Driving through downtown Hazard there are a few things that might stick out: the two-story McDonald’s at the end of Main Street, the sandstone tower from the bridge to nowhere, and the bright blue basketball courts at the end of North Main Street.
Looking at the courts, one would likely assume they were rarely used based on the unevenness of the pavement, the cracks, bowing, and large waterholes even after a light rain, and the worn off paint — that is unless one caught a glimpse of them on a Tuesday evening when they are packed with teams and spectators participating in the Dustbowl League.
“You’ll find us either there at the courts or at Memorial Gym every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday,” Perry County resident Roy Spencer, who referees for the league and has run it for the past five years, said.
The seven teams participating this year include players from across the region, some coming from Pikeville to play. The league starts its season in June, just after baseball season is over, Spencer said. The season ends in August with a double elimination tournament just before school goes back into session.
“We try to run a pretty good league, we really do, we don’t charge as much as other places,” he said.
Teams wishing to play in the league are only required to pay a $150 entry fee each year, and each player must pay $10 each game to pay for the official referees used in the league. Compared to the $300 Knott County’s Sportsplex asks for their league, Spencer said this is a great deal.
“It’s a lot better deal and it’s a good league, and everybody really enjoys it because it’s actually outside,” Spencer added.
Spencer said the league has been going on for years, and he had actually been involved in it since its inception.
“I used to play in it and now I actually run it,” Spencer said. “It’s been a while back, I’ve not played in a while.”
Bill Morgan, director of Hazard’s department of public recreation, was one of the founders of the league, which he said started in 1988, the same year the Pavilion opened. He said the league was actually run by the city of Hazard to begin with, though it has since been privatized in recent years.
“The city actually started the league. That’s when everyone in the state was a real fanatic about basketball so everyone was into it. It was a big deal back then, a lot bigger than it is now,” Morgan said.
While the league draws enough spectators and players to fill the section of bleachers currently at the courts, Morgan said at the height of the league’s popularity three sets of bleachers couldn’t fit everyone who wanted to be a part of the excitement.
“We had over 20 teams, and all different age groups. The Biddy League teams and middle school, and then the high school aged and older teams,” he said. “They’ve since stopped the younger leagues.”
Morgan said he thought the community should become more involved with the league because it has been such a positive outlet for the young people in the community, and is not exactly sure why interest in it seems to have dropped off.
“It’s sure been good for those boys that are in it, keeping them up and stuff,” he said.
Spencer said the league has been used as a way for high school basketball players to stay in shape and in practice during their offseason, and even though winning the tournament at the end of the season would only mean a free T-shirt and bragging rights, Spencer said the teams still take every game very seriously.
“I mean, you’d be surprised. Most of the teams are very competitive,” he said.
Spencer said with the amount of rain the city has experienced this summer, it’s been difficult to get enough games in to have a full season. This, however, has not put a damper on those involved with the league.
“We’d actually like to get more people involved,” he said. “We have a great league, we’d just like more people to know about it.”