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‘They Call Me Goose.’ Kentucky great Jack Givens shares his life story in new memoir.

Growing up in the Bluegrass-Aspendale housing project — where an 8-foot tall fence topped with barbed wire separated the Black residents from the white residents — Jack Givens spent most of his childhood in Lexington never even dreaming of playing basketball for the most famous team in the land.

“For African-Americans growing up — not just in Kentucky, but anywhere — playing basketball at the University of Kentucky was not an option. It just wasn’t done,” Givens said. “And we had so many really, really good basketball players that came out of Lexington. … I’m talking guys who would dribble circles around me. Really, really good players, and they weren’t even considered to play Kentucky basketball.

“And when the time came for me to have to make a decision, it was tougher than most people think.”

Of course, Givens went on to star for the Wildcats, leading the program to the 1978 NCAA title and cementing his legacy as one of the most talented and celebrated players in the storied history of UK basketball.

Givens details his life story in a new memoir, “They Call Me Goose,” published by the University Press of Kentucky and scheduled for release Tuesday.

The book gives a detailed account of Givens’ upbringing in Lexington, his career as a star player in college, and his time in the pros and beyond. It’s an intriguing look into the unique story of one of the greatest athletes in the University of Kentucky’s history. And it almost never happened.

Givens and co-author Doug Brunk spoke at a launch party for the book on UK’s campus Thursday night and then talked about the process of writing the biography in an interview with the Herald-Leader.

“I was hesitant about doing it from the beginning,” Givens said. “And I had been asked a number of times in the past to do something, and I just didn’t think that there was much for me to talk about. I really didn’t. And only when I started thinking about it — and Doug and I talked — I thought, ‘OK, well let’s give it a try,’ still not really knowing if it was going to be a project that I wanted to complete.”

In the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, Brunk — a San Diego-based author and journalist who lived in central Kentucky during Givens’ college career — reached out to the former UK star about pursuing the project. They had worked together on two previous books authored by Brunk — “Forty Minutes to Glory” about the 1978 title team, and “Wildcat Memories,” which details stories of various UK basketball greats — and Brunk hoped Givens would be willing to share more of his own life with readers.

“I think it’s just a tremendous story,” Brunk said. “You’ve got a guy who — as a little boy — never envisioned himself playing for UK, because nobody on the team looked like him. Nobody. And now, he’s arguably the ambassador for the basketball program. … And how great is that?”

Even after Givens agreed to begin work on the book, he wasn’t sure it would amount to anything. But the more he reflected on his life — and especially his early days in Lexington — the more memories came back to him.

“Once we started going into that — remembering my friends and other people — I thought, ‘This is good,’” he said. “Then as we got older and I went to high school and college and what happened in the pros and after and all of that — there really were some inspirational situations, messages that I could draw from. And it became a labor of love. Because it’s not easy. But it was really good.”

Jack “Goose” Givens scored 2,038 points during his four-year Kentucky basketball career and led the Wildcats to the 1978 national championship.
Jack “Goose” Givens scored 2,038 points during his four-year Kentucky basketball career and led the Wildcats to the 1978 national championship.

Growing up in Lexington

“I have been asked several times in previous years to write a book about my life, but frankly, I never thought my life story would interest people,” Givens says in the preface of his memoir.

To the contrary, Givens’ story is one worth retelling even if it started with his first days at the University of Kentucky, and he looks back at that point in his life — as well as the personal and professional successes and struggles that followed — in intimate detail.

Lexington residents will perhaps be even more interested to hear of his childhood growing up in the city, however, and that portion of the book takes a fascinating look at Givens’ early years.

Born in 1956, he was one of 10 siblings and lived in the Bluegrass-Aspendale housing project in East Lexington — not far from the intersection of East Third Street and Midland Avenue — until his sophomore year of high school.

Givens recalls tales of his time as a kid in that area, walking to his job washing dishes at a roadhouse on Winchester Road, playing baseball — his preferred sport in his younger days — and later getting more seriously into basketball and competing at the Charles Young Community Center and the locally famous Dirt Bowl at Douglass Park.

“There were some surprises,” Brunk said. “I did not know about his humble upbringing, where there was an 8-foot fence that separated the apartments where the white residents lived from the Black residents. It was taken down the year after Jack and his family left there.

“I tried to place myself in an environment like that in that time period. That’s a lot to try to navigate as a little boy whose dad was not around.”

An 8-foot fence that had separated Black and white residents since 1939 in the Bluegrass-Aspendale housing project was taken down on Jan. 30, 1974, after Jack Givens and his family moved to a house near Russell Cave Road.
An 8-foot fence that had separated Black and white residents since 1939 in the Bluegrass-Aspendale housing project was taken down on Jan. 30, 1974, after Jack Givens and his family moved to a house near Russell Cave Road.

During that time, Givens never gave much thought to one day playing for the Kentucky Wildcats.

UK didn’t have a Black player until Tom Payne played one season with the Cats in 1970-71, and Givens was 16 years old by the time Reggie Warford — the first Black player to stay at UK all four years and a trailblazer for the basketball program — made his Wildcats debut.

