Eugene Mills -- a familiar face in the community resting on a long and lean 6-foot-5 frame, better known to many as "Geese" -- wears on his right wrist an attractive gold watch. Take a simple look at it, and you'd assume it's something he picked up in the last decade or two. Not all that long ago.
On Friday, Mills told a different story to the crowd assembled at the Somerwoods Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
"My brother gave me this when we went to the national tournament," said Mills, gesturing toward the watch, drawing "aww"s of surprise from the packed room in front of him. "It's still running."
That was 1954. The watch is still ticking. Just like Mills himself -- and teammates B.J. "Buddy" Jamison and Bobby Newell.
The three men played together during a very special era for Someret Dunbar High School -- the early '50s. The 1952-53 championship team from Dunbar won the Kentucky High School Athletic League State Tournament, which served African-American schools in the state at the time.
A special ceremony was held for them Friday at Somerwoods, located on Bourne Avenue in downtown Somerset, to honor their accomplishments on the hardwood. The three venerable gentlemen received replica jerseys just like they wore in the days they played for the Dunbar Trojans with their names and numbers on the back, as well as a team photo.
The trio rediscovered each other last month when Mills was with his wife Lerline, who was moving into the nursing facility. Mills ran into Jamison, who was a resident there, by chance, and the two engaged in lively conversation recalling the old days. Jamison then let him know that Newell, a third member of that squad, was also at Somerwoods.
"It took Bobby a second to realize who Eugene was," said Craig Wesley, Admissions Director for Somerwoods. "Once he did, he reached up and gave him a big hug."
Wesley realized what a special thing Somerwoods had with all three men there and the facility quickly organized a tribute that coincided neatly with March Madness, as well as Southwestern High School's girls' runner-up finish in the Kentucky state tournament -- appropriate since the year after Dunbar took the state title, they were runner-up in the National Negro High School Championships. That's the second-best team in the entire country for those that played African-American athletes.
"They have a story which should be told, and should be remembered by the community," said Brian Jaggers, Somerwoods Administrator. "It should not be lost in the pages of history books as the grains of sand pass through the hourglass."
Of course, while part of the reason to tell the story is to remember the athletic accomplishments of the Dunbar teams -- which also starred eventual Harlem Globetrotter Jackie FItzpatrick -- and all of the good times they shared together, there is another reason to not let those days be forgotten, and that is to learn from the mistakes of the past. Dunbar played during the days of segregation, when white students and black students were made to attend different schools. Dunbar High School closed its doors in 1956, when black students finally started attending the Somerset Independent School System, while Dunbar's elementary school continued on through 1964.
"Today, our students go to school based upon where we live," said Jaggers. "... But back in the first half of the 20th century, that was not the case. Where students attended school back 60 years ago was based on your race as much as where you lived. I'm proud to say that Somerset High School changed 10 years before the rest of the nation integrated."
In an interview with the Commonwealth Journal in 2014, before the Dunbar School's 40th anniversary reunion, Jamison himself recalled the days of Dunbar High, when black students were separated from the main city school on the court as well as the classroom.
"The Shopville Tigers and the Burnside Generals, all those guys would come up to Dunbar and practice against us to be better players, but Somerset High School wouldn't play us at all," noted Jamison in 2014. "We'd try to help those small teams to beat Somerset, because Somerset wouldn't play us for nothing. It's something to laugh about now, but they wouldn't play us, no."
That didn't stop the people of Somerset from coming to see Dunbar's hoopsters do their thing, however.
"I remember going to the gym at Dunbar," said John L. Perkins, past president of the Dunbar Alumni Association. "We would have to sit down on the floor or stand up or whatever because you couldn't get a seat. Most of the best seats were taken by the bankers and the attorneys and this, that, and the other. Even though it was segregation, everybody in the community supported these guys."
Jaggers noted that the youngest alumni of Dunbar High would now be at least 80 years old. Perkins was one of those who was able to attend Somerset High School with white students in his later academic career, but still fondly remembers the legacy left by the close-knit Dunbar community, and the athletes he looked up to as a kid.
"Growing up during that time, our heroes were these guys," he said. "... From the time we were small, Dunbar has had an impact on me. It's been guys like these, and we were talking about (Fitzpatrick), he and Geese were taller than just about anybody, and I remember us having the opportunity to play against them when I was a young man. They would act like the Globetrotters. They would hide the ball, make fancy passes. But the thing that I remember most of them, especially these guys here, they set an example for us. We had the pressure in the community that when we played sports or in school or whatever, they were always watching, giving you the push that you needed."
Perkins and Mills both recalled the struggles associated with going on the road in the days of segregation, when it was often difficult to find a business that would serve black individuals.
"It was tough traveling because we couldn't find a place to eat, couldn't find a restroom," he said, "and if we did find a place to eat, we had to get it and take it outside and eat."
However, the reward for suffering these indignities came on a place that does not discriminate based on skin color, one that only recognizes merit and ability -- the basketball court. There, Mills and his teammates were kings among men.
"It was a lot of fun," said Mills, his first words after being encouraged to take the podium and share this thoughts Friday, before adding, "as long as we were winning."
He recalled the national tournament, and how you didn't get much out of a regular practice against your own team other than learning plays. "To really have a good practice, you've got to play somebody else (with) a different defense, a different offense."
Their success provided them opportunities to match up with big-city ballers from around the country, and the team knew exactly who they wanted to challenge.
"We played some big teams from Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, North Carolina, New York -- that's who we wanted to play. We wanted to play New York," said Mills, adding with a laugh, "But they played Oklahoma ... and Oklahoma beat New York, and we didn't like that."
Mills, one of the team's highly memorable star players, told the Commonwealth Journal that when he first started on the team, he came in and "was fooling around with the ball, and I heard some of the guys say (to the coach), 'What did you bring him down here for?' And I heard that, and that made me mad, because I wanted to show them that I could. It took a while, but I finally showed them."
After the ceremony, the players talked about how much it meant to them to be remembered by Somerwoods, which saw an impressive turn-out of friends, family members, and staff for the ceremony -- a place which "can do things for us or our parents or our loved ones that we can't do," said Perkins.
"It means a lot to me," said Jamison, who recalled that while he was playing, he had to hold down a "regular job," working at the old Hotel Beecher. "I'm surprised that all these people came."
Added Mills, "It means a whole lot. (Thursday), I didn't feel too good, and I didn't feel like I was going to be able to make it, but I thank God that I was able to make it. It's really something."