- Johnny Cox
- Hometown (Last School)
- Hazard, KY (High)
- 1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59
- November 1, 1936
From the 1959 University of Kentucky Basketball Media Guide:
Not since the famed Wallace (Wah Wah) Jones came down from the hills of the Bluegrass country to lead the Kentucky Wildcats to one of their greatest eras in basketball climaxed by winning the world’s championship in the 1948 Olympics has a Kentucky mountain lad gained so much acclaim as Johnny Cox, University of Kentucky’s newest All-America hope. The six-foot-four-inch cage demon from the Eastern Kentucky mountain community of Hazard, newest thoroughbred in Baron Adolph Rupp’s Lexington cage stable, came to college hailed as one of the greatest Kentucky high school products in recent times. And, in the short space of three seasons as a colllegian, Cox has lived up to every inch of his reputation and fans all over the country with his shooting deadly accurate outside and tremendous rebounding tactics.
Cox capped off a brilliant junior campaign last season by coming through in the clutch to guide Kentucky’s “talentless wonders” to a record fourth NCAA National Championship and gain great personal acclaim. For his major role in the surprising Wildcat success, sports-writers and radiomen accorded him runner-up honor as “Most Valuable Player” of the NCAA finals. Balloting was the closest in tournament history and Cox missed by only three votes a tie with Seattle’s All-America scoring star Elgin Baylor. The Kentucky ace, despite a painful finger re-injury just prior to the tournament, pumped in 46 vital points and snared 29 equally important rebounds in a brilliant display of solid basketball ability. Against Seattle in the championship contest, a “Cox’s Army” performance netted him 24 points-16 of them coming in the last 15 minutes as he destroyed the Chieftains’ zone defense with his aerial bombing from ranges up to 25 feet.
For a lad who was so unspectacular in regular season that he made only one All-Conference first team of 10 men and was not accorded even honorable mention on All-America lists prior to tournament time, it was a truly sensational achievement. But to Johnny, it was merely a matter of doing what comes naturally. A seemingly lazy off-court and pre-game warmup attitude belies the fact that he is an all-around demon when the action is the hottest during a game. In two varsity seasons, Cox shows a record of 976 points and 675 rebounds while logging a total playing time of 2041 minutes and 20 seconds. The two-time All-SEC choice returns this season as the lone regular off the national champion five and will be on the spot to carry an even greater share of the scoring and rebounding burden. A brilliant sophomore in 1957, Cox was the team’s leading scorer and became one of the top 15 sophs in the land as he was named to the third team All-America. His 544 points in 28 games for a 19.4 average that season gave him the highest scoring average of any second-year man in Wildcat history. Operating out of a forward position in the blistering Kentucky-style fast break, Johnny forgets completely his stoop-shouldered, loping mannerisms and keeps pace with the fastest teammate and opponent on both offense and defense. Further contradicting his seemingly frail physique, the Kentucky rifleman generally sees more action than any other teammate. Cox’s favorite weapon is a jumping-one-handed push shot that he tries most often from medium ranges. Closer in to the bucket, he will display a beautiful hook shot with either hand that generally never touches the rim and leaves the crowd mumbling with admiration. As a high school pivotman, he used both the hook and jumper to great advantage in leading an unheralded Hazard High team to the Kentucky State High School championship in 1955. In the final game, Cox tallied 32 vital points for his “darkhorse” team and wound up with a new tournament four-game record of 127 points. He had 1,026 points in 35 games for a 29.3 average in pre-tournament play. Enrolling at Kentucky, Cox continued the tremendous play that earned him unanimous acclaim as an All-State schoolboy. His big night came as the U.K. frosh tangled with Campbellsville Junior College and he accounted for 44 points. The wizard from Hazard accumulated a remarkable average of 32.2 through eight games as a yearling, which was better than 38 percent of the total output of the combined team. It’s little wonder, in view of his sparkling performances of last season, that Kentucky’s foes think of Johnny as “Cox’s Army”.
He guided the Cats to the SEC Championship in 1958 and 1959.
Cox was an NCAA Consensus First Team All-America selection during the 1959 season and he was a three-time All-SEC performer. He also made the All-NCAA Tournament Final Four Team during the ’58 title run.
For his career, Cox averaged 17.4 points per game and 12.0 rebounds over three seasons. He averaged double-figures in points per game and rebounds per game during each of his three seasons. At the conclusion of his career, he was fourth on UK’s all-time scoring list with 1,425 career points. He is one of just four players in program history to register more than 1,000 points and rebounds in a career.
Cox was selected in the fourth round of the 1959 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. He eventually played one season in the NBA as a member of the Chicago Zephyrs. He averaged 7.8 points per game in 73 games before joining the American Basketball League.
His No. 24 jersey hangs in the rafters of Rupp Arena as one of Kentucky’s retired jerseys and he was among the inaugural class for the UK Athletics Hall of Fame.
In 1998, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet approved a bill to name the Hazard By-Pass the “Johnny Cox All-American Drive”. Cox was born in Neon, Kentucky, one of six children of W. B. and Lula Mae Cox and moved to Hazard in 1953. He still resides there.
