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24 Johnny Cox

Johnny Cox
Hometown (Last School)
Hazard, KY (High)
1956-57, 1957-58, 1958-59
November 1, 1936

Johnny Cox was born November 1, 1936, in Neon, Kentucky to Lula Mae (Miller) Cox and William Braxton Cox. The Cox family moved to Hazard in 1953. Cox was one of six children.

As a high school pivotman, 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 one of the state’s top players entering his senior year, just behind ‘King’ Kelly Coleman. He had 1,026 points in 35 games for a 29.3 average in pre-tournament play. 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 off 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. Cox 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 (game totals of 25, 33, 37, and 32 points, and 42 field goals, and 94 free throws). When the game-ending horn sounded, a swarm of Hazard followers ran onto the floor and embraced their heroes. They had streamed into Lexington after an all-day holiday was declared in the Perry County seat. The unstoppable Johnny Cox was voted the No. 1 member of the All-State Tournament team, making him Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball. The Bulldogs’ bulldozer led the balloting by the 16 participating coaches, tournament officials, and members of press and radio which selected the 10 boys for the honor squad at the conclusion of the 38th annual tournament. Oliver Hazard Perry, the battle of l.ake Erie hero whose name has been perpetuated in Hazard and Perry County, had to take a back seat when the Hazard High School Bulldogs got back home from Lexington. Proudly displaying a mammoth gold-colored trophy, the newly crowned state basketball champions were met by a motorcade that must have contained 2,000 automobiles, most of them decorated with the school colors of blue and gold. Horns created a din as the returning athletic heroes rounded a bend near Homeplace, 11 miles from Hazard on the road to Jackson. Cox was greeted with a big sign at the courthouse. It said “Welcome Poke Juice,” the high-scoring center’s nickname.

Following his spectacular performance in the state tournament, Coach Adolph Rupp said of Cox, “I plan to talk to Cox real soon and I am going to offer him a chance to play at Kentucky.” Rupp then said he expects to switch Cox to a forward. “Even if that boy doesn’t get a single point he’ll be mighty handy as a rebounder. He has a heart as big as the moon and has plenty of desire. The way that boy loves to play basketball, I am sure he can help us,” Rupp said. In early June of 1955, Cox had not yet made up his mind where he was going to play his college ball. It was reported that the Hazard High School star had narrowed his field to two schools—Western Kentucky and the University of Louisville with WKU with the inside track. On June 21, 1955, it was reported that Cox had signed a grant-in-aid at the University of Kentucky. Harry Lancaster, assistant to Rupp, said that Cox signed a grant-in-aid application on June 11, 1955, when he visited the Kentucky campus with his parents.

Enrolling at Kentucky, Cox continued the tremendous play that earned him unanimous acclaim as an All-State schoolboy. In his first collegiate game on the freshman squad (freshmen were not eligible to play varsity back then, on December 12 against Lees Junior College, Cox put on a high-scoring exhibition in leading the UK freshman team to an 87-63 win. The star of Hazard High School’s state championship team of last season blazed away for 35 points and also captured 30 rebounds. On December 17, 1955, in his second game with the freshmen squad, Cox, playing only slightly more than half the game, racked up 41 points for what was believed to be a new individual one-game scoring record for a UK freshman. Cox’s total bettered by three the 38 points pumped in by Clift Hagan against the Vanderbilt freshmen in 1951-52. His big night came on January 14, 1956, as the UK frosh tangled with Campbellsville Junior College and he accounted for 44 points, a new freshman record. 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.

