bowl game. “Louisville continues to grow each year, and the way our community comes out and supports each other is really something special. It gives everybody something to do. And why wouldn’t you want to be a part of history? Every year that you choose to play in the Dirt Bowl, you’re a part of something special.”

Thomas Gibson, who has helped organize the Dirt Bowl for the last six years, said the event “shows tradition.” 

“It shows history of the Dirt Bowl. And it also give encouragement to the younger generation, to have something to keep going forward. It’s a lot of fellowship here in the Dirt Bowl — some young, some old. But, to me, it’s all about tradition. It’s all about history, here in West Louisville,” he said.

Watkins, who is now 70, said he is grateful that the tournament is still having a positive impact on families all of these years later. 

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for me, as the founder of the Dirt Bowl, to see it come this far,” Watkins said. “It’s had its ups and downs. Just to come this far for the community. Not for me. I’m just thankful that the community gets an opportunity to see this. A lot of the guys that are playing now, their fathers and uncles played in the Dirt Bowl, and they have a chance to be a part of this. It’s unspeakable. It really is.” •

The 50th-anniversary Dirt Bowl Banquet & Awards
Sunday, Aug. 25
Frazier History Museum
829 W. Main St.
$45  | 6 p.m. 

For further reading…

The Louisville Story Program released an oral history of the Dirt Bowl in 2016 called “I Said Bang!”
which featured contributions from Darrell Griffith, Ron King, Derek Anderson and many more. It can be purchased at Carmichael’s Bookstore, through the Story Program’s website and on Amazon. It won a 2016 Kentucky History Award from the Kentucky Historical Society.