Roger Harden still remembers listening to Kentucky coach Joe Hall tell him and his teammates how he grew up idolizing British basketball and even had a Fiddling Five album, the 1958 British National Championship team.
“Through him, we realized that it was a good thing to be a role model for young fans, but also to represent everyone in the state of Kentucky,” said Harden, a point guard recruited in Indiana by Hall.
“He’s done so many wonderful things for the basketball program,” Harden said. “I was his last point guard (before he retired in 1985). Every year he would talk to us about how we wanted to be with our fans and how we should represent them because it was important to him.
“Every year we would all roll out across the state and talk about the importance of education, not using drugs, and respecting your teachers to the kids. Coach Hall wanted us to impact people’s lives and create moments with fans in cities of all sizes and with youth groups, civic groups or really anyone who wanted us to talk.
Hall recently passed away at the age of 93. He won 297 games in the UK and the 1978 national title. He also took two other teams to the Final Four.
Harden, like other players, may not have always agreed with Hall during his playing career. However, like so many players, Harden grew to love Hall more each year. He hasn’t been able to visit him as much recently due to COVID, but contacted his former coach by phone anyway.
“I really think he was ready to go. He was such an optimistic person and had such a good relationship with people,” Harden said. “I was certainly sad when I heard of his passing, but at the same time, I celebrate my relationship with him and the left he gave BBN as well as the opportunity of a lifetime he gave me in 1982 to be a Wildcat.”
Harden still marvels at how Hall wanted UK players to interact with fans over the restrictions on athletes today. The former point guard still remembers signing basketballs for any fan who asked for autographs.
“Every year we signed at least 10,000 basketballs. Think about it. We signed 10,000 every year for free,” Harden said. “Every day after practice we would spend at least half an hour passing balls down the row and each player would sign each ball, as would each coach to make sure the fans could have those autographed balls.
“The commitment he had to the British fans was something no other coach had. Being from Kentucky he was very proud of British basketball and believed the sun would rise, shine and fall. every day on the great state of Kentucky. No matter where we were or what we were doing, if we were asked to sign an autograph, he wanted us to do it.
Harden said Hall always had the same goals for the team: don’t lose at Rupp Arena, don’t lose to Louisville, win the SEC Regular Season Championship and SEC Tournament, never lose to an inferior seed in the NCAA tournament and win a national championship.
Hall’s rules never changed either. Players had to attend classes and a student-advisor checked attendance. If a player misses a class, Harden said he’ll knock on the door at 5 a.m. the next day for an early morning practice.
Players were required to be clean-shaven and wear a coat and tie on road trips, as Harden said he was concerned about the image of the Kentucky program.
There were also no restrictions on how long or when a team could practice.
“There were several nights where we didn’t play well and Coach Hall would tell us not to get dressed (after the game at Rupp Arena). We would put on sweats and go back to Memorial (Coliseum) and we we were training, especially if he didn’t like our level of effort in the game,” Harden said. “He just taught us there was a lot to do to be a Kentucky Wildcat and he was very conscientious about being the keeper of the flame of British basketball.”
Hall’s commitment to his players did not end when their careers in the UK ended. Harden said Hall comes to weddings and will be there when the players’ children are born.
“Years ago, I spoke to him about a subject. Half an hour after hanging up, he called me back and shared some other thoughts. Two hours later he called back,” Harden said. “If Coach Hall knew there was a job opportunity you were interested in, especially in the state, he was there to help and that was a massive help with any connections he had. He was always happy to make a call to help your livelihood.
“He said that’s what his commitment would be when he signed us all. No one will ever be able to say that Joe Hall didn’t keep his word in any of the relationships he had.