As a member of the Bremen High School basketball team in the late 1970s, Ray Harper was twice the district’s player of the year.
“Every night it was a battle and there were some great rivalries. We had seven high schools in the county – there’s only one high school now,” said Harper. “It helped prepare me in the sense that you had to be ready to play every night and couldn’t take a night off and you could never underestimate your opponent."
The high schools in Muehlenberg County were consolidated into one, Bremen High School is no more, but the memories remain.
"It’s good to get back and reminisce and see those guys. We had some really good teams and some great memories that will last a lifetime,” said Harper.
Harper is in his third season as the head men’s basketball coach at Western Kentucky as a native of the commonwealth, he understands the importance of high school basketball.
“The thing I’ve always said is if you get a kid from a high school in Kentucky they’ve been coached. The learning curve isn’t as great as it is for some kids."
High school basketball in Kentucky is a big deal. There’s a Hall of Fame honoring the state’s best through the years, but right now, it’s just a collection of names. There’s no building, no permanent museum...no brick-and-mortar.
But that may change, if Mike Pollio has anything to say about it.
“What do we have in Kentucky? We have tobacco, well that’s about gone,” said Pollio. “We have horse racing -- which Lexington is beautiful. We have bourbon and they have a Bourbon Trail. If you’re a real basketball fanatic, where do you go?”
Pollio is leading the fundraising efforts to construct a permanent home for the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in downtown Elizabethtown.
Across the street from the State Theater is City Hall. Across the parking lot sits an empty church building whose white paint is peeling. It was built in the 1860s and was the home to First Presbyterian Church until 1993.
“Phase one will be the church and that’ll be the ‘cathedral of high school basketball’,” said Pollio. “If you want to spin-off, basketball is almost a religion in this state so why not a church?”
Pollio coached for over 25 years – first high school and then at the college level at Eastern Kentucky, Kentucky Wesleyan and Virginia Commonwealth. He’s leading the effort to raise $3-4 million dollars to restore the church and build a new building in the empty lot next door. The church will tell the history of high school basketball in Kentucky, said Pollio. The new building will feature interactive exhibits and a learning center.
“I think more than anything else this is about people and about teaching what basketball coaches teach, which is respect, discipline and sportsmanship. All of those things – that’s what this museum is going to be,” said Pollio. “This isn’t your granddaddy’s museum. This isn’t going to be a lot of stuff.”
The group planning the museum has hired Murphy & Orr, a firm that specializes in designing sports museums. The company has done work for U of L, Southern Cal and UCLA.
Pollio calls Murphy & Orr “the best museum company in the world.”
So why Elizabethtown? Why not cities with larger populations like Lexington or Louisville? Pollio says they’ve taken notice of the example of another state with a rich history of high school basketball – Indiana.
“Indiana high school basketball found out. They put it in Indianapolis and nobody came,” said Pollio. They put it in Newcastle, Ind. and they’re doing great.”
Pollio says the hall of fame will be the star attraction in Elizabethtown, population 28,531.
Plus, Pollio says, E-town is not unfamiliar with standout basketball teams.
“In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the team that had the most wins was Elizabethtown Catholic. Think about that -- all the Louisville schools, all the Lexington schools and Elizabethtown Catholic and Hardin McLane coached a school of 120 students and they dominated high school basketball," said Pollio.
McLane has done it all in Elizabethtown. He’s been a high school basketball coach, a basketball analyst on TV for state tournaments, a city judge, and a real estate agent. He jokes that if people in town know him, he’s coached them, sold them a house or thrown them in jail.
He’s spent a lifetime in Elizabethtown and his love for the city has never waned. He sees the high school basketball hall of fame as a catalyst for revitalizing downtown E-town.
“Having this will be a part – a big part – of bringing people back downtown,” said McLane.
And the Elizabethtown Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is counting on the Hall of Fame bringing people downtown too. Earlier this year, the CVB pledged a total of $200,000 dollars to the Hall of Fame effort. McLane applauded the investment.
“Elizabethtown always has been a center – partly because of the highway system and partly because of the nature of the people. They’re great people that are always looking forward and always looking ahead,” said McLane.
McLane and Pollio hope to have both phases of the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame complete by 2018, the 100th anniversary of high school basketball in the Bluegrass.