Cotton Nash: Excellence in every way

Adolph Rupp, the architect of Kentucky basketball, told Sports Illustrated in 1962, “If I had my choice of one man in the country to build my team around, it would be Cotton Nash.”

Kentucky basketball did not magically appear at the pinnacle of college basketball by accident.  Rather, the program was elevated to blue-blood status through the blood, sweat, tears and terrific play of dozens of great players, over a period of several decades.  From Alex Groza and Ralph Beard, to Vernon Hatton and Johnny Cox, to Pat Riley and Louie Dampier, to Kevin Grevey and Kyle Macy, to Sam Bowie and Kenny Walker, to more recently Jamal Mashburn, Tony Delk, Tayshaun Prince, Patrick Patterson and John Wall.   

But perhaps at the top of the list of Wildcat icons — those most responsible for erecting UK basketball into what it is today — sits Cotton Nash.  Nash, who played for the Cats from 1962 to 1964, remains, more than 50 years after his graduation, one of the most illustrious performers to ever don “Kentucky” across his chest.

The Jersey City, N.J., native was a player who dominated in his era and established Kentucky’s presence in an ever-changing college basketball landscape in the early 1960s.  Nash’s time in the blue and white spanned a differing and changing era in college athletics, and he, through his incredible talent, separated himself and his team from those who attempted to knock the Cats from their lofty perch atop the world of amateur athletics.

With his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame, Nash displayed an amazing versatility, manning all five positions on the floor at one point or another. It’s something Nash sees as one of the great differences between today’s college basketball and his playing days.

“Back then the starting five could play all over the floor,” Nash said. “Today it’s more specialized. They recruit guys who handle the ball, or rebound or score. Not as many players are able to play several positions, as we did. Coach Rupp recruited guys who could play all spots on the floor.”

Cotton Nash ranks No. 9 on UK's career scoring list with 1,770 points. (photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

Nash’s versatility, though, takes a backseat to his pure, unadulterated ability to put the ball in the bucket.  His ability to score, even when defended by nearly an entire team, is what constitutes Nash’s greatness, and ensures his legacy remains nearly unmatched.

In total, Nash scored 1,770 points in only 78 games, averaging 22.7 points per contest for his career; he reached 1,000 points quicker (45 games) than any other Wildcat (four fewer games than Dan Issel); he is one of only six Wildcats to earn All-America honors three straight years (Alex Groza, Wah Wah Jones, Frank Ramsey and Kyle Macy); he is one of only three Cats to lead their team in scoring for three straight years (Jack Givens and Tony Delk); Nash was held to single-digit scoring only five games; he scored more than 30 points a total of 21 times; and in the ultimate acknowledgement of individual athletic greatness, Nash was the December 1962 Sports Illustrated cover boy.

The call of the big leagues

Baseball, not basketball, was the round-ball hero’s first love.

“I never played basketball until I moved to Indiana in the sixth or seventh grade,” Nash said. “The only sport we played in New Jersey was baseball. We had the Giants, Yankees and Dodgers, and everyone dreamed of playing in the big leagues.” 

And after leaving UK in the spring of 1964, the big-league dream is what Nash began chasing.

Nash also played baseball at Kentucky, hitting .297 his senior year, so it wasn’t as if he had not picked up a ball and glove since high school. His time in a Kentucky baseball uniform, though, didn’t thoroughly prepare him for what he was about to face in the minor leagues.

“The baseball program was very sparse at that time,” Nash said. “We only scheduled 25 games or so, and with rain-outs and snow-outs, we ended up playing only 18 to 20 games, so that was difficult”

Regardless, when presented with the opportunity to sign a contract to play minor-league baseball with the Los Angeles Angels, Nash took it.  But he was faced with a legitimate dilemma when he was selected with the fifth pick of the second round (12th overall) by the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1964 NBA Draft.

Young, a newlywed (married to Julie, his college sweetheart) and faced with an eternity spent on the road, Nash made the difficult decision to split his time between both sports in order to fulfill his desire for athletic success.

“I was gone a lot, playing both sports,” Nash said. “It was a definite sacrifice.”

After the end of his initial pro baseball season with the San Jose Bees (he hit .290 with 11 dingers), Nash reported to the Lakers. He played with L.A. until February of 1965, when he was traded to the San Francisco Warriors (now the Golden State Warriors). In all, he played in 45 games, averaging 3.0 points per contest. 

Nash decided to leave basketball after that first season (although he did return to the court in 1967 to play 39 games with the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA).  He told the Herald-Leader in January of this year about his decision to leave pro basketball behind, “It just got to be a grind because I didn’t have an offseason to recuperate. The mental and physical exhaustion from having to be at my very best every day hurt me in both sports.”

Making it big, then coming home

After toiling for four seasons in the minors, enduring a trade from the Angels organization to the Chicago White Sox, Nash was called up to the big leagues in 1967.  He played in three games with the Sox, registering a walk and run scored.

It would be two more years before Nash made it back to the big time, this time with the Minnesota Twins. He played in six games with the Twins in ’69, and four in 1970.

In all, Nash played eight pro baseball seasons and hit 176 home runs in his minor-league career (33 in 1970). But the need to “go home and be a daddy” began to outweigh his baseball desires.

“I had young kids at home who were growing older, and when I played both sports I was gone year ’round, and in those days there wasn’t much money in it,” Nash said. “When I played only baseball, I was still gone six months, so I thought it was time to come home.”

Nash’s pro sports career, while not filled with overpowering numbers, is unique in so many ways. He is one of only 12(!) athletes to ever play both Major League baseball and in the NBA. Nash also had the great honor of playing in four of the most iconic athletic venues in the history of American sports, something he relishes.

“Yeah, probably the most memorable thing I did … I am one of a very few athletes to play in Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park, Boston Garden and Madison Square Garden,” Nash said. “I would have to say playing in those stadiums and arenas were the highlight of my (pro) career.”

The afterglow of glory

Returning to Kentucky, Nash decided to go into the real-estate business, something he succeeded at for many years.  Then, feeling the lure of sport once again, in the late 1980s Nash opted to enter the Standardbred horse business, a business he still today works in.

“We race and breed Standardbred horses,” Nash said. “It’s a family-oriented business; it’s me, my wife Julie, my sister (Francene) and some other close friends. We love the business, and it allows me to be in sports again.”

Nash is also “in it” to win it. In 1995, Magic Shopper, one of Nash’s horses, won the Jugette, the most renown harness race for fillies in the U.S., and in 2010, his Rock N Roll Heaven triumphed, winning the Little Brown Jug, the most prestigious 3-year old pacing race in the world.

As for those children Nash came home to? Patrick is a widely acclaimed defense attorney in Kentucky, and J. Richey is an actor and filmmaker (as well as a former pro baseball player). Nash’s youngest, daughter Audrey, is a nurse living in Denver. 

For the man whose No. 44 jersey hangs gloriously from the rafters of Rupp Arena, it’s been a full, satisfying ride. Nash had one of the great collegiate careers in college basketball history; he had the unique opportunity to play in the Major Leagues and NBA; and now Nash has a family business and is surrounded by seven grandchildren and three children, all of whom have perpetuated the Nash name, as a name of excellence.