A Visit with Sprout Johnson And Morton Combs

By Paul David Taulbee

My good friend Pappy Edwards had talked to me back in March about going up to Carr Creek and seeing Sprout Johnson and Morton Combs.  It sounded like a good story idea so I told Pappy that I'd have some time off during spring break and that it would be a good time for the interview. However, due to the many days that school in Perry County was dismissed last winter, spring break was deleted from the school calendar. I saw Pappy at church and told him we'd go up to Carr Creek when school was out.  When school finally ended, I taught a week of Bible School, then I worked every day at the paper helping Mr. Thomas with the 175th Celebration of Perry County edition getting it completed and ready for printing on time.  This Sunday afternoon we finally got our schedules together. I went down, picked up Pappy and we drove to Sprout’s house which is in an ideal setting near Carr Creek High School overlooking Carr Creek Lake.

Sprout, Mr. Willard Johnson, no one calls him Willard or Mr. Johnson, was sitting out in his yard waiting for us. Pappy introduce me to Sprout. Pappy has known Sprout for a long time. I think he was acquainted with him back in 1928, or shortly thereafter. Sprout’s wife, Nell, told us to come on into the house that it was too hot to be outside. The blessing of air conditioning, one of the comforts of the latter 20th century that I certainly appreciate.

Sprout had gotten together all his Carr Creek scrapbook material and had it on the table. There were stories from the Courier Journal covering the legendary 28-season. The most read columnists of the time, Will Rogers, had written about the Creekers astounding performance at the National competition. Telegrams poured in from Kentucky and from across the country congratulating the team and their coach Oscar Morgan on their remarkable accomplishment.  Sprout was a freshman sub on the outstanding team and never got to play.  The team never used a substitute. Under the rules of those days once the ball was in play the team members were not allowed to communicate with the coach. The couch sat quietly and let the team play the game. Could that rule be reinstated? 

Though Sprout never got into a game he and the other substitutes did get to scrimmage with the team every day in practice. They didn't have a gym and practice was on a dirt court. These boys were in top notch physical condition.  Sprout explained, “We were all country boys. If we went anywhere, we walked. From Carr Creek to Hindman is ten miles, many of a time when something was going on in Hindman, a bunch of us boys would walk to Hindman. We didn't walk we went at a steady trot. After attending the fair or whatever we'd all trot back to our homes on Carr.”

Coach Morgan, whose primary duty at Carr Creek, was shop teacher, is the man who gave the game of basketball the all court full press.

Sprouts said, “Well it's hard to describe how I felt about Chicago. I think I had been to Lexington one time on a train. But for the rest of the boys on the team it was their first time to take a long train ride. When we got to Chicago, we were all given a pass, which opened a lot of doors for us. All transportation and food were free. We were supposed to stay in a dormitory on the University of Chicago campus, but we were delivered by mistake to the Cooper Carrollton, a large nice hotel.  When the sponsors of the tournament found out we were at the Cooper Carrollton they arrange for us to stay there.”

Earl Ruby, sports writer for the Courier Journal, took a real liking for the Creekers, at that time the Courier Journal was one of the top newspapers in the country. Ruby accompanied the team to Chicago and covered their every move, and like Mark Twain he might have stretched things a little, but Madison Avenue couldn't have provided a better PR person for the team than Earl.    

The Cooper Carrollton was located on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Sprout said the boys enjoyed the show of big ships docking and unloading on Lake Michigan about as much as anything else they saw in Chicago.

Sprout had a copy of the 1928 program from that National Tournament.  The roster for the boys from Carr Creek Dirk, Kentucky:  B Adams-10, Stamper-6, Madden-7, G. Adams-5, Z. Hale-3, Garnett-9, A. Adams-8, Francis-2, W. Johnson-1. Everett Stamper, Roy Stamper, Hiram Stamper and Sprout are the only members of that twenty-eight team still alive.

Pappy and I had visited with Sprout over an hour when Coach Morton Combs dropped in.   Pappy had called Coach Combs earlier and told him we would be by to see him. Pappy and Morton played for Hazard under the immortal Pat Payne in the early thirties.   Both Pappy and Coach Combs had tremendous respect for Coach Payne. Pappy said Coach Payne really knew how to motivate players to get them to consistently play at their peak. He told the story from Sanders Petery another Hazard man who played for Coach Payne. It was not a good game, at the half Hazard was down by 18 points. Coach Payne never came to the dressing room. The boys were sitting in total silence with about a minute of the half time left, in walked Coach Payne his remarks were short, “Boys we eat in the best places, on road trips we stay in the best places, and this is the way you thank me.” The Dogs went back out and did their best and won the game.