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Don't try to sell John Cunningham on Rick Pitino, John Calipari or any other modern basketball coach as being the master of the full-court press and fast break offense.
He'd rather talk about Herbert Garner, coach of the Lincoln Institute Tigers.
“What made our team so good was that we would practice for 2-3 hours doing nothing but the full-court press,” says Cunningham, a Lawrenceburg realtor who was bused to Lincoln Institute.
The 3-point line? “That's all we shot from,” laughs Cunningham, who was the leading scorer on the 1955 Lincoln Institute team that won the championship of the Kentucky High School Athletic League. “During warmups, we would all dunk.”
Cunningham's letter jacket commemorating the Tigers' state title has been on loan to Berea College for the school's Founder's Day honoring Lincoln Institute.
In a 1995 interview, Cunningham said that Lincoln team had lost to Central, coached by the legendary William Kean, four times during the season, but in the finals, Cunningham led the Tigers to their final KHSAL championship.
Two years later, the KHSAL disbanded as athletic desegregation began with schools joining the Kentucky High School Athletic Association.
“That is just the way it was and you accepted it,”Cunningham says of separate schools for blacks and whites. “Black and white kids, what they see today, they think it is the way it has always been. They don't know anything about segregation. We couldn't drink out of a water fountain.”
In 1955, Lincoln had a magical run to the title, defeating Lexington Douglass in the semi-final. Cunningham says he drew the defensive assignment on Douglass star Amos Burdette. “When he fouled out, that game was all over,” Cunningham recalls.
That night, at Kentucky State University, Lincoln got the sweetest revenge, defeating heavily-favored Central.
After Cunningham graduated in June, there were limited college opportunities. He went away to Central State College in Ohio, but stayed just one day. In January of 1956, Cunningham joined the Air Force and was in Japan for two years. While there, he joined the team at Nagoya Air Force Base, starting a career in the old Armed Forces Leagues.
“We played against a lot of small college teams,” Cunningham says. “One time we were in Little Rock, Ark. and we played against a guy named Geese Ausbie,” Cunningham says of the game against Philander Smith College.
Ausbie went on to play for the Harlem Globetrotters from 1961-1985.
Cunningham eventually went to work for IBM in Lexington, playing on the company team. “We played the UK freshmen. They had Thad Jaracz and that bunch. They beat the snot out of us,” Cunningham laughs.
But John Cunningham's proudest days on the hardwood came at Lincoln Institute.
In that 1995 interview, Cunningham remembered seeing some many Lawrenceburg fans in the stands before Lincoln played Central for the title.
“Those were exciting days,” he said.