When visiting the legendary Rupp Arena, you’ll notice rafters filled with retired jerseys that mostly come from well before my time. Even though I know most of the best Cats ever to put on a uniform, Johnny’ Cox’s #24 jersey has never screamed to me “greatness”. The humbled mountain man from Neon, KY probably doesn’t mind it one bit. 55 years removed from winning the National Championship as a member of Adolph Rupp’s ‘Fiddlin’ Five’, the first team All-American’s 1,461 points and 1,004 rebounds in his three years of varsity for the Cats aren’t what most people from the mountains will recall when you say the name Johnny Cox. Later this summer, Cox will be inducted into the Second Class of the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame, receiving recognition for his greatest triumph as a Hazard Bulldog.
As stated by Oscar Combs in my previous article, there wasn’t much to do in the mountains OTHER than play basketball. The same applied to Mr. Cox in the tiny coal town of Neon, telling WMYT, “”That’s where I first started playing. I don’t know how old I was. I wasn’t real old. I just barely can remember it. I picked the ball up right then.” Cox was a bruising mountain man, standing at 6’4 it was nearly impossible to defend his steller hook shot. Cox’s talents were recognized early, leading the region’s best powerhouse Hazard to recruit him for his services for his final two years of high school. After excelling as a Junior, Cox was considered as one of the state’s top players entering his Senior year, just behind ‘King’ Kelly Coleman.
Entering the 1955 State Tournament, Hazard was seen as a dark horse after dropping 8 games during the regular season and needing 2 overtimes to reach the Sweet Sixteen. It did not deter the experienced Bulldog team, with role players contributing more than normal, easing the load of Johnny’s back. However don’t think Cox wasn’t the superstar of the tournament: entering the Finals against the Adair County Indians, Cox was only 8 points from breaking Linville Puckett’s record for most points in a single Sweet Sixteen, with 102 for Clark County in 1951. The Bulldogs started strong, taking a 49-36 lead halfway through the 3rd quarter. However the Indians weren’t ready to fall to the mountain superstar just yet, mounting a run that cut the lead to 52-50 by the start of the 4th quarter. That run was all of the gas left in the tank for the Indians, with Cox and Co. calmly taking control for the remainder of the game. With an all-day holiday declared in Hazard, the majority of the 13,000 in attendance stormed the court celebrating the 74-66 victory. Cox was named Mr. Basketball after his record setting 32 point performance in the Final. Even though ‘King’ Kelly Coleman demolished his 127 point Sweet Sixteen record the following year, his 32 point performance is still a Top 10 scoring high in Sweet Sixteen history.
Cox immediately became a superstar around the state, but don’t think any of that attention got Johnny’s head, remember where he is from, “I was just a kid. I really didn’t know much about it. I never really did pay much attention to it. I know people got all excited over it; the community did, and the fans. They got more excited over it than the players did.” That attention paid dividends in the long run, earning him a scholarship to play for Adolph Rupp at the University of Kentucky. An instant hit, Cox averaged 19.4 points and 11.1 rebounds as a sophomore (back when Freshman could not play varsity). That could only be outdone the following year when his 24 point performance- with 16 coming in the last 15 minutes- helped UK defeat Seattle 84-72 for the National Championship. After another great Senior year, Cox went on to play a few years of pro ball for the Chicago Zephyrs (don’t ask me what a Zephyr is). Here’s a nice piece of trivia: Cox is one of 2 UK player’s to ever be drafted twice, when players could return for their Senior year after being drafted.
The next time you look into the rafters and see the #24 jersey, remember the amazing story behind it.
Editor’s note: When former University of Kentucky basketball great Johnny Cox was growing up in Neon, he wrote the following “Letter to Santa” for publication in the December 13, 1956 edition of The Mountain Eagle. Cox was a 10-yearold fourth-grader at Neon Grade School when he wrote to Santa that he was a “mean boy” who would
Dear Santa Claus:
My name is Johnny, and I am in the fourth grade. I am ten years old. It was fun to see you tumbling down the chimney. I am a mean boy. I got four whippings this year.
Last Christmas I hung up my stocking and you filled it full, [but] the fire burned a hole in the bottom of it and it all fell out. My dog Rex was playing also around the Christmas tree and it fell down and the balls on it busted.
I want a cap buster to shoot on Christmas morning. I want a basketball for Christmas — if I don’t I will cry.
I go to Neon school. I have a pretty teacher. Her name is Delores. You will get struck on her if you see her. Bring her something this Christmas.
Your friend, Johnny Cox, Neon
From the Rafters of Rupp Interview from 2018 with Kyle Macy: In the interview below, he discusses his childhood interest in basketball, his recruitment during high school, and his decision to attend UK. He discusses his teammates and their abilities, particular games from each season, and winning the NCAA Championship in his junior year. He talks about his post-college career, playing in the American Basketball League, National Industrial League, and the American Basketball Association. Cox talks about what he hopes his legacy as a basketball player at UK will be.