Darrell Griffith and Some Dirt Bowl Delight, 1975—1999

[New York’s Rucker League lays claim to the U. S.’s oldest annual summer basketball league. Any idea on the second oldest summer league? 

If you answered Louisville’s Dirt Bowl, you win the prize. The Dirt Bowl got its start in 1969 after the city’s finest players, primarily from Louisville’s West End, started converging on Shawnee Park and its then-lone basketball court. A summer league was formed, and because the court was once unpaved, viola, the Dirt League it was called. 

By 1972, about 500 players did it in the Dirt over a seven-week period. In sign of the times, NCAA officials took exception to the Dirt Bowl, calling and posting letters to the league’s organizers to cease and desist. Why? The NCAA was opposed to its dear student-athletes openly competing against pros, then mostly from the ABA Kentucky Colonels. The Dirt League survived the NCAA’s wagging finger and lived on to celebrate the likes of the Dunkin’ Duncans, Ice Man, and a player known as Special X. And the annual celebration continues to the present day in Shawnee Park with its now multiple basketball courts.

What follows are two old articles that pay tribute to the early Dirt Bowl. After that, there are two additional articles to pay homage to one of the Dirt Bowl’s all-time greats, Darrell Griffith. Yes, Dr. Dunkenstein. Or better known to me as The Golden Griff for his extended and productive run with my NBA-favorite Utah Jazz (1980-91). 

First up is a really nice overview of the Dirt Bowl from Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Mike Sullivan. It ran on August 18, 1975. Take it away, Mr. Sullivan.]


Starting his move behind and to the left of the free-throw line, Bruce Briggs feinted left, spun right, executed a triple-pivot jelly-roll reverse, then feathered an underhand layup into the basket.

This was during a timeout in the Dirt Bowl basketball tournament at Shawnee Park yesterday. Briggs is a referee, not a player. But you don’t often see a 5-feet-7, 230-pound man waddle to the hoop with such wild, chubby abandon.

There is not anything, anywhere like the Dirt Bowl. It is a seven-week, 77-team, double-elimination, 924-player, free-admission, outdoor-basketball tournament. And it is more. It is a world of fantasy-come-true, where pre-adolescents and ex-cons, has-beens and never-wases, professional stars and future college greats play together in a swirl of color and motion and noise. It is a love-feast in a wooden amphitheater of incredibly tall trees, where, in a quiet moment, you can almost hear the Ohio River slipping around a bend less than 300 yards away.

And for Bruce Briggs, it’s a form of personal therapy. “I’ve refereed one or two games every day of the tournament, and you can bet I’m not doing it for the $2.18 an hour,” Briggs said. “It just makes me happy. I’m in a detective down at Juvenile Court, and I’m always being exposed to frustrating situations involving children. I come here and see them finding a release.”

After officiating the first two of yesterday’s four games, Briggs took over the public-address microphone. He entertained the approximately 1,400 spectators for the rest of the day with a disc-jockeyish mix of soul patter, play-by-play, and name dropping.

“Basket by Jimmy The-Leading-Scorer Caldwell . . . Rejection by Darrell Griffith . . . We would now like to recognize Mr. Ronnie Howard of Players International and his bodyguard Jerry . . . Three-point goal by Billy Basketball himself, Bill Bradley . . . Welcome fans to the Dirt Bowl, home of the stars of yesterday-today-and-tomorrow, where you can sit next to the stars of the day-before-yesterday and the year-before-last . . . We’d also like to recognize Freaky Fred from Clarksville. 

“Basket by Tricky Ricky Daniel . . . Fans, get your barbecued ribs, Coney Islands, and other goodies at Nick and Steve’s concession stand . . . Goal by Keith The Red-Nose Rudolph . . . There will be a free chitlin dinner after the final game at Market and Broadway (there’s no such address) . . . Will the midget in yellow shorts please report to his bench (at this, a father retrieved his infant son from courtside) . . . And now we would like to welcome back to Shawnee Park—yes—The Sun himself, who is beaming at us from the far West.”

