Dampier overcame questions about height to star for Cats

Louier Dampier was a standout for the University of Kentucky before going on to play for the Kentucky Colonels.

Louier Dampier was a standout for the University of Kentucky before going on to play for the Kentucky Colonels.

Jamie Vaught, Contributing Columnist

(Editor’s Note: During our national COVID-19 crisis, longtime sports columnist Jamie H. Vaught will be writing about the ex-Wildcats who were featured in one of his first four books on UK basketball, using excerpts that were published in his out-of-print volumes. His latest and fifth book, titled “Chasing the Cats: A Kentucky Basketball Journey,” was released in late February 2020.)

Long before Louie Dampier became a Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer in 2015, he once thought his UK hoops career was over after a disagreement with legendary Adolph Rupp.

“There was a time that I became very nervous,” said Dampier in an interview at his Oldham County home for “Crazy About The Cats: From Rupp to Pitino” book, which was published in 1991. “We were preparing to play Tennessee. I can’t remember which year it was. It was my sophomore or my junior year. We were going over their offense. We were on defense and they ran this one play. Each time my man would score and Coach Rupp would yell at me.

“So, after the second or third time, he got on me again after that play worked again. I said, ‘Well, …’ and that’s the only word I got out of my mouth. I was going to say, ‘Well, I think he should switch.’ He informed me that no one ever talked back to Coach Rupp and he said, ‘Go take bomb,’ which meant go to the showers.

“So, I went in there immediately and I could see my career crumbling and I wondered if I was going to get to play in the Tennessee game or get to play in any more games ever. I took my shower and when the other guys came in, I went out to talk to Coach Rupp. I apologized. He said everything was alright, accepting my apology. That’s when I was really nervous because I didn’t know what he would do.”

Popularly called “Little Louie” by Wildcat fans, Dampier had another Rupp story. As a high school recruit from Indianapolis, Dampier remembered his first meeting with the Baron on the UK campus.

“It was interesting. The first thing I noticed about meeting Coach Rupp was his handshake,” Dampier recalled. ”It was real soft. I thought, after hearing some of the stories about Coach Rupp and how hard he was on people, he’d have a real, real tough grip. When he had the soft handshake, right away it kind of changed my opinion of him. At least my immediate reaction was, ‘Well, he doesn’t see to be that tough.’ He didn’t promise me anything. He did say that he wanted me to come to Kentucky. He wanted me to play there and thought that I could fit in with them.”

Although the six-foot Dampier was a prep star who could shoot long bombers, he had doubts that he could play at Kentucky or anywhere else because some thought he was too small to play the sport.

“I had doubts because of what people said,” said Dampier. “I always had confidence when I was on the floor, but when I was off the floor my mind would work then and I’d have doubts.”

Even after his All-American days at Kentucky, some observers had the same lingering doubts about Dampier’s size to play in the pros. As it turned out, he became a record-setting guard for nine years with the popular Kentucky Colonels of the old American Basketball Association before playing three years in the NBA.

As you can see, everywhere he went, Dampier had to prove himself on the hardwood floor. He had to show that he could play with the big guys in college and pro basketball.

Dampier – whose best game as a Wildcat was in 1966 when his career-high 42 points sparked No. 2 Kentucky’s “Rupp Runts” to an 105-90 win over third-ranked Vanderbilt – had a college roommate by the name of Pat Riley, who later would be one of the biggest names in sports. When they arrived in Lexington in 1963 as highly-regarded freshmen, they didn’t get along. Despite their different personalities, Riley, who was from Schenectady, N.Y., and Dampier were placed by the coaching staff as dormitory roommates.

“I wasn’t very outgoing, just quiet and liked to be by myself. Well, not by myself, but just never one to be the center of attention,” said Dampier, who is now 75. “Pat was the other way around. He had a very outgoing personality. He fit in with (teammates Tommy) Kron and (Larry) Conley more than I did and so we had contrasting personalities and ideas. We had our problems our freshman year.

“It just came to a point where both of us went to (assistant) coach Harry Lancaster and said we wanted to change roommates and he refused. He said, ‘No, you’re going to room together.’ I don’t know if that’s why he made a statement about ‘You’re both going to be All-Americans here and we’re going to keep you together’ or what. I don’t know what it was.

“So, then we just grew to be friends. Actually, we became quite close after four years of rooming together and seeing each other almost year ‘round. Unless you have a bitter personality or whatever, you can’t help but become close. So, I say we came out of UK the best of friends.”