• Rick Capone, Sports Editor

Gene Kirk's playing days turned to gold

GENE KIRK, No. 9, won a gold medal at the 1972 Intercontinental Cup, which was played in Sao Paulo, Brazil, against teams from Russia, Brazil and Poland. He also tried out for the 1972 USA Olympic team. At the trials, players were broken down into teams and competed for a spot on the USA team. In this photo, standing in front of the chapel at the Air Force Academy, are members of Kirk's Olympic Trial team. They are, from left, Joe Cipriano (head coach), Tom Henderson, Gene Kirk, Dwight Jones, Tom McMillen, Cliff Parsons, Doug Collins, Bob Cremins and Tynes Hillebrand (assistant coach). In the end, Kirk didn't make the squad, but a few of his teammates did. (Photo courtesy of Gene Kirk)

On Sept. 9, at halftime of the Woodford County High School football game against Marion County at Community Stadium, Gene Kirk, who is currently the co-assistant athletic director at the high school, was officially inducted into the Woodford County Public Schools Hall of Fame. Kirk earned the honor because of his achievements as head coach of the WCHS boys' basketball team from 1972 to 1999 and from 2009 to 2010. During his years as coach of the Yellow Jackets, Kirk's coaching accomplishments were many. They include being the winningest boys' basketball coach in WCHS history with 452 victories, leading the Yellow Jackets to eight district titles, and in 1986, taking them to the Sweet 16. He currently ranks 23rd in total wins as a Kentucky basketball coach. Also, as if his WCHS coaching duties were not enough, in 1986, Kirk coached the Kentucky All-Stars team to a sweep of the series against Indiana. It was the last time in 30 years that Kentucky swept the series with Indiana. In addition to his basketball coaching at Woodford, in 1985, Kirk led the WCHS girls' golf team to a second place finish in the state championships. Now, while some of you might know about Kirk's WCHS coaching achievements, quite possibly, there are many things he accomplished prior to coming to Woodford in his own playing career that you might not know about. Accomplishments that took him to some amazing places where he played alongside some very well-known players in top level competition. And while he did get a tryout for the 1972 Olympic team (he didn't make the cut), the high point of his career was being a member of the 1972 Gold medal Intercontinental Cup team, which defeated the Olympic teams from Russia, Brazil and Poland. But, that's getting ahead of the story, so let's start at the beginning. Kirk grew up in Mt. Sterling and attended Montgomery County High School. His first love was baseball, but in his junior year he decided to try playing basketball. "I only played two years of high school basketball," said Kirk. "I didn't go out for organized basketball until my junior year. I was very fortunate. We had consolidation the next year. I played mainly JV as a junior. Then as a senior, I got to start." One of the reasons he tried out for basketball was to try something different from his brothers. "My first love was baseball and then I sort of got to playing basketball for a couple years, and it sort of replaced baseball," said Kirk. "That's pretty much (how I got started). I didn't want to compete with my brother (Pete). My brother was a great football player at UK under Coach (Paul) "Bear" Bryant. He had offers from Western Kentucky to play basketball. So, everywhere I went, I was Pete's little brother. And I'll never outgrow that moniker, because he was a really good player." According to Kirk, Pete could have played professional football, but during a game against Tennessee he got a severe concussion that ended his gridiron playing career. Kirk made the most of his time playing high school basketball and, with just two years of playing experience, he was offered a full scholarship to Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. "We were not a wealthy family," said Kirk. "It probably would have been the only way I could have gone to school. . And it didn't cost me a dime to go to college - food, laundry, and the whole nine yards (was paid). ".I was just blessed. I mean, God found some way to move me along. I played my junior year on the JV, and then started after three schools were consolidated. I played with an all-state player and I suppose I was a part of the package. And, then I got a full ride (to college)." While at Delta State from 1965 to 1969, Kirk's team played against some top level DI schools that, at the time, had some future well-known players. "We played a very competitive schedule, and we beat Mississippi, Mississippi State, Southern Miss - Southern Miss had a player who went on (to play) on an ABA championship team - Wendell Ladner." "Around that same time, there were some well-known players competing in Division II, such as Walt Frazier, who played at Southern Illinois; Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe, who played at Winston-Salem; and Jerry Slone, who played at Evansville." While at Delta State, Kirk was known for his defense, rebounding and passing. In fact, to this day, he still holds the record at the college for most rebounds - 26 - in a game. He also earned Best Defensive Player award three years, earned the Mr. Hustle Award in 1968, and in 2000 was inducted into the Delta State Hall of Fame. In addition to playing basketball, Kirk was a member of Delta State's track team, where he ran the quarter-mile and the mile relay. His mile relay team went undefeated two years in a row while he was there. Upon graduating from college, Kirk played on AAU teams, first Jerry's, then Marathon, from 1969 to 1974, where he had great success. In 1972, he was voted Best Defensive Player at the National AAU Tournament and in 1973, he played on the team that won the National AAU Championship. In 1972, thanks to his play in the AAU league, Kirk was invited to try out for the Intercontinental Cup team. He made the team and they travelled to San Paulo, Brazil, where the USA won the gold medal over Russia, Brazil and Poland. Kirk believes he made the team for a couple of reasons. "I was blessed to get to do some of the things I did because, in no terms and in no way would I say I was some great player," said Kirk. "I played defense, I rebounded, I was a good teammate, I passed the ball, and I was smart enough to know what my role was and I played with good players. "We had a lot of people who could score, and I was expendable. I fouled out of a lot of games. "If you watch any of the Olympic Games on TV, you notice that you never let people get to the basket. When they drove, my job was (to) foul and make it pay (for the person driving)." In the Intercontinental Cup games, the USA lost to Russia, then defeated Brazil and Poland to win the gold medal. To this day, Kirk considers the