Rise and fall of All-Star series

I still recall booing Mike Flynn.

Booing, mind you, not with the blanket disdain held for Kentucky high school all-stars. No, I was full-throat in a hiss reserved for someone unimaginable to this eighth-grader. Flynn was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, and he was going to play basketball at the University of Kentucky.

To this 14-year-old, there could be no more treasonous act. So, along with my dad, we piled in the family sedan in mid-June 1971 and made our way from Vincennes to Hinkle Fieldhouse to cheer the Indiana All-Stars. And to boo Mike Flynn.

It may seem trivial now, but at the time nothing could have been more serious. The basketball rivalry between the two states was more intense than anywhere else. The annual basketball all-star series was the pinnacle of that battle, an annual accounting of basketball supremacy.

Not anymore. Indeed, not for quite a while.

While Flynn and his compatriots played before sellout crowds in both states, the attention over the series barely moves the meter now.

The first game in Lexington next Friday night will be played not at Rupp Arena, as might have been the case decades before, but at Transylvania University’s 1,200-seat Beck Center. Last year, one-third of those seats were empty (the Indiana game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse drew a respectable 6,500).

After 75 years, this once-proud tradition may be near its end.

The Kentucky side of the equation is on life support. The Kentucky Sports Commission has been brought in with a three-year plan to stop an outflow of cash, which has been a longtime fundraising vehicle for the Lions Club.

Brian Miller, chief executive officer of the commission that runs the Kentucky All-Stars, said eliminating tryouts will save about $3,500 in housing, gym rentals, food and gear. Miller said the Kentucky junior all-star teams also have been eliminated.

“This should be a fundraiser for the Lions Eye Foundation and not end up costing them thousands of dollars,” Miller said.

That is a far cry from the high point of the series, which might have been hit in 1969. That was when Indiana Mr. Basketball George McGinnis sensed some disrespect from his opponent in the first game, after a 23-point, 14-rebound game in Indianapolis.

“I think he’s overrated, I really do,” Joe Voskuhl told the Louisville Courier-Journal. “Oh, he’s good, but he’s overrated.”

McGinnis dropped a 53-point, 31-rebound game on the Bluegrass boys at Louisville’s Freedom Hall.

“Back in those days, we didn’t have AAU or any other outlet in the summer other than to play in the All-Star game,” McGinnis later told a reporter. “So once he said that, I was really fired up. It seemed like everything was going in.”

McGinnis and Flynn both played professionally for Philadelphia and Indiana.

The Kentucky-Indiana All-Star games have matched the top seniors from the states each June, starting in 1940 for boys and in 1976 for girls. The intensity often has reflected that focus displayed by McGinnis, if not always the results.

With the growth of the AAU circuit and other opportunities, though, the spotlight does not shine as bright on the series. That takes a toll.

This year, Indiana Mr. Basketball Caleb Swanigan, a Purdue recruit, will skip the game for a chance to try out for a spot on the U.S. national team. It is the second straight year that No. 1 will not be there. Trey Lyles, another of those Hoosiers going to Kentucky, was out with an injury last year.

The lack of a No. 1 likely won’t matter. Indiana boys and girls teams have won all but one time in the past decade, another reason the series is in decline.

Things are bad and getting worse in Kentucky, where coaches lament trying to get six or seven players in for a week of practice. Picking a team is even a challenge. Of the 16 coaches on Kentucky’s selection committee, only five showed up for the meeting.

Selection as an Indiana All-Star is still a great honor. Playing Kentucky, though, is not. This is a series that may disappear in another year or two. That is too bad for those of who recall the rabid days when the Indiana-Kentucky game was circled on the calendar.

I miss Mike Flynn.