He recalls in the book that he and his brothers rooted for Texas Western over UK in the 1966 title game, which pitted an all-Black starting five against the Wildcats’ squad of all white players.

Givens, who starred at Bryan Station High School, was also looking at other college options before UK became a realistic possibility.

He said he set up a recruiting trip that would include flying to UCLA — the sport’s top program at the time — then Hawaii and finally UNLV before returning home to Lexington. But he’d never been on an airplane, and when the time came to go — the ticket already purchased — he backed out.

The only recruiting trip he ended up going on was to Knoxville, spending a week in the home of one of Kentucky’s biggest rivals.

“I thought for sure that I was going to the University of Tennessee,” Givens said. “That was my choice, until Kentucky started recruiting me. And Coach (Joe B.) Hall did a great job of changing the whole landscape of recruiting at Kentucky. I give him a lot of credit for that.”

Hall recruited Warford to UK before his first season as Adolph Rupp’s replacement, and, two years later, the Wildcats’ coach brought in a freshman class that featured Givens and James Lee, a star at rival Henry Clay High School. (The book also details how the two Lexington basketball greats were very nearly high school teammates.)

“It’s striking to me that he was rooting for Texas Western as a little boy against UK,” Brunk said. “And here he is. A lot of people came to UK because of him. It was really special.”

Lexington high school basketball stars Jack Givens, left, and James Lee signed with the University of Kentucky on April 17, 1974, at a press conference at the Continental Inn.
Lexington high school basketball stars Jack Givens, left, and James Lee signed with the University of Kentucky on April 17, 1974, at a press conference at the Continental Inn.

Back in Lexington

Givens talks about his time as a Wildcat over several chapters of the book, from learning the ropes from veteran players like Kevin Grevey as a freshman to his own time as a star, culminating, of course, with his 41-point performance against Duke that led the Cats to the national title and put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

“I still send money to Duke’s athletic fund for not changing the zone defense,” Givens joked Thursday night. “I still write them a check every now and then and say, ‘Thanks, man. Thanks for not changing that 2-3 zone.’ They never changed defense. So the shots that I got — they were there the whole game. And my guys — they just kept giving it to me.

“It was nothing special. I just was the guy who got the shots that night, and they happened to go in. So it was fun.”

Givens’ adult life was filled with trials and tribulations that he doesn’t shy away from in his memoir, discussing his reliance on his faith and family during those trying times. Many of his family members were in attendance for Thursday night’s event celebrating the book’s release.

Now 67 years old, Givens is back in Kentucky in his still relatively new role as radio analyst for the UK basketball games, sitting courtside at Rupp Arena and traveling with the team on the road to call the games alongside broadcast partner Tom Leach, who also attended Thursday’s event. He’s in his second season on the job, and his enthusiasm is evident to anyone who’s tuned in over that time.

“It’s been so much fun,” Givens said. “Listen, sometimes you fall into situations that — I don’t want to say you don’t deserve — but you never really expect, and that’s kind of been my whole life. So it just makes you know that someone a whole lot more powerful than you are is kind of looking out for you. And that’s been very obvious and apparent my whole life.

“But I just love being back associated with the team. I truly, truly enjoy broadcasting the games. Every game is an adventure for me. It’s new. I hurt when we lose games. And I think I show that. But when we win games, I want that to be clear, too, that I’m enjoying this. And they don’t have to be perfectly played games. I know how difficult it is to win, especially on the road in the SEC. So when they come away with one like they did the other night at Mississippi State? Listen, I’m the happiest guy in the whole entourage, man.”

Givens said he wanted to write the book, in part, to honor his mother — “I was a momma’s boy,” he acknowledged Thursday night — and the nine siblings and other family members and friends that shaped his life. He also hopes to encourage people going through their own rough times with stories and messages of positivity amid struggle.

For 50 years or so, he’s been a Kentucky institution, and he spoke of the important role Lexington has played in his life.

“It’s this city, but it’s the whole state really. Because that’s just Kentucky basketball. Everywhere I go throughout the state — and I’ve been everywhere from Pikeville to Paducah, up in Covington and all the way down south and everywhere in between — I’ve been there. And the reception has always been the same. And it really started back in high school, when people started saying, ‘Hey, we want you to come to Kentucky.’ People you would never have expected to hear it from. And places where I would never have expected to hear it from. They started making it clear that they wanted me to come to Kentucky.

“It’s throughout the whole state. They make me feel welcome, no matter where I go. … The love people show for me is just unbelievable.”

“They Call Me Goose” — by Jack Givens with Doug Brunk — will be released Tuesday by the University Press of Kentucky and will be available for purchase on its website and through other booksellers. The book is part of the University Press’ Race and Sports series.

University of Kentucky star Jack Givens runs through the hoop during Senior Day activities at Rupp Arena on March 4, 1978.
University of Kentucky star Jack Givens runs through the hoop during Senior Day activities at Rupp Arena on March 4, 1978.

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