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Favorite UK basketball player No. 3 — and 3A

Jack Givens, left, and James Lee with Matthew Bradford at the Ohio UK Convention. (Larry Vaught Photo)

By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer

On May 4, 1974, trainer Woody Stephens brought in two talented thoroughbreds to race in the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. One horse, Judger, was considered the favorite and Stephens felt he was the class of the field. But he also said to not count out Cannonade, another horse he had trained to run in the Derby that year.

In those days in thoroughbred racing if horses had some type of connection — such as having the same trainer which could provide an advantage in strategy to the trainer — the racing commission required them to run as an entry. That meant to the betting public that a bet on one horse was the same as a bet on the other. They usually were listed in the program as 1 and 1a. It was a pretty good deal for the betting public. Two potential winners for the price of one.

That year, 1974, Cannonade upset his stablemate, Judger, and won the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby in one of the largest fields ever to run with 23 horses.

Now I’m sure you’re wondering what does the 100th running of the Kentucky Derby have to do with favorite basketball players at UK? Here’s the connection.

In 1978 UK fielded a veteran basketball team that had several pairs of players that I would consider  “entries” if they were in a horse race. That team had Rick Robey and Mike Phillips playing in the post. Guys that could dominate down low and punish teams on the inside. I would call them 2 and 2a. The Wildcats also had Kyle Macy and Truman Claytor playing the guard positions.  Two guards that knew the game, great outside shooters and made everyone else better. Let’s call them 3 and 3a.

Now for the entry that consisted of my two favorite players from that 1978 team, Jack Givens and James Lee. “Silk” and “Steel.” The producer and the enforcer. For me these  two players have always been paired together in my mind.

Since their days playing high school basketball in Lexington — Givens for Bryan Station and Lee for Henry Clay — to their final game against Duke at the National Championship in St. Louis in 1978 these guys are inexorably linked together.

As high school freshmen in 1970 they both were slated to attend Henry Clay High School. But fate intervened and Givens family moved into the Bryan Station district. Instead of teammates they became rivals and had some epic high school battles in the 43rd district.

But beginning in the 1974-1975 season they were reunited at the University of Kentucky as teammates on a mission to win a National Championship. And win it they did.

As an entry, 1 and 1a, they both provided Kentucky fans with what they had always appreciated and longed for. Local players, homegrown guys, that knew how to win and understood the historical significance of playing for their hometown school.

Jack Givens, known as “Goose” because of his resemblance to Goose Tatum of the Harlem Globetrotters, was a do-everything player out of Bryan Station High School. He had a silky smooth jump shot, left handed of course, and never seemed to be in a hurry. Always moving into the right spot on the floor at the right time.

Givens was named an All-American by various publications in 1976, 1977 and 1978. He was named the MVP of the 1978 Final Four and of course had the 41 point game against Duke in the 1978 National Championship game — a game that brought Kentucky back into the spotlight as a college basketball powerhouse. Jack Givens was one of those players that epitomized the finesse side of college basketball.

James Lee, on the other hand, was sheer raw power displayed on a basketball court. With a basketball in his hands he always looked like a runaway freight train headed downhill. At 6’5” he played much taller than he was.

Both players were an integral part of that 1978 National Championship team that was so enjoyable to watch as a fan. Givens with his 19 point per game average dropping in those medium range jump shots from all over the floor and James Lee grabbing a rebound and going coast to coast to do a one-hand slam dunk at the other end of the floor. His 11 points and 5 rebounds per game don’t really do justice to what James Lee brought to the team as part of the Lexington entry.

That 1978 championship team was one that will always be remembered as a team on a mission. No celebration after each win. A team that was 30-2 overall, 16-2 in the SEC with an SEC Championship but no celebrations until James Lee slammed home a thunderous (left-handed of course) dunk with four seconds left to give Kentucky its fifth national championship.

Watching Jack Givens finish his career with 41 points in the National Championship game and James Lee add the exclamation point with his rim-rattling dunk was what made these guys two of my favorite players.

But what made them my third favorite players of all-time was the way they represented the Commonwealth in the good times and the bad and the way they played the game. Silk and Steel. Respecting the game. Giving your all every game, everyday. That’s what made them special and what still makes them special today. 

So my third all-time favorite is actually two. They are a winning entry, 1 and 1a,  that continues to live on — even after more than 40 years. Two winners for the price of one — now that’s a bet any UK fan would take.

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