We were owned by a dog.
You heard me, the team with the best record in the American Basketball Association was controlled by a damned Pekinese. What does that tell you?
Zippy had a courtside seat, went to league owners’ meetings, even traveled first class to away games. Hey, that pooch’s paychecks never bounced, so who am I to complain?
But I’ll tell you what, even when we won we still lost. You know?
Artis Renfro, now there’s a name I haven’t thought of in years. Had one of those grins, like everything is alright, nothing to sweat here. But those big dark eyes told you to eat a cancer sandwich most days. I figured it was because I was white. But now, thinking back, maybe just because I was alive. Period.
That’s probably how he got away with never practicing. That grin charmed his way out, but those eyes kept you at a distance. The best player in the league does not miss every practice, only to show up on game nights scoring twenty and not have something up his sleeve.
Some said CIA. Some said Black Panthers. Some said worse.
I’m not stupid. I know the dog didn’t actually own the team. John and Louise Ketchum did. But as dingy as those two were, Zippy might as well have been calling the shots.
Life was wild in the late 60s. That was when the barnstormer still existed. Somehow, I got lucky enough to sit next to the action and babble into my microphone for the entire nine-year mess. Part professional basketball squad, part marketing experiment. They won’t make another Kentucky Colonels, which I suppose is why you are writing this book.
Silky Leibovitz and Sulky Horowitz. The Israeli Air Force. The Hebrew Heartthrobs.
Hell, Zippy was almost what you would consider the most stable part of the Colonels organization. Calling the dog owner was just a publicity trick. That little guy wasn’t all that much different than Penny Ann Early or that unfortunate “Moonshine Night” fiasco. I understood why John pulled all those stunts. He had to pull those stunts. Basketball wasn’t everything, but it was damn close for our owner.
But sometimes that thing you love is the sack of cement dragging you to the bottom of the river.
The Ohio River, in those days, was not a body of water you wanted to spend much time in. Some said dirty. Some said polluted. Some said worse.
The Ohio River, in those days and in these, divided Indiana and Kentucky. But it’s not the only thing separating the two.
Zippy was treated like a prince and Louise loved that scruffy little cuff-chewer like the son she couldn’t carry. John loved all the players like sons for the same reason. He was pretty young to be so successful. Tanned, handsome, large bank accounts. You always thought he could have found someone prettier than Louise, but that fact just made you admire him more.
First time we spoke was over the phone: “Carl, how are you, this is John Ketchum.” We small talked like we should. I had a hint back then that he’d be phoning. “I’m calling on behalf of the Kentucky Colonels basketball team. We’re joining the ABA, going to give the NBA a run for its money,” he said. “Everyone here is a big fan of your work. I heard you once call a women’s field hockey game, wow! Riveting.” John had a way of knowing things like this, he had a way of making words turn your back prickly, thinking you’re just about the most important pile of bone and flesh God ever knocked off the assembly line. I always assumed this talent is what snagged him millions in the restaurant biz.
It’s no secret he also used this charm on himself with disastrous results.
I was reduced to calling watermelon seed spitting contests and tractor pulls back then. Mae was pregnant with our second. Our little girl, Debbie, couldn’t get around without crutches. The bills were piling up, so Ketchum’s timing couldn’t have been better. John continued: “Well, we’re going to need an announcer, Carl. Our owner, Zippy, he’s a Pekinese show dog, well he’d like to offer you the job.”
Back then, Louisville was a cigarette town. It was a bourbon town. It was a thoroughbred town.
The weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby were always the sweetest. Horse racing, especially jockeying, was exclusively a gentleman’s world in the 1960s. It pretty much is today, but it was so much more so back then.
Until Penny Ann Early, of course.
Divine and naïve, those are the words I’d use to describe that era. Those nine ABA years. You forget that grown adults can be either divine or naïve, let alone both. But I was infected by John Ketchum and the rest of them. Walking into the Louisville Gardens—some drafty hangar with bleachers—before games, moving from the smell of the river and bird noises to that heavy cloud of cigar smoke hanging over the court, was a transformation. A somersault. We were all away from our lives and women and collection agencies, if only for a few hours and it felt guilty. It was exciting.
They didn’t break the mold with Artis Renfro, they rigged it together out of broken glass and sharp metal. They created the most god-gifted athlete I’ve ever seen. Renfro proceeded to not only break that mold, but pack it full of explosives, wrap it in brown paper and detonated it on someone’s doorstep. Probably the governor’s, if I know Artis.
The Colonels didn’t know what to do with a six-five power forward who spent post-game press conferences discussing Nietzsche and American prison reform.
Artis would reserve seats for his friends—guys like Bobby Seale, you know? Intense, mean fellas with pistol bulges under their coats.
Never. Not once. Ever. In the three or four years Artis was a Colonel did I see him at practice. You tell me on what other planet a team’s leading scorer would never come to a single shoot around.
Who knows what he was doing instead. But there were incidents.
Herschel “Silky” Liebovitz and Jacob “Sulky” Horowitz.
