Star players, coaches made 1986 a memorable hoops season


Cawood all-stater Nick Sanford was a four-time NAIA All-American at Lincoln Memorial University.

John Henson, Managing Editor

Three of the state’s top coaches (Cawood’s Mike Jones, Harlan’s Billy Hicks and Cumberland’s Ralph Roberts) and three of the greatest players (Nick Sanford, Jeff Miller and Paul Gaffney) in Harlan County history made 1986 one of the best for high school basketball in Harlan County.

Some call Cawood’s Nick Sanford the greatest player in Harlan County history, and he was a senior in 1986 and led the Trojans to a 25-5 record. The Trojans won the 52nd District Tournament title, defeating Harlan 67-60 in the championship game, before going on to defeat Williamsburg and Middlesboro in the 13th Region Tournament at Middlesboro. The Trojans had the ball and a one-point lead in the final minute of the regional finals against Clay County, but the Tigers rallied for their third straight trip to the state tournament.
 It was the fourth time in an 11-year period that the Trojans lost in the regional finals. Sanford earned first-team all-state honors that season and joined Rex Chapman, Felton Spencer and Reggie Hanson in a Kentucky lineup that swept Indiana during the summer.
 Sanford went on to Lincoln Memorial University, where he played for another former Cawood star in Phil Cox and earned NAIA All-American honors four times.

Jeff Miller broke Wah Wah Jones’ school scoring record as a four-year starter at Harlan before signing with Kentucky State and then moving on to Clinch Valley College. Miller fell only four points short of catching Cox for the county’s all-time scoring record that season as the Dragons fell to Clay County in the opening round of the regional tournament.

Paul Gaffney was a three-year starter at Cumberland High School, including the 1984 and 1985 teams that won 52nd District titles and may have been the two best teams in school history. Gaffney went on to play at Tennessee Wesleyan, where former teammates Derrick Akal, Richard Washington and Gary Amos were already playing. He eventually found his way to the Harlem Globetrottters, where he played in over 2,250 games in 80 countries before retiring after 15 years with the Globetrotters. He was inducted into Tennessee Wesleyan’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. As a member of the Globetrotters, he is also in the Naismith Hall of Fame.

It was a historically good time for coaches in Harlan County as well as all three are ranked among the top 20 in Kentucky history in victories. Hicks, an Ages native, is first in state history with 1,013 victories. Roberts, who had three stints as a coach at Cumberland, is 18th with 615 victories. Jones, who coached at three Harlan County schools, is 20th with 613 wins and is first in county history with 418 of his wins coming as a coach in the county.
The region, as a whole, was perhaps as strong as it’s ever been. Middlesboro’s Lawrence Buell was an all-stater that season as well and perhaps the best to ever play for the Jackets. Clay County featured Woody Asher and Sean Pennington, as well as a sophomore guard in Richie Farmer who was Mr. Basketball two years later. Barbourville featured Bobby McWilliams and Pat Alford and made it to the regional semifinals before falling to Clay County.
The Harlan Daily Enterprise published its first all-county basketball team that season, led by Sanford. Miller was second in voting, followed by Gaffney. The remainder of the squad included Cawood’s Garry Henson, Sam Metcalfe and Ronnie Ball, Cumberland’s Terry Sundy and Freddie Maggard, Harlan’s Vic Taylor and Jimmy Thomas and Evarts’ Phillip McNabb.

The girls all-county team was led by Harlan’s Debbie Hoskins. The remainder of the squad included Cumberland’s Monica Owens, Amy Morris, Susie Smith and Lonnie Oliver, Harlan’s P.D. Saylor and P.K. Saylor, Cawood’s Carol Hensley and Kim Bailey and Evarts’ Donna Fuson.


Harlan’s Jeff Miller was surrounded by Cawood’s Ronnie Ball, Sam Metcalfe, Jeff Osborne and Garry Henson during a game in the 1986 season. Miller set the school scoring record previously held by Wah Wah Jones. Charles Thomas broke the record nine years later.


Cumberland’s Paul Gaffney was guarded by Harlan’s Jimmy Thomas during the 1986 season.