The Dirt Bowl is a true Louisville original: unique, storied, and driven by people who love their community. Prompted in part by the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Dirt Bowl started in 1969 when an all-state basketball player named Ben Watkins met up with a cheerleader named Janis Carter and the two brainstormed ways to to help unify the community and provide structure for the youth of West Louisville.
It didn’t take long for the tournament to become the cultural powerhouse that it is today, which draws thousands of spectators to Shawnee Park every year with local food, live music, and the chance to hear Cornell Bradley’s iconic I said Bang!
In the fourth and final episode of KY Place, we look at the past, present, and future of the annual basketball tournament through the eyes of four friends who have cultivated its growth throughout the years. From a director’s perspective, “The Dirt Bowl” embodies the type of storytelling I hoped to achieve with KY Place.
Not only does the episode serve as an oral history, it’s a glimpse into the personal memories of four Kentuckians who have lived through some of the best and worst years of the Dirt Bowl. The panel conversation reveals a common bond of friendship that suggests these guys have known each other a long time, which becomes more apparent as they poke fun of each other’s age and the fact that they can’t shoot hoops as well as they used to.
As was the case in almost every episode of KY Place, the panelists in “The Dirt Bowl” examine how Louisville’s Ninth Street Divide contributed to the tournament’s struggles. Neal Robertson puts an even finer point on this issue, explaining how would-be sponsors tend to shy away from the tournament because it’s held west of Ninth Street and therefore has a “negative image.” In many ways, Louisville’s economic/racial divide was the impetus for creating this series. It’s also somewhat poetic that the concluding episode celebrates the Dirt Bowl, which is a testament to the strength, unity, and resilience of West Louisville.
Featuring: Neal Robertson (Dirt Bowl Organizer), Cornell Bradley (Dirt Bowl Announcer), Neal Reed (Basketball Coach, Jefferson County Public Schools), Nathaniel Spencer (Filmmaker)
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