Announcer Cornell Bradley is the longtime “Voice of the Dirt Bowl,” the annual basketball tournament in Shawnee Park. He also is, according to Nathaniel R.A. Spencer, “One of the five most recognizable black people in Louisville.” And soon, Bradley will be a published author.
“I Said Bang!: A History of the Dirt Bowl” is the second book to come out of the Louisville Story Program. The title is Bradley’s catch phrase — he says it when someone makes a three-point shot. He, Spencer and Ravon Churchill are just three of the many people who have helped write this history under the direction of LSP’s Darcy Thompson.
The Dirt Bowl began the year after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Inner cities throughout the United States were rife with turmoil, and Louisville was no exception. College students Ben Watkins and Janis Carter started the Dirt Bowl as a way to bring the community together, to redirect energy to something positive.
“We had destroyed our own community,” said Bradley. “It gave us something to do.”
The basketball event, which lasts six weeks in the summer, attracted families with children, and the overall atmosphere was like a big family reunion. Spencer said even when people had “beefs” with each other, they’d put them aside during the Dirt Bowl more often than not.
But in the early ’90s, things started to unravel. There was an increase in violence and disputes about who should run the tournaments. From 2005-11, the tournament only occurred ever other year or so. But in 2012, with the support of Mayor Greg Fischer, Neal Robertson and local community organizers, the games came back in full force.
Now, Churchill said, the games are the West End’s top cultural event.
The men gave great credit to the mayor. Bradley said Fischer was the most supportive mayor he’s seen and that he comes out to the Dirt Bowl all the time, “not just when there are cameras.” He said other elected officials only come during election years. All three men praised the Louisville Metro Police Department, too. Bradley called them their “sixth man.”
When Bradley isn’t available to be the “Voice of the Dirt Bowl,” Churchill, his protege, steps in. He’s been a sports junkie his whole life and begged Bradley for the opportunity — and was turned away a bunch before Bradley finally let him call “just one game.”
“Lots of people come just to hear Cornell,” said Churchill, who said he never tried to imitate the great announcer and that he has his own style.
But there have been imitators. Bradley has heard some of his signature catch phrases and phrasing used by announcers on TV, even on ESPN.
Churchill describes the Dirt Bowl as a “sensory experience.” It’s not just about the game but about cars, fashion, food, music and more.
Spencer created the full-length documentary “The Dirt Bowl: The Tradition, The Journey, It Lives in Me” in 2013. He grew up at 39th Street and River Park Drive, and the Dirt Bowl was a huge part of his life in the ’70s and ’80s. He had family who played in it, and he and his friends would, in his words, “get GQ’ed up” to go check out the ladies in the audience. “Even in the heat of the summer,” he said. The girls were out there checking out the guys, too.
Spencer could judge the size of the crowds by the pedestrian and car traffic that went by his house.
He always knew he would write something someday — after all, he already writes scripts for his production company, WeCU Productions — but he did’t realize he’d become an author so soon. Spencer said that, likely, his next book would be a spiritual one. Bradley interrupted to say he could help Spencer with that, and they had a good laugh.
“I know a lot of people who read this book won’t have picked up a book in a long while,” said Churchill, himself an avid reader.
Readers are “going to hear a lot of truth and a lot of lies,” Bradley said, adding that trash talk is part of the culture of the Dirt Bowl. Some of the stories are going to be hard to hear.
“People who read this book are going to see themselves in it,” said Spencer.
The Louisville Story Program will celebrate the book launch at the Muhammad Ali Center on Thursday, Feb. 25. Cocktail hour begins at 5 p.m., and the program begins at 6. The event is free and open to the public. To learn more about the Dirt Bowl, the program, to order a book and/or to watch more videos created by Kertis Creative, visit the website.