Growing up in Northern Kentucky where you could connect to sports world’s all-time greats

By Dan Weber
NKyTribune sports reporter

It was the best thing about growing up in Northern Kentucky: If you wanted to, if you worked it right, you could figure out a way to put yourself smack-dab in the middle of so much of the world of sports that mattered.

Right between Big Ten Country and the SEC – Ohio State and Indiana to the north, Kentucky to the South. And you had the Cincinnati Royals in the NBA where a general admission ticket at Cincinnati Gardens to see the Celtics’ and Lakers’ dynasties come in to play Oscar Robertson and Jerry Lucas cost you just $3.

Willie Mays with Roy Campanella (Photo provided)

And for a kid from Ludlow right there on the banks of the Ohio River, you had the Reds and Crosley Field, just a short walk across the Southern Railroad Bridge through and underneath Cincinnati’s Union Terminal and the Postal Annex and there you were. Six times a season, all you needed was your Knothole Baseball uniform to get into a game for free.


Get there early enough and you could see the San Francisco Giants with the late, great Willie Mays who died last week at the age of 93 and an entire team of Black and Latino players who were from a different place than the folks who populated Ludlow – or later Ft. Mitchell when our family moved there or St. James and Blessed Sacrament grade schools or St. Xavier High at the time, all alma maters of mine.

Baseball did allow you to get to know those guys and be part of their lives – if only as a fan – through a game that always had nothing but a sporting connection for me. A catcher with a non-slim frame who identified with the Dodgers’ Roy Campanella, I used his glove – by far the best catcher’s mitt at the time – and the retired Jackie Robinson’s thick-handled bat because I was up at the plate to hit line drives like Jackie, not home runs.

If there was a racial component to any of this, that only came later. At the time, there was just the joy of watching Mays and his teammates – already superstars in a National League that became superior because there were no racial quotas as there were in the American League. All we knew was that we had almost all the stars in “our” league – and won almost every All-Star Game.

As for Willie Mays, who had moved quickly from the Negro Leagues in Birmingham as a high schooler to the best player in big league baseball history when it came to running, throwing, fielding, hitting and hitting with power, the greatest “five-tool” player who ever lived. Babe Ruth, who did more than anyone to elevate the game in one fell swoop with his power and personality and had been a great pitcher before moving on to full-time slugger and a cultural icon almost bigger than the game itself, may always hold on to that No. 1 spot. But Mays was right there.

Both of them played the game with an almost child-like joy that you could identify with. And we did, Ludlow kids like me in my Schrage’s Hardware jersey who got to Crosley Field when they opened the gates to watch the players take batting practice and infield/outfield pre-game could see it – up close since the ushers mostly let you go right down to the field before any of the ticketholders arrived.

And there was Mays, this superstar looking like a kid, not quite six-feet tall (same as that other league’s superstar, Mickey Mantle) but capable of doing superstar things. And you could almost reach out and touch him. You could hear him for sure before the fans got there. And tell yourself you were glad you grew up in Ludlow. Because there you were, in the center of it all, connected to someone who through his death last week at 93, represented all the good in the game.

Allen Feldhaus Sr. Guarding Jerry West (44) in that UKIT game before West’s broken nose. (Photo provided)

As a sportswriter and Californian for several decades, it was my good fortune to run into Willie Mays occasionally through the years, although too often he was in the clubhouse as the godfather – literally – of Barry Bonds when the steroid controversy tainted Bonds’ record home run totals. And you could tell Willie was wishing it wasn’t always about that and he could talk about other things.

But baseball – in the big bucks era — had changed. For those of us lucky enough as kids from Ludlow who got to see it when it was a game we could all identify with – played by men who knew it was a game and knew how lucky they were to play it for a living – like Willie Mays – it was perfect.

And we were connected to it.


As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when UK basketball was bigger than even today. Memorial Coliseum, counting standing room, could accommodate a mere 12,000 fans tops. And for Wildcat basketball, after winning three of four NCAA championships coming into the decade of the 1950s for Adolph Rupp, it could not have been any more a must-see deal since the games weren’t on TV.

Not sure how I discovered this but the only way to get tickets to a game was to get them for the UK Invitational Tournament, the college game’s premier holiday tournament, because with the students on break, UK sold their tickets. Now for someone yet to have a driver’s license, you had to find a fan going to the games. Which became something of an art. But it was worth it.