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 and first-team All-SEC. 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 forgot completely his stoop-shouldered, loping mannerisms and kept pace with the fastest teammate and opponent on both offense and defense. Further contradicting his seemingly frail physique, the Kentucky rifleman generally saw more action than any other teammate. Cox’s favorite weapon was a jumping-one-handed push shot that he tries most often from medium ranges. Closer into the bucket, he’d display a beautiful hook shot with either hand that generally never touched the rim and left the crowd mumbling with admiration. Before the season started, it was doubtful that Cox would start. “The boy is trying … I believe he’ll come, but right now he isn’t among our first five,” said Rupp. “Johnny is working hard but there is a lot of difference between varsity basketball and high school or freshman ball.” A collision in a pre-seas0n basketball scrimmage indirectly helped the rookie Cox from the Kentucky mountains develop into one of Dixie’s top sophomores. The crash shelved senior forward Ray Mills, ticketed for a starting job, for four games with a broken jaw. It also brought promotion to the first string for lanky Johnny Cox. On December 1, 1956, in Kentucky’s season opener against Washington & Lee, Cox got his first varsity start, netting 10 points. After opening with a 94-66 win over Washington and Lee, Kentucky went even more point-crazy on December 3, 1956, to crush Miami of Florida, 114-75. The 114 points set a new Memorial Coliseum record. Cox had 16 of those points. Against Temple on December 8, 1956, Kentucky’s illustrious sophomore Cox, was the big wheel in the Wildcats’ terrific scoring spree. Cox concluded his evening’s work with 23 counters on 10 field goals and three fouls. On December 15, 1956, Cox exploded for 34 points in a win over Maryland giving him the lead among UK scorers. Third-ranked Kentucky had its coldest shooting night of the season against Maryland but sophomore Cox rescued the Wildcats as the Ruppmen won over Maryland, 76-55, before 9,800 basketball fans in Memorial Coliseum. Cox, himself, outscored Maryland in the first half, getting 20 points as the Kentuckians took a 30-17 intermission lead. On December 29, 1956, led by sophomore Cox with 25 points, Kentucky won its first Sugar Bowl tournament title since 1949 in record-breaking fashion. The 111 points the Wildcats scored surpassed the 89 Utah tallied in whipping Marquette (84) in 1955 in a regulation game. Back in 1952, LSU beat Villanova 100-94 in double overtime. The Wildcats, who used subs lavishly, combined with the Houston Cougars to set a new scoring record for both teams. Their points, 187, surpassed the 173 produced by Utah and Marquette in 1955 for a regulation game. On February 2, 1957, you might have said that the Hazard flood washed out any dreams Florida had of an upset. The “Hazard flood” was Johnny Cox. He canned 26 points — most of them in the last half — to spoil any hopes Florida may have had of toppling the Wildcats. A couple of Johnny’s 11 buckets came on free-wheeling hooks as the Cats employed a double-pivot for a portion of the game. At midseason, Cox was averaging 18 points and about 11 rebounds per game. On February 15, 1957, Cox made a big impression on the big city scribes of Chicago. Despite the fact he was playing with a sore arm from bowling, Cox fired at the basket 18 times. He hit the bullseye on 11 occasions. From the free-throw line he had a perfect 10-for-10 for a total of 32 points. Jack Clarke, Chicago Sun-Times basketball writer, said “By his deeds Friday night, sophomore Johnny Cox from the mountain country gained a place beside Daniel Boone in the gallery of Kentucky folk heroes.” Kentucky won over Loyola of Chicago, 115-65. On March 15, 1957, Cox, despite only 2 field goals in the first half, ripped in 26 points for Kentucky, almost half free throws as he caged 12 of 14 tries, as the Wildcats beat Pittsburgh in the first round of the 1957 NCAA Midwest Regional Tournament, 98-92. Kentucky, seeking an unprecedented fourth NCAA title, needed fine work by Johnny Cox in the closing moments to clip a Pitt club whose hot shooting belied its unranked status. Kentucky, which led most of the way, had to fight for its life for the last 13 minutes. In the following game, third-ranked Kentucky was upset by 11th-ranked Michigan State in the Midwest Regional finals of the 1957 NCAA Tournament. Cox fouled out with 5:03 left to play; he scored 17 for the Cats but was selected to the Midwest All-Region team. Cox failed by 34 points to equal Bill Spivey’s sophomore scoring record of 578 points, but the Hazard youngster turned in a better average than Spivey, according to final University of Kentucky statistics released by Wildcat Publicity Chief Ken Kuhn. In 28 games this season, Cox tabbed 544 points, an average of 19.4. In his sophomore campaign, Spivey scored 578 points in 30 games for a 19.3 average. Cox, however, managed to rack up the fifth-highest scoring average in Kentucky history, his 19.4 mark being topped only by Cliff Hagan’s record 24-point average of the 1953-54 season. Hagan’s 21.6 mark during 1951-52, Alex Groza’s 20.5 average for the 1948-49 campaign, and Frank Ramsey’s 19.6 mark for 1953-54. The UK record for most points in one season is Groza’s 698, set in 34 games in 1948-49. Hagan’s 51-point total against Temple on December 5, 1953, was the individual one-game record. Although only a sophomore, Cox saw more duty than any other member of the Kentucky basketball team. Cox played 966 minutes and 51 seconds of a possible 1,120 minutes and the 6-4 soph scored a point every minute and 46 seconds he was in the game, beating Vernon Hatton by six seconds.

