Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Kentucky basketball was his dream

    (Third in a series)
    Basketball was the sport Kenneth Harvey loved most, and it came to him naturally. By his eighth-grade year in Logansport, La., he was already on the varsity team.
    In fact, in March 1961, he was on the Logansport team that made the Class B state semifinals -- and played in the first Louisiana state tournament, the Top Twenty in Shreveport's Hirsch Youth Center.
      "The Shreveport Times mentioned that in a story," he recalled last week when we met in Logansport. "It said ... 13-year-old Kenneth Harvey." And he probably was 13 when the story was written; by the time the Tigers played in the tournament, he'd had his 14th birthday on March 2.
        But it's possible that 52 years later, he's still the youngest team member in state tournament history.
        Basketball was his best sport, but he had talent in football, too, as a quarterback and a safety. He was probably Logansport's best athlete in those early '60s years, and one of the school's stars in every way.
         He was 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, lanky but solid enough, a good-looking kid, and a popular, well-liked one. Look at the yearbooks from those years and he's always among the class favorites -- "most popular" or "most athletic" -- and MVP of the Tigers' football and basketball teams.
         He was the big guy who even on gamedays would stop and throw footballs with the little kids in the neighborhood or shoot baskets with them.
Senior year photo
        He was an honor student, a solid "B" student, Pelican State (or Boys State) representative, which meant a summer trip to the LSU campus in 1964.
        His goal was to play college basketball; his dream was to play shooting guard for the Kentucky Wildcats, for "The Baron," Adolph Rupp -- the country's premier program and its legendary coach (this was before UCLA's total domination and before John Wooden was a legend).
       Harvey was a two-time all-district player, and those that remember say he could jump as well as any white kid around, plus he had a shooting style that was exactly what he needed; his release point fully extended above his head, making him play bigger than he was.

        And he could play; I'd always remembered that because I saw him play in high school, I knew he had made all-tournament at one of the Shreveport tournaments.
        But, as I told him, I couldn't remember which tournament, maybe Byrd, Fair Park or Bossier.
        "It was Woodlawn," Kenneth said. "I had the (all-tournament] plaque from there."
         And, yes, that made sense because, as the basketball team manager at Woodlawn, I would have seen every game in our tournament, probably rolled out the ball rack for pregame warmups.
       Some in Logansport thought he could be like Charles "Cotton" Nash, who a few years earlier had come out of Lake Charles to be Kentucky's star player. Rupp had a history of recruiting Louisiana; the word was he'd also been interested in Ringgold's Barrie Haynie in the early 1960s.
        "I wanted to play for Kentucky," Kenneth said not long after we sat down to talk recently. Tulane had already offered him a scholarship; Northwestern State, the closest college to Logansport, was interested, and so were other area schools.
        But it was also possible that he would be recruited to play safety in college football.
        He'd played football 
his first two years in high school and started at safety as a sophomore, but when he injured an ankle in the summer before his junior year and it wouldn't heal, he decided to skip football that season and concentrate on basketball.
        Now he was back, perhaps somewhat reluctantly. He had started the summer making some spending money, bush-hogging people's pastures, but his teammates kept bugging him, kept begging him because they felt he was the missing piece, the key quarterback, for what could be one of Logansport's best-ever teams.
         Indeed, the Tigers were 8-1 and had gone undefeated in District 1-B to win the championship. All that was left to get ready for the state playoffs was the regular-season finale against Many, the bigger school from a parish just south.
        Harvey was having, Coach Johnny Haynes recalls, "a fantastic season."
        Nov. 13, 1964, was homecoming night in Logansport, a nice, clear 75-degree evening. There was Kenneth, with other senior players in uniform, taking part in pregame ceremonies, escorting one of the maids in the homecoming court.
        An hour later, his life -- and the lives of many others -- changed in one sickening moment. This is what can happen on a football field.
        Many, also playoff-bound, already had a two-touchdown lead in a game it would win 21-0; it had scored in the first quarter on a long interception return of a Harvey pass.     
        Now just before halftime, Many scored again. Trying to make a tackle on the extra-point run, Kenneth was at outside linebacker on a goalline defense and read the play perfectly. He ran up into the hole and hit the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage.
         But his helmet -- apparently too low -- banged against the thigh pad of the running back, and his head snapped. He didn't get up.
          "It was just a freak accident," remembers Doug McLaren, the offensive coordinator that season. (He was a football assistant coach and girls basketball coach at Logansport for eight years, 1957-65, but eventually was DeSoto Parish schools superintentent for 13 years, 1970-83).
        "I saw the hit, and I felt that he was hurt, but not to the extent he was," recalled McLaren. "I thought he'd get up, and it might be a concussion."
        "He was yelling, 'Let me up, let me up,' " Haynes recalled. "We were having to hold him down. We finally got him to his feet, and he staggered a few steps, got to about the hash mark and then he hit the ground. He started shaking, and we knew it was trouble."
         Walter Shinkus was the team's physically strongest player, a Class B All-State tackle. He said he "always worried about him (Harvey), about kids built like him -- tall and pretty thin, with that skinny neck.
          "When he got hit, it looked bad," Shinkus said, "and we were afraid that he was screwed up bad. But no one thought it could be like that, that he'd be out that long. In those days, when you're young, we all think we've invincible."
        McLaren remembers carrying the team doctor's bag out to the field. "He (Dr. Willie Garland) looked at him and said, 'We need to get him to Shreveport right away.' "
        Fire department volunteers at the game carefully placed Harvey in the back of a state wagon -- a small town such as Logansport didn't have ambulance service on hand -- for the harrowing 50-mile trip north to Shreveport, to Willis-Knighton Hospital. He was unconscious when they arrived.
      He never ran again. He never walked again.
      In the next few hours, weeks and months, his life was in the balance. He was in a coma for a month, his weight dropped from 180 to 100, he was hospitalized in Shreveport -- some 50 miles north of Logansport -- for months.
      It was not a broken neck, the injury that would become too prevalent in high-profile college and NFL cases over the next few decades and also would strike a few North Louisiana high school players, costing a couple their lives.
       Harvey's was a brain-stem contusion. Massive brain swelling put him in the coma; dislocated vertebrae and a pinched spinal cord would leave him paralyzed.
       But he lived. He came out of the coma, and he began the long rehab, regaining some weight, and he found religion, he regained enough feeling in his arms and hands that, with the determination and effort he had shown in athletics, he learned to make use of them.
      And eventually he found he could live a life, even a somewhat independent one.
      It was four months before he returned home to Logansport to his parents -- who had maintained an around-the-clock vigil in Shreveport, with Kenneth's high school coaches and townspeople sitting in to give them relief. And he joined a younger brother who had never walked, who had muscular dystrophy, and who in time would become Kenneth's greatest inspiration in his rehab.
       Two kids in wheelchairs. One town united in its love and support for those kids and their family.
        (Next: No easy life) 


  1. From Patrick Booras: Inspirational story. It's about fighting for life ... and then fighting for a regular life, if possible.

  2. From Dovie Stahl: Love reading these articles, can't wait to read more and, yes, Kenneth is a treasure to all who know him.