Award-Winning Cell Tour and Website Highlights Iconic Horse Cave Residents
Recalling a pair of legendary Kentucky athletes.
From: Sam Terry’s Kentucky February 28, 2022
Carl “Kingfish” Helem and Clarence “Cave” Wilson, natives of Horse Cave in Hart County, attended Horse Cave Colored High School where Professor Newton Thomas doubled as principal and basketball coach. Helem and Wilson pleaded with Thomas to start a basketball team and while he admittedly knew little about the sport, Thomas stepped up to the task of learning. Not only did the team have an inexperienced coach, the school had no gymnasium which meant they practiced outdoors on a clay court.
Led by Helem and Wilson, the 1943-1944 team had an undefeated season and won the championship of the all-black Kentucky High School Athletic League. The 1944-1945 team repeated the feat, giving the Horse Cave Tigers back-to-back state championships. The team played and won 65 consecutive games, defeating teams such as Louisville Central (for the state championship), Lexington Dunbar, Nashville Pearl, and Louisville Male’s team which included Ralph Beard who went on to become one of Adolph Rupp’s “Fabulous Five” at the University of Kentucky. The Horse Cave squad’s only defeat was to Douglass High School, the Oklahoma state champions, in the final game of the national championship.
Helem and Wilson both went on to play college basketball at Tennessee A & I, today known as Tennessee State University. After playing college ball, both signed with the then-fledgling Harlem Globetrotters.
Helem made his way to Chicago where he was selected from a field of 80 players auditioning for the Globetrotters. He played for the famous exhibition team from 1948 to 1955 during which they twice defeated the NBA champion Minnesota Lakers and played their first games overseas. In 1999, the Globetrotters named Carl “Kingfish” Helem a “Legend,” an award presented to only 13 previous Globetrotters. He settled in Ashland, Kentucky where he worked at Ashland Oil’s refinery in Catlettsburg for 35 years. Helem died in 2001.
Wilson signed with the Globetrotters in 1949. While his teammates included Helem, Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Reece “Goose” Tatum, Wilson emerged as player-captain and coach within two years. Playing forward and point guard, he was known for the two-handed set shot from mid-court. Wilson and his teammates were in the movie Harlem Globetrotters in 1951. He lived in Louisville where he became a juvenile probation officer for 27 years. Wilson died in 1996.
Both men have been enshrined in the TSU Hall of Fame
These stories and more about the history of this small town that grew on top of a cave are featured on the Horse Cave Stories Cell Phone Tour and horsecavestories.com.