On November 27, 1957, Rupp was asked about his 1957-58 team. The way Adolph Rupp expressed it—and there hasn’t been a guy to turn a sharper phrase since Will Rogers—Kentucky in basketball has fiddlers who can wow ’em at barn dances but has no violinists who can play at Carnegie Hall. “We’ve got fiddlers, that’s all,” said Der Baron before practice as the Wildcats prepared for their season opener against Duke. “They’re pretty good fiddlers…. be right entertaining at a barn dance. But I’ll tell ya’, ” continued Rupp in his indescribable Kansas twang and getting ready for the barb, “Ya’ need violinists to play in Carnegie’Hall. We don’t have any violinists. And we have a Carnegie Hall schedule.” Cox, Kentucky’s top scorer last season, was off to a slow start his junior season (he only scored 3 points against Ohio State on December 4, 1957) but on December 7, 1957, Cox sparked Kentucky with 22 points in a three-overtime win over Temple, 85-83. Even the mighty roar of UK fans, making up the biggest part of a crowd of 11,000, couldn’t pull or drive the third-ranked Wildcats to victory on December 20, 1957, after they had dropped 19 points behind early in the second half by brilliant West Virginia shooting. Cox led Kentucky in scoring with 23 points in a losing effort to the Mountaineers. Ninth-ranked Kentucky piled up its biggest score of the young season on December 23, 1957, taking a lopsided 92-64 victory over Utah State. Cox with 21 points led the scoring spree of the Wildcats. On January 18, 1958, Coach Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats pulled themselves into sole possession of the first place in the SEC by knocking off No. 1 challenger Tennessee in Lexington. Cox’s 30 points and 15 rebounds were a big factor in the victory, which saw the ‘Cats hold off a strong Vol rally in the closing minutes. On March 1, 1958, Cox was named first-team All-SEC. Going into the 1958 NCAA Tournament, Kentucky was ranked ninth nationally and had just been crowned Southeastern Conference kings for the 19th time despite an overall 21-6 mark. In the first round of the 1958 NCAA Mideast regional tournament on March 14, 1958, Kentucky capitalized on the outside shooting of Johnny Cox, who had 23 points, and eased to a comfortable 94-70 victory over Miami of Ohio. On March 18, 1958, Cox suffered a hand injury in practice that resulted in a badly swollen and painful finger on his right hand. This was his shooting hand and was injured previously this season.

Cox capped off a brilliant junior campaign by coming through in the clutch to guide Kentucky’s “talentless wonders” to a record fourth NCAA National Championship and gained great personal acclaim. It was this Kentucky team that in consecutive NCAA Tournament games whipped Miami, 94-70, Notre Dame, 89-56, Temple, 61-60, and then Seattle, 84-72. This also was a team composed of the same players who lost to Georgia Tech by 21 points; Maryland by nine; West Virginia by seven, and to Southern Methodist, Auburn, and Loyola of Chicago. For his major role in the surprising Wildcat success, sportswriters 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. It’s little wonder that Kentucky’s foes think of Johnny as “Cox’s Army”. Kentucky played the final 17 minutes of the championship game against Seattle with five home-grown Kentucky boys. This could be the first time a college ever won a national championship with boys from its own state (Hatton was from Lexington, John Crigler was from Hebron, Cox from Hazard, Odie Smith was from Farmington, and Don Mills was from Berea). Cox finished the season averaging 14.9 points and 12.6 rebounds per game.