Where John Ketchum found them I’ll never remember. They both played their college ball at a rabbinical seminary in New York. They spoke with the thickest accents, like longshoremen. Their hair, holy smokes, thick beards and those little curls—black locks twisted over their sideburns. You could spot them from a mile with those yarmulkes—those sweat-stained cloth patches. In Colonels’ green and white, no less.
Silky, so small there was no clearance to dribble between his legs. Sulky, face of a stroke victim’s, but large hands that would toss three pointers like nothing.
They were nice enough guys, but you always sensed you weren’t getting the full story. Like there was some self-censorship happening. They’d probably be more fondly remembered today if people weren’t so confused at the time.
“Carl, buddy, we have a new sponsor this week,” John would say. “Really play them up. Really make ‘em sparkle.” We always had a new sponsor. “I’m worried we won’t be able to afford gas for the bus back from New Jersey. We need these guys.”
It was always the bus or the arena rent or salary for some new prospect. Apparently, Zippy wasn’t so good at balancing the books. That damn dog always made Ketchum shoulder the burden. I imagine other squads did dumb stuff to raise cash, too. We were just sort of the valedictorians.
Human horse racing night. Indoor snowball fight night. Rock concerts. Polka concerts. Anything to get a ticket purchased. And then of course, there was December 17, 1974. “We’re celebrating Kentucky heritage,” John argued when I made a face. That was John Ketchum’s other talent: he could massage a conversation so his opinion always sounded like common sense. Even when he made the hotdog guys walk up and down the aisles selling corn liquor. It seemed like a reasonable idea until all hell broke loose.
Kentucky is a tobacco state. Kentucky is a bourbon state. Kentucky is not much of a corn-growing state. Kentucky, honestly, isn’t a basketball state. We left that stuff to Hoosiers.
No, there wasn’t a nice, soft term for Silky and Sulky back then like there is now. Some said buddies. Some said roommates. Some said worse.
Oh, there were all sorts of stories. You have to remember, this was the south in the late 60s. You’d see him after games, talking to men in long jackets. Whispers. One time the Colonels went on a road trip to San Diego to play the Stars. A few days into the trip, no Renfro, of course. But something weird happens. This congressman from California, Benjamin Darnell, comes up missing. Artis plays all three games against the Stars and when we’re on our way back to Louisville there’s news of that politician without a head, floating in Mission Bay.
Bad luck like that was always following the team around. We’re in Memphis playing the Pros in 1970. What a shame. I grew up in Memphis, but after Martin Luther King was shot, that place wasn’t the same. Like a relative who ate too many paint chips. They’re at Thanksgiving, but you don’t know how they have the strength to chew. Anyway, one time we’re there, no Artis for a few days, he wanders into the locker room ten minutes before tipoff, knows all the plays, understands the strategy, scores thirty and we go home. Next day, I pick up the paper and a very outspoken member of James Earl Ray’s defense team was found dead. Missing an important part of the body above the shoulders and sinking to the bottom of the Mississippi.
Those weren’t the only two, just the first that stick out in my mind as we get talking.
People from Indiana are called Hoosiers. Who knows why? I’m sure they have names for Kentuckians, too. Some say Kentuckians hate Hoosiers. Some say Hoosiers hate Kentuckians. Some say worse.
Penny Ann Early was the first female jockey in history. She was tiny like a gymnast, but rode the hell out of a horse. It made a big splash when one owner let her ride at Churchill Downs. Eventually, though, as these things happen to happen, other riders and owners boycotted her races. Three whole races, which is a lifetime at the track.
Needless to say, owners stopped giving Penny work pretty quickly.
John met her at a cocktail party. That little thing didn’t complain an ounce, but Ketchum saw what was happening with her career. He didn’t like it and that light bulb popped on.
No, I doubt Penny ever touched a ball in her life. She was a farm girl. That didn’t stop Zippy from offering a contract, though. Her lack of experience didn’t prevent the dog from having a special uniform made: a Colonels turtleneck sweater with a short skirt.
The program listed her as #3, probably representing the boycotted races.
Silky and Sulky, they were consistently leaders in scoring and assists. After a while, maybe a season or so, you’d hear more hacking, Yiddish tones spoken in the stands. Gentile high school boys around Louisville took to wearing yarmulkes when they shot hoops. It was hip for a while. Most fellas in town didn’t say anything about this subtle trend. But you could tell by their voices they didn’t understand. All around us, the world was changing. Basketball was the same, but the world? Forget it. Guys on the street would ask me, “How’s it legal for them two to wear hats during a game?” or “Don’t you think them funny curls get in their eyes?” or “You s’pose they wear a jock if they ain’t circumcised?” People were so confused by Silky and Sulky’s religion they never fully embraced those boys.
But I think that was okay by them, because, for some reason, nobody ever pointed out the elephant in the room.
Just like all adults were once babies, all bourbon was once moonshine.
The whole deal starts by boiling corn and water and wheat. That’s roughly how distilling works. After it’s distilled, the stuff’s clear as ice and strong as rocket fuel. It’s only corn liquor at that point. A top shelf, smooth whiskey takes about nine years of rest in a barrel for it to come out different. That stuff is darker, more flavorful, but still strong.