Mr. Campy Edwards

On the court, the action was furious and usually skillful. Around the court, you could see a drive-up spectator watching from his bicycle, a German Shepherd wearing sunglasses and a shade cap, two kids playing in a sandpile, and a squirrel scattering several spectators by heaving down nuts from the limb of a tree.

“The weather had been giving us fits,” said Ed (Campy) Edwards, standing a few feet from the squirrel’s target area. “All the finals were scheduled for today, but rainouts have pushed three of them into next week. And man, these guys HATE it when they can’t play on Sunday! That’s when the crowds really come out, and they get to show their stuff.”

Edwards, a teacher at Jefferson Community College, is working for the Metropolitan Park and Recreation Board as Dirt Bowl coordinator. What he enjoys most is seeing no-name athletes find a place in the sun. 

“I’ve seen players here you just wouldn’t believe,” Edward said. “Guys who got themselves in trouble and went to Eddyville or LaGrange [prisons], and high school dropouts—they go out there and really do a job on the pros! And, of course, this does a lot for their egos. They go out in front of the family, friends, and fans, and it’s a way of saying, ‘Hey, I can still get it done; even though I’ve been in trouble. I’m all right now, and this is what I can still do.”

The Dirt Bowl may be the last refuge of the true neighborhood team—literally, a Bunch of Guys From the Block. Team names range from old-fashioned (Rockets, 40th Street Gang, Lexington Bobcats) to flamboyant (Jive Six, Chocolate City, Mandingos, Butchers, Newburgh Door Knockers) to mysterious (The Fellows, The Uninvited Guests, The Unknown).

“You know, the rain wouldn’t matter if these guys would agree to use a gym now and then,” Edwards said. “But they’d rather live with the uncertainties. They say if we ever going inside, it won’t be worthy of the name Dirt Bowl.

It is a proud and special name.

[Let’s move forward two years to August 21, 1977 and Louisville Courier-Journal columnist Dick Fenlon. Fenlon, a white, middle-aged staunch defender of all things Dirt Bowl, took his pen and notepad that summer to Shawnee Park, where he bumped into one-time ABA star Goose Ligon and former college All-American Mike Grosso, who, if not for a serious knee injury early in his college career, would have had the pro scouts positively drooling. Grosso, pre-injury, was a big-time talent who had been recruited out of high school in the 1960s like a Moses Malone. The two, now getting up there in Shawnee Park years, wouldn’t miss their runs in the Dirt Bowl. Here’s the story.]

“I think I peaked too early,” said the old guy wearing the old jersey with Virginia Squires Training Camp printed on it. 

The guy’s name is Goose Ligon. Under the sheltering limbs of a giant oak, with the succulent odor of ribs roasting on the grill wafting past his nostrils, the old Virginia Squires guy stood talking to another old guy late yesterday afternoon as twilight wrapped its blanket of loveliness around ancient Shawnee Park.

The other old guy also had an interesting jersey on. Milwaukee Bucks Basketball Camp staff, it said. The other old guy’s name is Mike Grosso.

They will be remembered for their past deeds. Jim Ligon, the one and original “Goose,” was a charter member of the Kentucky Colonels. The crashing rebound and the sweet little hook shot were his trademarks. Laboring under the limitations of a forward who could do anything except put up an ordinary push shot from any distance, the Goose performed admirably until the day the Colonels cut him loose. And he did it, again, for the Virginia Squires until a ruptured Achilles tendon ended his professional career.

Mike Grosso played for the University of Louisville, then had a try at it in the pros. Has it really been 10 years ago since the big kid with the busted knee transferred up from South Carolina, teaming up with Wes Unseld in the NCAA regionals to try to give the school a shot at the national championship? The calendar says yes, the heart no.

Mike Grosso (21) during his storied high school years in New Jersey.

