A basketball star for Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcats during the early 1960s, Larry Pursiful has been doing a lot of ministry work spanning the past four decades.
And the humble Bell County native loves his work, helping people and sharing the Word of God.
“I thoroughly enjoy what I am doing, but then God has a way of putting you where you belong,” said Pursiful, who is now an associate pastor at Westport Road Baptist Church in Louisville.
Several of his church folks have asked him about his playing days as a 6-1 guard.
“I still tell them about how I attempted so very unsuccessfully to guard Jerry West and John Havlicek,” Pursiful recently commented of the basketball legends who played against UK. “But they are always wanting to hear some coach Rupp stories.”
While at Kentucky, Pursiful earned All-SEC first team honors and was the team’s second-leading scorer with 19.1 points behind All-American teammate Cotton Nash’s SEC-leading 23.4 points during the 1961-62 season. In addition, the captain of third-ranked Kentucky team was one of only three SEC standouts who were selected in the 1962 NBA Draft. The Chicago Packers (now the Washington Wizards) picked the Fourmile product in the eighth round and offered him a contract for $7,000.
Mainly because of job security reasons, Pursiful didn’t play in the NBA. Instead, he opted to play with the Phillips 66 Oilers, a well-known amateur team operated by one of the corporate giants in the National Industrial Basketball League.
“They let you play and gave you a job with the Phillips Petroleum Co., the corporation,” said Pursiful in another interview with this columnist over 20 years ago. “Once I finished playing, I had a job for the rest of my life if I wanted it.”
Interestingly, Pursiful — a two-time All-State selection who first played high school basketball at Lone Jack before going to Bell County for his senior year — said only one college offered him a basketball scholarship.
And that was UK.
“It was kind of unusual that they (the Wildcats) were the only people who recruited me,” recalled Pursiful. “That was fine with me because UK was the only place that I wanted to go. Like most Kentucky mountain boys, I grew up listening to all the great teams at Kentucky, the Fabulous Five, (Frank) Ramsey and (Cliff) Hagan.”
Here’s one Rupp story about Pursiful, who was known as a great shooting guard.
The Baron often fussed at him for not shooting enough baskets.
“Coach was always on me because I wouldn’t shoot,” said the minister. “I felt like I could hit most shots when I was open. He wanted me to shoot sometimes when I felt that I wasn’t open. He stayed on me about that.”
One night during a road trip, Rupp saw Pursiful in a hotel lobby and told him not to bother coming to a pre-game workout.
“Fourmile, you might as well as stay at the hotel tonight,” moaned Rupp, who often called his players by their hometown.
“What have I done now?” asked a confused Pursiful.
“You weren’t going to shoot anyway so you might as well stay at the hotel,” said the unhappy coach.
During his senior year at UK, Pursiful helped his team beat rival Tennessee three times, including the University of Kentucky Invitational Tournament (UKIT). He loved it since he often had to put up with a lot of “ribbing” from many Vol fans living in the tri-state area of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia.
“I’ll be honest with you. I grew up in Bell County and I didn’t like UT,” he said. “We got the Tennessee newspapers, and I had to read all that garbage about UK.”
He had great performances in three victories against the Vols, gunning 34, 30 and 19 points. “I had some of my very best games against Tennessee,” remembered Pursiful, a huge fan of the Wildcats, who are currently ranked No. 23 in this week’s AP Top 25 poll.
“My wife and I still attend every home game in Rupp Arena and watch every (road) game they play on TV,” said Pursiful. “I’m still and will always be a Kentucky Wildcat.
“This current bunch of Cats are very typical of most of Cal’s teams starting slow and finishing strong. At least, I hope that is the case. They are still having growing pains, adjusting to the college game, learning how hard you have to play now, learning what it means to play at Kentucky, and learning how to withstand every team’s best shot.
“But the talent is there and pretty soon that elite athlete’s pride kicks in and they go forward. There are several very good basketball teams out there this year and I guess we will see what happens, but I think they have the ability to play with anyone.”
Back in the early days, while at LaRue County High School where he was the head coach for six years (1968-1974), Pursiful was active at a local Baptist church. But that wasn’t enough and he eventually was called to the ministry.
“God called me to the ministry when I was 47 years old,” said the former Cat. “I didn’t really want to go into the ministry. I had a business and was helping my wife run the business — a shoe store in Elizabethtown. I was attending church, singing in the choir and teaching Sunday School. I thought I was doing everything He wanted me to do, but He had other ideas.”
As I mentioned in my 1995 book on UK basketball, “Still Crazy About The Cats” (the second one of a four-book series), we still should call him a Wildcat minister.
And it sounds awfully good to me.
— — —
A sportswriter with a familiar byline in the sports pages of the Middlesboro Daily News has passed away.
Neill Morgan, who was the newspaper’s sports editor for many years, died last week at Thomson-Hood Veterans Center, a long-term care facility, in Wilmore at the age of 67. A graduate of UK, he also served in the Air Force during the Vietnam War.
Wrote former Daily News’ managing editor Wayne Knuckles in his Facebook post, “I will never forget the trips Neill and I made to Rupp Arena. We were there for Cawood’s last home game and the time Shaquille O’Neal (of LSU) got a technical and slammed the ball so hard on the floor it bounced almost off Big Bertha. Rest in peace, and prayers for (son) Luke and family. I know how much Neill loved his son and remember Luke playing in the floor at the old Daily News office while Neill banged out a story.”
I first met Neill about 25 years ago when he was interviewing me, doing an article about my first UK basketball book. He was a pleasant man, and eventually I began writing a sports column for him in the Middlesboro Daily News (like I had done for other media outlets).
He was a good friend and a gentleman who will be missed.
RIP, Neill Morgan.
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at [email protected]