By the time King Kelly Coleman rolled into Lexington for the 1956 KHSAA State Basketball Tournament, he was already a mythical, larger-than-life figure in the annals of commonwealth hoops.
After all, Coleman -- a two-time All-American at Kentucky Wesleyan College who died Sunday in Hazard at age 80 -- averaged 46.8 points per game as a senior at tiny Wayland High School in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, where his on- and off-the-court exploits were already the stuff of legend.
Think the King wasn't that big of a deal back then? Think again.
Renowned sportswriter Dave Kindred, in his extraordinary 1976 book, Basketball: The Dream Game in Kentucky, chronicled the proceedings brilliantly, as did Gary P. West in his definitive 2005 biography of a Kentucky hoops treasure, King Kelly Coleman: Kentucky's Greatest Basketball Legend.
As Coleman walked out of the Phoenix Hotel on March 14, 1956, for his first Sweet 16 game at Memorial Coliseum, a plane circled above, dropping thousands of leaflets announcing his presence and detailing his achievements. As they fell to the ground, fans scurried to pick them up.
Walking toward Memorial Coliseum on the University of Kentucky campus, fans from the mountains proudly toted helium-filled balloons adorned with a single word: COLEMAN.
The tournament itself proved weirdly fantastic for the 17-year-old Coleman, a well-built 6-foot-2 mountain man-child who could score inside, outside and everywhere in between.
As it turned out, however, many in attendance resented his celebrity status and air of brashness at such a young age, and, perhaps most of all, they were miffed by the fact that he had originally let it be known that he would play collegiately at West Virginia University rather than their beloved, hometown UK.
Whatever the case, every time he touched the ball, it seemed to Coleman, 13,000 fans booed -- an unexpected reception that bothered and befuddled him at the time, and continued to fester decades later. The Sweet 16 would prove to be, at best, a bittersweet personal experience.
Undeterred, Coleman poured in 50 points in the Wasps' first-round win over Shelbyville, and he tallied 39 more in their quarterfinal come-from-behind conquest of Earlington.
This set up a classic mountain matchup between Wayland and Carr Creek, which split a pair of regular-season games. Carr Creek, it should be noted, in its Sweet 16 opener, narrowly defeated Central City and its superstar, Corky Withrow, in overtime.
Triple-teamed by Carr Creek, Coleman was held to 28 points in the Wasps' heartbreaking 68-67 semifinal loss to the Indians, a Cinderella story in their own right that season.
Coleman was shattered by the stinging and sudden defeat -- capped by Freddie Maggard's 25-footer that hit nothing but net just before the final horn -- and he felt hurt and betrayed by many of the state tournament fans.
Afterward, Lexington sportswriter Billy Thompson approached the phenom but turned away as he discovered Coleman sitting on the floor in the corner of the locker room, weeping.
Coleman waved him back.
"Don't go, Billy, you're the only guy who's stood by me," Coleman said. "I'm going to give 'em the greatest basketball game they've ever seen. I'm going to get 60. And then, Billy, you tell 'em for me to drop dead."
In the years that followed, it was strongly rumored that what Coleman actually told Thompson to tell the fans to do was kiss something of his that, uh, rhymed with brass. Of course, Thompson couldn't print such a phrase in those days.
That evening, Coleman scored a still-standing state tournament-record 68 points as Wayland crushed Bell County 122-89 in the third-place game. Ever-true Wayland fans and cheerleaders first rushed the court, then carried their wunderkind off it. He only wanted out of there.
Despite the heroic, legendary performance, Coleman was still seething and quickly departed Memorial Coliseum. In the hotel lobby, a fan from Wayland handed him a brown paper sack that housed a fifth of whiskey. He says he didn't drink it, but instead gave it to his teammates.
Coleman claimed he was either with a friend from Wayland at a nearby bar having three mugs of beer or in his hotel room reading comic books when the All-Tournament trophies were presented. His sister, Linda, accepted for him, explaining to the crowd that Kelly was "too shy" to come forward.
Coleman averaged a record 46.3 points in his four state tournament games. In the 63 years since, no player has come close to approaching it.
Ted Sanford, the KHSAA commissioner at the time, described the 1956 Sweet 16 as the greatest ever. He never changed his mind.
Why would he? How could he?
There was only one King Kelly Coleman.