Grosso is 30 now, a bearded, jovial TV ad man. Ligon is veering towards 34. They still play the game. Not for money. But then, there was really never a whole lot of that for them anyhow. Grosso had that knee, and you don’t give a $100,000 bonus to a man whose underpinnings are questionable, no matter what his potential.

The Goose was sidetracked out of college because of an adolescent run-in with the law. Only the birth of the ABA and the Colonels gave him a chance to play in the pros to begin with. The NBA would never have touched him.

Now, on a late-summer Saturday evening, they stood under the large oaks of an old park and awaited the challenge of a bunch of kids from West Virginia. “If they’re REAL young, maybe we can intimidate them with our age,” Grosso suggested.

Grosso and Ligon play regularly for teams in the Dirt Bowl. The Dirt Bowl does not discriminate. Most of the players who troop down to the blacktop court in Shawnee Park are Black, but a white man like Grosso is greeted just as warmly.  

And while most of the players are in high school or college, pros and old pros are just as welcome, too. “It’s sort of like going back to nature to come down here,” Ligon said. “It’s going back to where you started—to basketball in the park.”

“The people who haven’t been down here don’t realize what this is,” Grosso said. “Basketball under the trees in a beautiful place like this. Here I am from New Jersey, and I guess I’ve been here more than anybody.”

Once upon a summer, there were a lot more notable people besides Ligon and Grosso trading elbows and skinned knees at Shawnee. That’s when the Colonels were still alive and breathing, and Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, Cincy Powell, Walt Simon, and others played under the trees for the fun of it.

Then the Colonels died, and the big names drifted away. The National Collegiate Athletic Association, an organization apparently created by God to protect college athletes from worldly contamination, also did its part. Once upon a summer, the stars of college played against the stars of the pros, and the stately old trees shook from the joy of it. But the NCAA blanched at the impropriety of it all and ruled that “its” players could not compete against “them.” And a little bit of the fun went out of the Dirt Bowl. 

Not that it still isn’t almost full of it. That’s because of the labor of love that people like Camp Edwards, the coordinator, put into it. To celebrate the innate goodness of Dr. Naismith’s game, Edwards and his staff put together a weekend tournament. Yesterday’s games matched Black Magic, made up mostly of Louisville’s basketball-playing Buntons against the West Virginia All-Stars and the Dirt Bowl All-Stars—the Ligon, Grosso team—against Indianapolis. More is on tap today. At 4:30, the Metro Big Brothers, featuring New York Knick Butch Beard, will play another team of Dirt Bowl all-stars. 

And under the trees at Shawnee Park, it didn’t really matter yesterday that the first game didn’t start until an hour and a half after it was supposed to, and that the second one was played mostly under moonlight with a grudging assist from four lonely Louisville G & E power poles guarding the court. Or that Billy Knight, the Indiana Pacers star who is supposed to play for the Indianapolis team, bailed out at Seymour, Ind., after the Indianapolis van was called for charging into a car that had position.

What mattered is that some people had fun. Even old folks like Jim Ligon and Mike Grosso. 

[Time to move ahead to March 22, 1980. The Louisville Courier-Journal ran a story headlined: Griffith Developed  Dunk at Louisville’s Dirt Bowl. Readers would have known immediately that the article’s subject was the University of Louisville’s sensation, Darrell Griffith. The local kid with the 48-inch vertical rise would soon lead the local university to the national championship. But, as writer Lonnie Wheeler took pains to point out, Griffith learned many of his chops playing in the Dirt Bowl.]

The stories all go back to the seventh grade, to concrete courts with names like Shawnee and Chickasaw. Shawnee is the legendary playground, the site every summer of the city game classic they called the Dirt Bowl. Over the winters, the best basketball in town is probably played over at the University of Louisville, where such redoubtable tradesman as Butch Beard and Wes Unseld have formalized their prowess. But when class lets out, the game turns back to its instincts.