opportunity to play on that team and win the gold medal his crowning achievement. "My proudest moment as a player was getting to represent the United States," said Kirk. "We played in a foreign country. We were in a hostile environment. And, when they played the National Anthem, I'm proud to say I cried. It wasn't the Olympic Games, but I got to represent a county that I love and I couldn't help it. I just cried." How "hostile" was the playing environment? In an article in the March 1972 edition of the AAU News, it explained: With 20,000-plus people in the stands, and ".led by what they call 'ever-present hawks,' fans were waving giant flags on bamboo poles throughout the game (about 100 were in evidence each day), the Brazilians chant endlessly, pound on kettle drums and clap with sticks during play. "A rhythmic 'BRA-ZIL' chant reached such a loud pitch (during the game between USA and Brazil) that players had to pass notes to communicate during time outs." Later in 1972, Kirk got a letter inviting him, and 60- plus other players, to try out for the 1972 Olympic team, and he jumped at the chance. The tryouts were held at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the practices were brutal - three times a day at high elevation. "We started out with 60-(plus players)," he said. "With injuries and people who left, I think we ended up with around 40-something (players). But, we practiced three times a day. We had four meals a day. Of course, that high altitude affected how much you eat and your breathing. We were out there for two weeks." Two of the coaches at the Olympic Trials that year were Bob Knight and Joe Hall, all of whom worked under head coach Henry Iba. "I learned a lot of basketball there," said Kirk. "I learned a lot from Hall of Fame coaches. We played in Iba's style, which is physical defense, motion offense, very much like Knight ran, strong picks, moving without the ball. Running the offense would wear you out itself, because you passed, you never went to the ball, you passed, you picked away, you moved, it was constant movement and motion and learning to spread the floor and keep spacing." Between the Olympic Trials and his AAU play, Kirk learned a lot from all the coaches he played for, which helped him later when he got into coaching. "While playing basketball, I was exposed to successful coaches' systems. I played the Adolph Rupp style, the coach Iba-style and many other Hall of Fame coaches' styles." While Kirk didn't make that Olympic team, he fondly remembers his time at the tryouts, an opportunity he was never going to pass up. The 1972 Olympics are mostly remembered for the terrorist attack. However, for American basketball fans, the other thing that is remembered from those games was the controversial ending of the final between the USA and Russia. It is something that still brings out the passion in Kirk to this day. ". I don't care what anybody else says, we won the gold medal," said Kirk. "They just flat took it away from us. And, they (the USA team) will never accept those silver medals. Never. And I don't' blame them. They did win it. I watched it on TV. As a matter of fact, the guy that scored the goal, (Aleksandr) Belov, was the one I usually tried to guard. He was a heck of a player." In 2012, the team held a 40th year reunion in Lexington and Kirk was invited to attend by his friend, and 1972 team captain, Kenny Davis. It was an enjoyable night. "Doug Collins said he still remembers me, but I don't know if he did or not," said Kirk with a smile. "But he was nice enough to say he did. Coach K from Duke had a video call-in. The governor (of Kentucky) was there. They had a very nice reunion. And, I was honored to get invited." Kirk continued to play AAU basketball for Marathon after the tryouts and recalls it fondly. "We'd do those barnstorming things, and all that kind of stuff," said Kirk. "We used to play the UK freshmen every year. That was a lot of fun. We got to play in Memorial Coliseum. I got to play in the Cincinnati Gardens. A lot of neat places that I would have never, ever thought I'd ever get to play in. Freedom Hall - we used to play some preliminaries for the Kentucky Colonels games. And, Big Artis Gilmore and Dr. J and Dan Issel and those guys- we got to watch them play. Pretty neat deal." Around the same time, he also headed back home to Kentucky and became the assistant coach at Montgomery County, working alongside his former head coach. He did that for two years, while also still playing AAU ball. Then-Woodford head coach Don Lane asked him to be his assistant. He accepted and that led to his great career as the head coach of the Yellow Jackets. And while coaching at Woodford, he still played AAU ball for three years. "Coach Lane recruited me to come to Woodford," said Kirk. ". So, you can blame Don Lane for me being here (at Woodford). But Don Lane is a great man, and I had the . same assistant coach for 27 years - Bill Bland. Not only a great man - a great Christian and a great leader. Both of them are just fine, quality people." Many others helped him throughout his career, which he noted, saying, "It would be impossible to list all the people that had a positive influence on my life and career." Academically, Kirk also was successful, too. In college he earned degrees with a double major in science, and health and physical education/recreation. He then taught for two years at Montgomery County and finished his classroom career at Woodford. "I taught science at Montgomery and Woodford," he said. "Then I was moved over to work with special needs students. I was actually Kentucky's Teacher of the Year (in 1986, in special needs teaching). "I was very much into academics. I was a Faculty Scholar in the Honors Program and Omicron Delta Circle that was selected by faculty for leadership and academics." Today, Kirk is the assistant athletic director at Woodford and enjoys his duties overseeing the game days of some of the sports. Looking back on his career, Kirk shakes his head when he thinks about all that he accomplished. But, being a humble and modest person, he doesn't give himself credit. "I'm telling you honestly and truthfully, I was an average player who was lucky enough to play with some great players," said Kirk. "In high school, I played with All-Stars. In college, I played with All-Americans. . Just a lot of great players. And, I found a niche where I could get to play, because the other players liked me because I'd pass the ball." Of course, he says, he also never got a chance to get a "big head" because his kids kept him grounded. When they learned that many of the athletes at the Olympic Trials moved on to coach in the NBA, "My daughters asked me, 'What happened to you Daddy'? You're just a high school coach," which makes him laugh.

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