Like the night in 1959 when Jerry West – “Zeke from Cabin Creek” they called the West Virginia superstar who at 6-foot-3 could elevate on his soft, long-range jump shot combining two skills that you almost never saw in one player. And then with his quick hands, would be the perfect guard complement to Cincinnati’s own Big O – Oscar Robertson – on that legendary 1960 US Olympic team.

Allen Feldhaus Sr. (Photo provided)

But that would come later. I had found my ride, got a ticket to the UKIT and there I was, maybe a little bit miffed that West was making it look so easy scoring against my Wildcats. But then Adolph summoned a local guy – Burlington’s own Allen Feldhaus, a rugged, raw-boned 6-5, 205-pounder (at least that’s what he was listed at) although Allen always looked much bigger than that, like an NFL tight end when he came out of the recently consolidated Boone County High School in Florence.

Get in there and guard that guy, Adolph told Allen, as West floated above the UK players leading West Virginia to a 79-70 upset of the then No. 7 Wildcats. But that’s not what anyone who was there remembers. There was that errant elbow from Allen late in the first half that rearranged West’s nose for all time and had it bleeding so much their trainer later said it was the first time he wasn’t sure he could stop the bleeding.

“I didn’t think it was possible for someone to bleed that much,” West said years later. “At halftime, they kind of got it under control and I wanted to play.” Play West did, scoring 33 almost effortless points and grabbing 18 rebounds.

As for Feldhaus, who would go on to a career as a great high school basketball coach at Mason County and father of three really good basketball players and two of them high school coaches — Deron, Willie, and Allen Jr. — and later a golf course owner, it was a moment never to be forgotten for a man who battled cancer for nine years before his death in 2017 at the age of 77.

“If you were a Kentucky fan, you got credit for breaking his nose — which I’m not proud of at all,” Feldhaus told ESPN during an interview for the 2000 SportsCentury profile of West — “and if you weren’t a Kentucky fan, you got blamed for breaking his nose.”

As for West who would not only become famous as the NBA “logo” but one of the game’s greatest players and general managers who put together a second Lakers’ dynasty before his death June 12 at the age of 86, he was always approachable and would talk basketball with you whenever and wherever.

Bill Walton, his dog, and his backyard teepee (UCLA News photo)

Except for one subject, which I mentioned only once to him: that I knew Allen Feldhaus and was there that day at the UKIT. Nope, Jerry said, with a smile and a grimace. Not going there, as he playfully protected his nose.


The last connection was one you didn’t see coming. Sure, Bill Walton, who died at the end of May at the age of 71, also after a battle with cancer, was a great college star at UCLA for onetime Dayton High Coach John Wooden, but the 6-11 Walton, out of San Diego, was the quintessential West Coast guy, as his one-of-a-kind broadcast career would make clear in the final decades of his glorious, larger-than-life life.

What you didn’t see coming was the Northern Kentucky connection. After his trade to the Boston Celtics, Walton would get close to Northern Kentucky’s own Basketball Hall of Famer, Dave Cowens out of Bellevue and Newport Catholic. And while Walton seemed mostly the slightly eccentric guy who battled injuries after playing the greatest championship game in NCAA history for UCLA (hitting on 21 of 22 shots from the field against Memphis), he won one NBA championship but could never shake years-long foot problems that limited his stardom in the league although he averaged a double-double in scoring and rebounding for his career.

But I’ll never forget running into Cowens’ best buddy, another Northern Kentucky legend in Dave Guidugli, fitness guru and winner of the first national “Tough Man Contest,” who informed me that Walton was a terrific guy and tremendous teammate. And one of the most interesting people in the world.

Dave Cowans and Bill Walton (Photo provided)

Guidugli would go on to working with NBA big men on their fitness and movement after that and I’d go on to the West Coast where I would run into Walton at USC and UCLA basketball games and even USC football practices.

Bill was always around, always both interesting and interested in everything, including UCLA archrival USC. My wife, a sports columnist at the Los Angeles Times then, got to profile Bill and his wife Lori and dogs and family and backyard teepee and had the best time getting to hang out with the Waltons. As for me, I was a Northern Kentucky bud of Cowens and Guidugli and that was good enough for Bill.

We’re going to miss those guys. But for this kid from Ludlow, getting to connect with them is what has always made sports so special for me. And made me thankful I grew up in Northern Kentucky.

I was connected.

Contact Dan Weber at Follow him on Twitter @dweber3440.

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