All-Americans play at the Dirt Bowl. Professionals, too—Clem Haskins, Elmore Smith. The University of Iowa team that will contest Louisville today in the semifinal round of the NCAA championships is certainly no more formidable an assembly than Darrell Griffith has confronted at Shawnee Park—was confronting, if not in the seventh grade, then at least in the next year or so.

“At first, they didn’t take him seriously,” says Mike Griffith, the older brother of the gifted player who has been called the best college basketball player in America. That was when Darrell Griffith was 12 or 13 years old, and he would make his way into a game—one of the big games—with the U of L stars and the savvy, nameless, street players whom he says, to this day, are as good as anybody with an alma mater. 

“He looked kind of small then,” says Mike. “So, the big guys would just take it to him, and Darrell would catch ‘em over the square. Up over the rim.”

In the seventh grade, Darrell Griffith could dunk. In the eighth and ninth grades, he would show up at Shawnee or Chickasaw with his friend, Robert Turner, and the game—the big game, any game—would stop right then. From the seventh grade on, Darrell Griffith had a reputation.

“Darrell was unique,” remembers Wade Houston, an assistant coach at Louisville’s Male High School. Houston was the lucky one. He and the other high school coaches used to meet every Saturday morning at Male, because the junior high school league played there, DuVall won 59 straight games with a lineup that was jammed with future college players. None of them, however, could play like Griffith.

“What made him unique was that he could get his shots off against anybody,” says Houston. Not just anybody in the junior highs, but anybody at Shawnee or Chickasaw Park. Anybody who couldn’t jump 48 inches off the ground.

Houston had seen all the great Louisville players—he was the first Black athlete at the University of Louisville, later joined by Unseld and Beard. He knew the Black game; he knew the Louisville game; he knew the game, but he had never known anyone to play it like Darrell Griffith.

“He was doing things in practice back then that people are talking about now,” says Houston. “Like, when he would drive the lane and the defender would plant and try to take the charging foul, Darrell would just go over him.”

When he was a senior in high school, Griffith would turn a full circle in the air and cram the ball in the basket on his way down. He is supposed to be the first to make that move.

Griffith’s junior season, Male won the Kentucky state championship. The next year, there was forced busing, and it broke up the team. But when the season was over, Griffith stood alone as the best high school player in the country.

Houston came to the U of L with Griffith, and for three years, he watched his prize pupil play better and better and not good enough. People wanted to see more legends made by this light-skinned young marvel with steel legs, lean hands, and a shiny gold tooth. “Anything out of the ordinary wasn’t enough with Darrell,” says Houston.

But Darrell Griffith was intent on meeting his myth. “I want to be the best,” he says flatly, and he doesn’t stop there. “I’m willing,” says Griffith, “to do whatever it takes.”

So, last summer, Griffith was back on the playground. “I wanted to stay away,” he says, “but I just couldn’t. It’s hard to stay away from playgrounds.”

When it was too dark to stay there, Griffith would come to the campus gym when nobody was around and set up chairs like a slalom, dribbling around them until his feet were sore and his hands had learned their lesson.

“His biggest problem,” says Mike, “was that people would come from the blind-side and steal the ball from him.” Darrell asked his older brother—a former sixth man at Male—to come out and guard him. 

Despite the age difference—Mike is three years older—the Griffith boys always played together as kids. First it was football. “He used to fly, man,” says Mike. But basketball was the game on the West End. “We got to where we played all the time,” Mike remembers. “At home, we had a little lampshade, and we would shoot a sock into it.”

The older boys wouldn’t let the Griffiths play with them on Grand Court, the neighborhood hoop, so Mike and Darrell put up a rim in the dusty alley next to their house. “Pretty soon, we’d have 20 or 30 people out there,” says Mike.

He discovered this about his little brother: “He could hang. He could definitely hang in there.” When Darrell began mixing with the big men of the playgrounds, his game began to take shape. “Ron King (later of Florida State) was the best pure shooter I’ve ever seen,” says Mike. “Darrell started to shoot like him. But he found out that you have to do things in your own style.”