There were a number of other strange coincidences like that. And it was never outwardly spoken, between media men like me, players or even fans, but people had theories. Artis’ head and heart were never in basketball, he was always thinking something else. Something beyond where our beyond is located, you know?
All I do know is that in 1974, midway through the season, Artis missed some practices—no big deal. But we had the Pacers in town that night and Renfro missed the game. Kid never missed a game. We traveled to New York to play the Nets a few days later. Renfro’s not on the plane. Doesn’t show up to the game.
That was it.
Poof. He became a warm breath on a cold day. Our star player just vanished.
Artis Renfro never witnessed Moonshine Night.
So now she’s not only the first female jockey, but the world’s first female pro ball player, too. John Ketchum had a flair, you can’t deny it. Fans came for the first few games, but only saw this tiny blonde girl warm-up. Before the buzzer, she’d take foul shots and rebound and pass in her skirt. Penny’s head barely up to Artis’ chest. But the coach, like owners at the racetrack, refused to put her in.
Penny sat for three weeks.
Who knows what she thought of the whole deal. That young lady would just smile and direct all questions to her owner, Zippy.
Finally, after John and Louise’s urging from behind the bench, the coach wiped his forehead with a handkerchief and hollered down: “Early, get in the game.” It looked to me like Penny didn’t even know where to stand. Artis directed her to take the ball from the ref and inboud a pass to Silky.
The ref didn’t blow his whistle for a second, a little stunned. If you’re thinking this is a movie and the crowd all stood and cheered for this giant leap in women’s lib or something, you’re dreaming. There was mostly silence and nosebleed seat catcalls when the whistle echoed.
Poor Penny, her cheeks were blood-colored. She took a breath and bounced it to Silky. The clock started rolling and the point guard went to work. Penny kind of half-skipped behind him for a step or two.
She smiled. John Smiled. I even smiled, but kept it neutral on the air.
The coach yelled for a timeout before Silky touched half court. Penny was back on the bench. Quietly—not as quiet as Artis—she disappeared from the sideline after that.
“Getcher ‘shine,” they yelled behind me. The whole first half, I was trying to call the game and this noise filled the air. It drove our producer nuts. “One for a dollar, three-for-two,” they yelled. Popcorn guys balanced a tray of little glass shots, clear medical-stinking corn liquor sloshing.
All around the Louisville Gardens: the sound of gasping breaths, the sound of powerful hoots, the sound of shoving out of the rows on the verge of getting sick.
They were roommates. Silky and Sulky owned a house together in the Highlands. Nobody thought much of it. Yeah, I suppose they could have afforded individual pads. They just got along so well together.
They had a New Year’s party once. The place was spotless. It was hard to imagine a couple of bachelors lived there. Where were the stacks of dishes, where were the girlie posters, where was all dirty clothes? All night we talked about a cleaning lady, “she must be on retainer,” we joked. The men laughed and drank their wine and talked to one another. Never so much as touched the other’s shoulder to say “we’re out of spinach dip.”
Sure, it seems obvious now what was going on. I’d like to say it was because the Israeli Air Force was so good at playing ball that people ignored the their personal lives. But we didn’t. We just didn’t think about it at first. It was something you heard about or your uncle told poker table jokes about. It wasn’t something that seemed possible.
The mind has a wonderful way of fogging details. Obscuring the big picture even when you’re in it. Especially when you’re in the big picture.
Silky and Sulky played on the team until it folded in 1976. After a while, people whispered and people stopped coming to their parties.
As far as I know they’re still roommates. Kind of sweet, don’t you think?
Zippy’s ownership came to an abrupt halt during the third quarter of Moonshine Night. Five thousand corn liquor-drunk fans only need one technical foul to get nasty. The Indianapolis Pacers were our biggest rival.
Kentuckians hate Hoosiers.
When the Pacers’ center tripped our center, it took about nothing before one bozo ran out on the court, fists swinging. Ten men in basketball shorts and that guy bunched together, shoving and pulling themselves into a clot. Next thing you know, half the stands were empty.
Kentuckians hate Hoosiers, but drunks hate other drunks more. It was a mess. I left with a black eye and a cracked incisor. Floorboards were pried up. Both backboards shattered. Blood smeared everywhere. One guy set fire to an entire section of seats.
The damage was massive and the Colonels were held responsible.
Zippy did not attend meetings with the Indiana popcorn millionaire. No pooch was present when John Ketchum defaulted on his love for the players and signed over the Colonels to some northerner. He needed to pay off the liquor-related lawsuits and his debt to the arena. This new guy knew popcorn, not basketball, or even marketing. The outlandish stunts stopped, but the team play improved drastically. Still, even when we won we lost. The Colonels folded within a few years.
Our second baby was born healthy and after a while Debbie walked all by herself. Things were looking up, but after Ketchum sold, the wind didn’t taste as fresh outside the arena.
The new Kentucky Colonels were so well organized and tough we even snagged a championship, but no fans came out. There weren’t enough folks in the seats to hang that cigar smog above the court anymore.
It seemed like some nasty interstate joke, doing that to our squad.
Only a Hoosier popcorn freak would be so cruel as to change the team name to the Kentucky Kernels.