As a senior at Kentucky, the UK media guide described Cox as follows: “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 collegian, 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. 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 an honorable mention on All-America lists prior to tournament time, it was a truly sensational achievement. But it was merely a matter of doing what comes naturally to Johnny. A seemingly lazy off-court and pre-game warmup attitude belie the fact that he is an all-around demon when the action is the hottest during a game. In two varsity seasons, Cox showed a record of 976 points and 675 rebounds while logging a total playing time of 2041 minutes and 20 seconds.” Cox was the only returning senior in 1958-59 and Rupp was tasked to build a team around the Wizard of Hazard. Over the summer, Cox grew an inch and a quarter and put on several pounds. In the season opener on December 1, 1958, against a Florida State team that was speedy, aggressive, ambitious, and unafraid, the University of Kentucky’s rebuilt hoop crew was having quite a struggle in its opening game. That’s when the mountain rattler Cox took charge and led his mates out of reach of the scalp-seeking Seminoles. Cox snaked his slender way in and out of tangles under the basket without throwing around weight he doesn’t have, hauled in an amazing 24 rebounds, and heated the strings for 27 points as the outmanned visitors were turned back 91-68 before a near capacity gathering of more than 11,000 fans Memorial Coliseum. When he really worked, Florida State closed the gap by which it trailed to a skinny 47-43 with six minutes gone in the second half. He scored his 1,000th point at Kentucky against the Seminoles. On December 13, 1958, the free-wheeling youngster, who was playing with two black eyes, staged one of the greatest individual performances ever seen around these parts. With 11,400 fans in attendance and the eyes of the nation focused on Memorial Coliseum through the miracle of television, Jumpin’ Johnny did everything except’ sweep the floor at halftime. He outrebounded the taller St. Louis Billikens, he outshot them—and he out-battled them. In short, he was the Coxswain of Kentucky’s smooth-working ship. Coach Adolph Rupp said, “Johnny was terrific, especially in the second half.” The 3rd ranked Wildcats knew they would need a whale of an effort to beat St. Louis, because the Billikens had height and they had experience. Time and again Johnny’s arms could be seen above the rim hauling in rebounds and he finished up by out-rebounding the heralded Bob Ferry of St. Louis by eight (20-12) and gathered in more rebounds than any two Bilikens combined. His shooting left little to be desired. He fired at the hoops 22 times and 18 found the mark. He attempted 13 field goals and hit on nine; he attempted nine free throws and didn’t miss one. Johnny couldn’t have picked a better time for the brilliant performance. He had scored more points, but he had never been more impressive. On December 15, 1958, 2nd ranked Kentucky escaped Maryland, 58-56, in overtime as Cox led the Wildcats with 18 points before fouling out in the overtime period. As of December 25th, 1958, Cox was Kentucky’s highest scorer with 19.6 points per game. In combat, he was scoring a point on the average of once every two minutes and one second. On December 29, 1958, ace Kentucky sharpshooter Cox cashed in 10 field goals and three of four free throw attempts to lead the Cats with 24 points and 14 rebounds in a win over Navy. On January 10, 1959, Cox shattered Louisiana State’s ball-hawking defense with his looping hook as the top-ranked Wildcats raced to a 76-61 Southeastern Conference basketball victory. Kentucky Coach Adolph Rupp, boiling mad over a 75-66 defeat the previous week by Vanderbilt, benched three former starters and started Cox for the nationally televised contest. Cox led all scorers with 23 points. Jay McCreary, coach of the LSU Tigers, says that Johnny Cox’s hook shots baffled his Tigers Saturday. “And I believe that was the difference in the game,” he added. McCreary said his tigers were well aware of Cox’s one-handed jump shot, “but it wrote our doom.” Johnny’s hook, one of the prettiest shots in basketball, found the mark with unusual accuracy. He fired in four of his famed shots although he was shooting them closer to the basket than he does at Memorial Coliseum. Rupp’s 599th career win came easy for the country’s top-ranked basketball power on January 26, 1959, as Cox had a very sharp evening despite a nasty fall early in the game, scoring 18 of his 23 points in the first half, and the Wildcats followed their ace to a 94-70 victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta. Coach Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky Wildcat’ slammed Georgia 108-55 on January 29, 1959, to give him his 600th victory. The Wildcats, the nation’s No. 1 team, had little trouble getting No. 600 after they rolled to a 61-25 halftime lead and coasted home. Cox had 12 for the Wildcats. Marvelous Johnny Cox, the lean mountaineer from Hazard, saved his best for the last. Playing in his final regular-season game for the University of Kentucky on February 28, 1959, All-America Johnny capped a brilliant three-year career with a 38-point production that paced the Wildcats to a 69-56 triumph over arch-rival Tennessee and an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. A capacity crowd of 6,200 fans, largest ever to attend a Kentucky, Tennessee basketball game in Knoxville, saw the Wildcats fight off two Volunteer rallies to wind up with their 23rd victory in 25 games and their 12th against two losses in Southeastern Conference play. Cox not only dominated the scoring as the Wildcats trounced Tennessee for the 19th straight time, but he was a demon off the boards, grabbing 17. Johnny’s total surpassed by four points his previous career high of 34 scored against Maryland on December 15, 1956. Cox also broke his field-goal record for one game, hitting 17 of 27 shots for 63.6 percent. He connected on four of six from the free-throw line. Johnny’s previous high from the field was 14 against Tennessee on January 18, 1958. In that game he took 26 shots. On February 18, 1959, Cox led Kentucky against Vanderbilt with 21 points as some 12,000 fans watched the Cats take their 20th victory of the season against two defeats. On March 5, 1959, Cox, the Hazard wizard, became the fifth University of Kentucky basketball player to win a coveted berth on the Associated Press All-America first team. He was joined by Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Bob Boozer, and Bailey Howell. As far as UK fans were concerned, it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving fellow. Louisville ended Kentucky’s surprisingly successful season in the 1959 NCAA Mideast Regional semi-finals by a score of 76-61. The Cardinals held Cox to just 10 points. Cox finished the season with 485 points and 329 rebounds. Cox, captain of the 1959 Kentucky basketball team, received the WVLK Trophy from Governor A. B. Chandler at the annual UK basketball banquets. The award recognizes scholarship, leadership, ability, and character. Kentucky ended the season second-ranked nationally. It had 24 wins and 3 losses.

Cox 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.

In 1998, the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet approved a bill to name the Hazard By-Pass the “Johnny Cox All-American Drive”.

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. He was inducted into the Kentucky High School Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013.

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.

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