By John J. Duncan Jr.
I have just finished reading a great book called “When Cuba Conquered Kentucky,” which the cover describes as “the triumphant basketball story of a tiny high school that achieved the American Dream.”
The book was recommended and loaned to me by one of our Bean Station neighbors, Anna Sue Watson, wife of former LMU basketball coach Hugh Watson.
It is the true story of how one of the smallest schools in Kentucky defeated the big schools from Louisville, Lexington, and elsewhere to win the 1952 basketball state championship.
Cuba was an unincorporated community of about 150 in the far west tip of Kentucky near the Tennessee line. It was an isolated farming area hemmed in by rivers on three sides, the Tennessee, Ohio, and Mississippi.
Most of the boys on the team, the Cuba Cubs, were the sons of tenant or very small farmers. They had to milk cows and do other farm chores both before and after school.
The book tells of how one of the star players, Doodle Floyd, and his father and brothers would walk two miles to the house of a neighbor who had a radio to listen to major sporting events.
The family had “much excitement” waiting for a new radio when their father was finally able to order one on the Sears catalog. When it finally came, the boys were “not to touch it.”
These were boys who had no toys or games and didn’t even have a regulation basketball to play with except for at school.
Most of the Cubs played together from the eighth grade on. They jelled together until at the end, almost the whole state of Kentucky was rooting for the poor boys from Cuba.
I enjoyed reading about the boys and their families, their coach, and their many come-from-behind victories.
What impressed (and saddened) me the most was the way the author, Marianne Walker, ended the book.
She wrote that Cuba and the surrounding small schools were replaced with “a modern, progressive facility, with certified faculty and administrators, and with a much-improved curriculum and athletic facilities. Since then, nothing remarkable has happened in Cuba.
She added that most of the original houses and farms are gone and that “the people who live in the Cuba area now don’t know everyone else by their first name. In the evenings they don’t sit on their front porches and talk as the folks once did. Missing, too, from the landscape, are little boys playing basketball outside.”
It was a big mistake to build bigger and bigger high schools. Kids have a better chance to make a team, be a cheerleader, serve on the student council, or lead a club in a smaller school, or at least be more than just a number.
I once read in USA Today that the largest school in New York City, with 3500 students, was broken up into five separate schools and their drug and discipline problems went way down.
Marianne Walker wrote: “In the last fifty years, small schools have been consolidated into larger ones, despite objections from parents, students, and teachers. With their schools gone, many little rural communities – like Cuba – have lost their sense of identity, unity and purpose.
Ms. Walker added that the rural communities, in large part because of school consolidation, “are frequented now as cities are, so it is not likely that little Cuba’s story will ever happen again.”