LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Most UK fans know that Tom Payne was the first African American to sign a scholarship to play basketball for the Wildcats. He stayed just one season, before declaring for the NBA’s hardship draft.
File: Reggie Warford was inducted into the KHSAA Hall of Fame in April, 2019. (Photo: WKYT)
The Wildcats played the following season without a black player on their roster, but that changed in 1972. Joe B. Hall recruited a 6-foot, sharp-shooting leftie out of Drakesboro High School named Reggie Warford. He would go on to become the first African-American player to graduate from UK.
He had to wait his turn to play at Kentucky but at Drakesboro High, in Muhlenberg County, he was the main attraction.
"He was that type of ballplayer where you had to go see him,” said longtime friend Jolly Jernigan, “to see what he was going to do. He was left-handed and he had some moves."
Denise Harris grew up with Warford, later became a cheerleader at Drakesboro High and eventually married one of his teammates, Ricky. "Game night?” she said. “Oh my gosh. I wish you could have been at a game like that. Standing room only..."
Head coach Robie Harper took Warford under his wing. Harper died in 2002 but his wife, Glenda, remembers what it was like when Drakesboro High (since consolidated into Muhlenberg County HS) was a 3rd-region power.
"We won,” she said with a laugh. We won -- that's what I can remember. It was just a fun time."
Reggie averaged 20 points per game as a junior and 27 as a senior – numbers that helped land him in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Hall of Fame, back in April.
And thanks to those skills, colleges soon came calling. Lots of prominent schools beckoned, including nearby Western Kentucky University. But Hilltoppers coach Jim Richards knew that his good friend, Joe Hall, was looking to re-integrate the program at UK and that it would take a special player.
Said Warford, "He said 'Joe, the guy you gotta get is Reggie Warford. He's a guy who's good enough and he'll be able to take whatever is thrown at him.' He said, you need to get that guy."
So, one year after Payne left the squad, Warford became the only African American basketball player at UK. There were blacks playing football by then, but they were on the other side of campus.
“As a freshman,” Warford said, “when I decided to go to Kentucky, it was as difficult as everybody thought it would be. Yes,” he said with a chuckle, “I probably was the loneliest athlete in America."
Warford admitted he did think of quitting a couple of times but he says each time he did, someone was there to encourage him - and it paid off.
During his senior season, he cracked the starting lineup and eventually led the Wildcats to the National Invitation Tournament title - back when the NIT was still a prestigious event. Only 48 teams were invited to the NCAA Tournament back then and 1976 was the last year the NIT was played entirely in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Over a span of eight days, the Wildcats beat Niagara, Kansas State, Providence and North Carolina-Charlotte. The lone senior on the squad, in the championship game Reggie scored 14 points and had a key steal.
"I said, this is my win,” Warford said. “Not because of what I did, not because I'm by myself. I said all these other guys, they'll be back.”
Basketball is but a happy memory now for Warford, whose life took a drastic turn nine years ago. Reggie suffered heart failure and eventually underwent two transplant procedures.
The first time, the donor heart failed before it was implanted. Finally another heart, this one healthy, became available and this time the transplant worked. But then, another setback - his kidneys failed, prompting another kind of organ transplant.
Through it all, his wife Marisa never lost faith.
"Jack Givens and Coach (John) Calipari got the Big Blue Nation involved with praying for him, involved with his health and caring about him,” she said. “That made such an impact."
The hope, of course, is for a happy ending but sadly, as he recovered from the transplants, Reggie developed sarcopenia, a neuromuscular disease that robs the victim of muscle mass and strength. There is no cure.
Warford says, he doesn't want pity, that he's lived a great life, however much longer it lasts. He's proud of the legacy he's leaving for his wife and two sons, and black players who've come after him.
“As the eldest of the Kentucky African-American players,” he said, “I want ' em to know me. I want 'em to know who I was. They don't need to know every in and out, but I want ' em to know me..."
Know him, he said, as a man who could play the game; as a good teammate; as a guy who helped bring a national title to his school; and as someone of high character. It’s a legacy that will live as long as Big Blue fans talk about the Wildcats.