Mayor Greg Fischer today announced the iconic Dirt Bowl tournament is returning for a historic 50th year with plans to commemorate the tournament’s anniversary with a series of events in addition to the tournament, which will begin the weekend of June 22 with games on the hard courts at Shawnee Park.
“The Dirt Bowl is an enormous part of Louisville sports history,” said the Mayor. “From NBA stars to young people, this tournament brings together our community to share good times and watch great basketball. I’m thrilled to join others as we celebrate its 50th anniversary.”
It all started in the summer of 1969, when two young recreation leaders, Janis Carter and Ben Watkins, who worked in the city of Louisville’s parks department came up with a plan. They looked around at the turmoil that was occurring in the city and nationwide and believed a basketball tournament could help bring the community together.
“I never in all my wildest dreams thought the creation of the Dirt Bowl would take on a life of its own after the summer of 1969,” said Janis Carter Miller, who went on to play college basketball at Kentucky State University and became an internationally-known jazz singer. “The Dirt Bowl has now taken its rightful place in my life as a part of my legacy. The affection for and the effect it’s had on people’s lives still exist. The Dirt Bowl started during a tumultuous time of race relations, but there were no incidents. The tournament has survived even now through changes in our urban community’s struggle to be included.”
Fifty years later, the iconic Dirt Bowl basketball tournament is still bringing basketball fans, family, friends and neighbors together to Shawnee Park in west Louisville each summer. As the tournament’s reputation grew, it attracted a bevy of superstars worthy of filling out an NBA roster of its own. Artis Gilmore. Darryl Griffith. Dan Issel. Wes Unseld. Rajon Rondo. Derek Anderson. Ron King.
“The Dirt Bowl to me, it was the NBA,” said Derek Anderson, the former Doss High School star who played at Ohio State and won championships at the University of Kentucky and for the Miami Heat during a successful 12-year stint in the National Basketball Association. “It was everything to me. It was my biggest dream to play there and follow in the footsteps of the greats and legends who played out there. It also saved my life. Playing basketball year-round with the goal of playing in the Dirt Bowl, I was able to stay focused. I got an opportunity to make basketball my career, and I think I was able to win a NCAA Championship and NBA Championship because I played in the Dirt Bowl.”
Also, over the course of its run, the tournament has become the place to see and be seen. The Dirt Bowl is part basketball tournament, part block party and part family reunion. “It’s food, family, fun, and it’s basketball,” Anderson said. The tournament experienced some dormancy in the mid-2000s through 2012, when it was reintroduced with the help of Mayor Fischer and then-Councilwoman Cheri Bryant Hamilton.
Fischer convened a group of community leaders to brainstorm what it’d take to bring back the Dirt Bowl. Each year since it has enjoyed even more community support.
“It was important to keep the ideas and dreams of Janis Carter and Ben Watkins alive,” the Mayor said. “No matter where you live in this community, there’s one thing that most of us share in Louisville and that’s a love of basketball. They understood in the 1960s that was one thing that could succeed in bringing together people from all walks of life. The game’s popularity makes that true still today.”
The Dirt Bowl began in Algonquin Park but was moved in 1970 to Shawnee Park, where it has been hosted until this day. To celebrate the tournament’s origins, organizers will hold a kickoff celebration at 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 16 at Algonquin Park. The event will include a slam dunk and three-point shooting contest and a game between last year’s Dirt Bowl winner, Business As Usual, and a to be determined opponent.
The Dirt Bowl games will begin on June 22, with the actual tournament beginning August 3. Championship games will take place the weekend of August 11-12, 2019. A special 50th anniversary awards dinner will take place at the Frazier History Museum on Sunday, August 25, 2019.
Schedule of Events