BBN: Heart of a Wildcat

Story by Dick Gabriel, Photo courtesy of UK Library

 

Reggie Warford

His name is in the University of Kentucky basketball records book, among the hundreds of other lettermen from teams gone by. 

What you won’t see is the fact that of the 155 African American basketball players to pull on the Wildcat blue and white, Reggie Warford was the first to earn a degree. And now, a cruel twist of fate has caused his former teammates and fellow ex-Cats to rally around Warford, who spends much of his time connected to an oxygen canister.

Warford played at six-feet tall and yet, had the heart of a lion. 

But it was that same heart that failed him later in life, which he expected. Heart disease runs in his family; in fact, Reggie collapsed during his sophomore year and was told he’d never play again. He could only resume his career after begging Coach Joe B. Hall to let him play.

“I said, ‘Coach – I’m nothing… without this,” Warford said, tears welling in his eyes at the memory of nearly losing the sport he loved.

Hall relented, only after Warford agreed to sign a waiver absolving the university if anything should happen to him.

He resumed his career and led the Cats to the 1976 NIT championship. 

But some years later, Warford needed quintuple bypass surgery and not long after, he underwent both heart and kidney transplants.

Just when it seemed he had earned a second chance at life came the heartbreaking news that he had developed sarcopenia, a disease that destroys muscle tissue. Some day, Reggie won’t be able to breathe on his own.

But he’s here now, and he’s looking back on the time he spent as a pioneer at UK. It was tough, being the only Black player on the UK team when he first arrived, dealing with racism both in the deep south and on the UK campus. But he stuck it out – and he’s hoping others learn from the path he chose.

“He paved the way the right way,” Hall said. “He paved the way for all the kids after him.”

Ex-teammate Kevin Grevey is now a scout for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. 

“This university should be grateful for Reggie’s path,” he said. “And every African-American who comes here and plays should know who Reggie Warford is. That should be his legacy.”

Reggie has thought about just that. “I want them to know who I was,” he said. “That would be a great legacy.”

He also wants them to know that battling loneliness, self-doubt and racism paid off. “Everything I went through at Kentucky was worth it,” he said, “because I got the degree.”