So, Darrell Griffith went on to develop a court style that would later become the quintessence of the modern game. “One time,” remembers Mike, “this dude took a shot at the top of the circle. Darrell was laying back a little, but when this dude shot, Darrell jumped up and grabbed the ball in the air, then he took it down, and dunked it at the other end.”

Mike points to the spots on the Shawnee court wear this legend was made. He has come here to play a little ball before dinner. Nearly 100 other of the West End faithful have also come late on a Wednesday afternoon, and games are going on four courts. Shawnee is not the common concrete court with a barb-topped fence. It is a spacious city park, and the game played here, like the setting, has an uncommon dignity. There is defense and discipline, and the playground games for all the spinning and stuffing, assume an organized form.

This is good basketball, and although Darrell Griffith is a star here, he is not the whole galaxy. Says one sage playgrounder: “Everybody gets theirs.”

[Last but not least, let’s go to the Louisville Courier-Journal and this August 18, 1999 bit looking into a long-repeated Dirt Bowl legend. It involves Griffith, still in grade school, and the 7-feet-2 pro Artis Gilmore. Marc Spears, a senior writer with ESPN and now Andscape, does the digging.]

There are no videotapes or photographs known to exist that would verify the most-famous dunk in Dirt Bowl history. And former Kentucky Colonel Artis Gilmore vehemently denies being the victim.

But more than 25 years ago, the dunk by then-ninth-grader Darrell Griffith over the 7-feet-2 Gilmore is still talked about. Dirt Bowl historian and commissioner Cornell Bradley can recall numerous awesome plays in the league’s 30-year history, and he says none was more spectacular than Griffith’s.

In the early 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon to see pros such as Gilmore and Dan Issel playing in the outdoor summer league. According to legend, Griffith got the ball just to the right of the lane during a fastbreak and slammed ferociously with his right hand over the giant with the Afro and sideburns.

“If I remember right,” Bradley said, “Griff was driving to the basket while Gilmore was underneath it. Griff had momentum going in his favor. Gilmore tried to go up and block it, but Griff was already there. Man, he just went BOOM, dunking straight on him.

“Everybody jumped out of their seat. Dudes were running around giving each other high-fives saying. ‘Man, did you see what Griff did to him!’ It was unbelievable, and to think that Griff would challenge Gilmore at that particular age was something.”

At the time, Gilmore was one of the most-intimidating men in basketball, and Griffith was a big fan of his. Gilmore blocked 422 shots as a rookie with the Colonels during the 1971-72 season while averaging 23.8 points and 17.8 rebounds. He played in 11 all-star games between his time in the American and National Basketball Associations, averaged 22.3 points during his Colonels’ career from 1971-76 and blocked more than 3,200 shots as a pro.

Gilmore insists such a dunk never happened, and he seemed offended by the mere thought of it. “That needs to stay a myth,” he said. “I have been dunked on a few times, but back then, nobody dunked on me. Nobody. I wouldn’t let Wilt Chamberlain dunk on me. I wouldn’t.”

When told about Gilmore’s response, Griffith said, “Let me put it to you this way: How many people have you heard it from? I was in the ninth grade at the time. I didn’t make it up. I probably would have said that, too, if I got dunked on by a ninth grader.”

Griffith doesn’t want to come off as braggadocious, but he says he has to stick up for his slam over the intimidating Gilmore—especially since he considers it as special as any 360-degree dunk or backward alley-oop jam that he ever threw down.

Sure, it wasn’t against UCLA during University of Louisville’s 1980 national championship victory. Nor was it Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Moses Malone during his 10-year career with the Utah Jazz. But it did announce his arrival.

“I think it was important for me, especially in the community and being at such a young age,” said Griffith. “I didn’t know what was going on. I was humble to the issue, and I was just a young kid playing ball like all the other kids just trying to make it to the league.

“But when I was young, if you were in my way, you were going to get dunked on. That was my motto.”

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