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I never saw Joe Fulks’ legendary one-handed shot into a jump shot. I never witnessed Howie Crittenden leading tiny Cuba to the 1952 state championship. I never was able to appreciate the greatness of Linville Puckett, Butch Beard and Johnny Cox. I never caught of a glimpse of William Kean or Letcher Norton coaching their teams to win after win.
My best recollections of Allan Houston are from his days at Tennessee or in a New York Knicks uniform, not at Louisville Ballard. I’ve heard my father tell tales of Ashland’s Larry Conley.
There are not many in the second class of the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame I’m able to say I was there when that happened. But there is one of the 2013 inductees I had the luxury of seeing on a regular basis. That player is Paintsville’s J.R. VanHoose, the greatest player I’ve seen put on a high school uniform.
My first job was working for the tiny Paintsville Herald in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. I didn’t realize at the time what my next two years were going to give me: The opportunity for an up close and personal view of VanHoose, who seemed like a fictional folk hero. A mythical story made up in eastern Kentucky passed down from generation to the next.
VanHoose, though, was real, a larger than life school-boy hero. He became an icon as a seventh-grader when he was part of an undefeated team which once scored 102 points in a middle school game. He stood 6-foot-10, but he always appeared much bigger than that. He is one of only a handful of players to finish his career with more than 3,000 points, 2,000 rebounds and 500 blocks. And fortunately for me, I was there to see a lot of them.
Every night he stepped on the floor, VanHoose delivered even though coaches devised game plans to stop him, opposing student sections chanted against him and opponents wanted to prove they were better than him. He went toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best, like Dan Gadzuric, a UCLA recruit, but he played the same as if he were playing against Pikeville or Prestonsburg.
VanHoose made rebounding an art form, the same way Michelangelo or Picasso did with a brush in their hand. He made it appear so elegant and graceful. He read the ball coming off the rim like no other player and positioned himself in the right spot time and time again.
But VanHoose was more than just a tall player who scored. He had the footwork of a ballroom dancer, using a variety of post moves to beat his opponent time and time again. Most times VanHoose had to use his skills to get a shot off between two or three defenders. He also ran the floor better than most big men, beating fellow post players to the block for easy baskets.
VanHoose turned in what is still considered one of the greatest games in the Boys’ Sweet 16 with his 29-point, 27-rebound game against Lexington Catholic in the 1996 semifinals. He earned MVP honors the same year after the Tigers knocked off Ashland for the state championship.
What is more impressive than the gaudy, mind-boggling statistics VanHoose put up is he was a winner. He played in four consecutive state tournaments from 1995-98, and in his final three, he was part of a state champion, a semifinalist and a state runner-up. Not too many players have that type of resume and the eye-popping numbers.
As great as he was, VanHoose was even more humble. I recall talking to him countless times in the damp and cramped Paintsville locker room under the bleachers and his responses were the same — always about the team, never the individual. He respected the game even though he was the reason those same wood bleachers were full night after night.
The accolades — the 1998 Mr. Basketball and Parade All-American — and scholarship offers poured in. I remember going to VanHoose’s parents house and there was shoebox after shoebox filled with letters from college coaches all alphabetized. The one offer which never came was from Kentucky, although VanHoose has moved on from that. He went on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career at Marshall University.
Now, VanHoose has another Hall of Fame to his credit.
“I was telling Mike Fields (of the Lexington Herald-Leader) growing up you heard stories about Johnny Cox and Larry Conley and you wanted to be like them,” VanHoose said in an earlier interview. “Now, I’m being inducted with those guys. Linville said to me, ‘I enjoyed watching you play in high school.’ It's unreal. It’s a great honor. It makes you feel like you really accomplished something.”
VanHoose achieved greatness.
At least, in my eyes.
Chuck Jones is The News-Enterprise sports editor. He can be reached at (270) 505-1759 or email@example.com.