‘I Said Bang!’ is part of WFPL News’ year-long project The Next Louisville: Race, Ethnicity and Culture.
It started in Algonquin Park in 1969, the creation of two college kids who were home for the summer and looking for a way to spice up their summer jobs with Louisville Parks and Recreation.
Ben Watkins had been an all-state player for the Central High School Yellowjackets. Janis Carter had been a cheerleader at Shawnee High and a pageant winner. He had star power, and she had charisma.
When word got out they were working at Algonquin Park, it soon became a place to be in Louisville, with a waiting list just to get into a pickup game at the basketball courts.
The fervor over hoops led Watkins and Carter to organize a double-elimination basketball tournament: the Dirt Bowl.
Over the next 47 years, the Dirt Bowl would become a popular summertime spectacle in Louisville — crowds of hundreds watching their friends and neighbors playing intense basketball in a hot summer park. Music blaring, onlookers heckling and cheering, smoke from grills wafting in the distance with the scent of barbecue.
By the end of that first summer, the crowd of spectators had grown from the dozens to the hundreds, at least. People would get to the basketball courts early to try to get a seat. The park’s neighbors were annoyed to come home from church to find their driveways blocked by overflow Dirt Bowl parking.
There would be more to see, more to draw big crowds.
Listen: Hecklers A Dirt Bowl Hazard
In its early years, the Dirt Bowl brought together college players, the Kentucky Colonels, high school prodigies and recreational players. Dallas Thornton, a Harlem Globetrotter. Darrell Griffith and Derek Anderson, future college and professional stars. Artis Gilmore. Butch Beard. All played in the Dirt Bowl.
There were differences in social status. That didn’t matter on the asphalt after tip-off, first at Algonquin and then at Shawnee Park.
Outside the park, times were turbulent. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination spurred unrest in most major cities, including Louisville. On the court, though, all that mattered was the game.
But the Dirt Bowl was not always immune to the social changes in Louisville, especially the West End.
In 1975, Jefferson County’s public school system began busing.
While busing accomplished the school desegregation it was designed to bring about, it also splintered traditionally neighborhood-based high school teams.
More change would come.
Listen: The Dirt Bowl Rules
The Kentucky Colonels were part of the American Basketball Association, the freewheeling challenger to the then-stodgy NBA. The Colonels won the ABA championship in 1975 — but dissolved when the NBA absorbed the ABA. That same year, the NCAA ruled that its players could no longer play in non-sanctioned tournaments; that included the Dirt Bowl.
Despite these changes, the social scene at the Dirt Bowl flourished. Part family reunion, park great American cookout, part matchmaking mixer (and with basketball thrown in for good measure), it was the place to see and be seen for a big part of Louisville.
The recession of the early 1980s had a lasting impact on the neighborhood. So did the increase in gang activity in Louisville, and the easy availability of crack cocaine.
Listen: Dirt Bowl All-Stars Play Inmates
Meanwhile, the Louisville Parks Department changed the Dirt Bowl from double elimination to league play. The entry fee went up, and the number of teams went down. Community center-based teams, which had long been the heart of the tournament — were no longer able to enter for free. So they started sitting it out.
In the mid-2000s, several years went by with no Dirt Bowl at all. Then, in 2012, Neal Robertson was challenged by a friend to bring the Dirt Bowl back.
And that’s what he’s been doing ever since.
Additional materials for this project came courtesy of Kertis Creative. The Louisville Story Program has also created an oral history of the Dirt Bowl, which will launch Thursday evening at the Muhammad Ali Center. “
“I Said Bang!” was produced by Laura Ellis, Ravon Churchill, Darcy Thompson, and Stephen George. Our interns were Abner Miralda and Marnix Warren.
It was produced by WFPL News in partnership with the Louisville Story Program.
The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville.