Breaking News
More () »

'It's immeasurable, the impact that he had.' | Louisville community remembers Dirt Bowl co-founder Ben Watkins

Watkins co-founded the summer basketball tournament in 1969, turning it into an annual staple in west Louisville’s Shawnee Park. He died Saturday at 71.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — One of the founding members of Louisville’s legendary basketball tournament, The Dirt Bowl, has passed away.

Ben Watkins, 71, died on Saturday. As a college student, Watkins co-founded the summer basketball tournament in 1969 with Janis Carter Miller, turning it into an annual staple in west Louisville’s Shawnee Park.

Watkins and others discussed the roots and culture of the tournament in “I Said Bang! A History of the Dirt Bowl, the Crown Jewel of the Most Basketball-Obsessed City in America." The book was published by the Louisville Story Program in 2016.

"It's this beautiful grassroots community-building effort and that it wasn't like the grand vision that he and Janis had that just grew organically out of that," Darcy Thompson with the Louisville Story Program said.

Longtime Dirt Bowl announcer Cornell Bradley added, "You look back and Martin Luther King had died in 1968. And The Dirt Bowl came in the summer of 1969. Basketball has always been a refuge, something that relieves a lot of tension, at least for us in the inner city. And when Big Ben came up in the Dirt Bowl in '69, it gave, especially the city of Louisville, something to look forward to, especially the black community."

RELATED: 50 years later: Dirt Bowl tournament continues community tradition of love and basketball

Watkins lauded the tournament as an opportunity for basketball players to build their skills while preparing for the next level.

“I mean this is what it’s about – community, and it brings the community together. This is probably the only place other than the Kentucky Derby where you’ll see all walks of life come together through the Dirt Bowl,” he told WHAS11 in August 2019.

His community-building dream has inspired a rich history beyond the court and players who have gone on to play on the collegiate or professional level.

"It's immeasurable, the impact that he had. Because so many people have memories, at least one memory of going to The Dirt Bowl. And so it's an institution in the summertime. You wanna go down and it's not just about basketball. Like, the basketball is a byproduct of The Dirt Bowl. But you come down and it's a place to see people and a place to be seen, a place to be heard," Ravon Churchill, a staff member and former player, said.

The Louisville Story Program released a statement confirming Watkins’ passing:

“It is with heavy hearts that we report the passing of our dear friend Ben Watkins. When he founded the Dirt Bowl summer basketball tournament in 1969 as a 20-year-old kid, he had no idea that it would grow into one of the most beautiful grassroots community-building efforts that Louisville has ever seen, or that it would last for over 50 years. Without him, none of the Dirt Bowl's rich, beautiful history would have been possible. It was an honor and a joy to collaborate with him on "I Said Bang!: A History of the Dirt Bowl" and to be able to count him as a friend for life. Mr. Ben was so kind, so warm, so gentle, so humble, so classy. He is gone way too soon. We love you, Mr. Ben, and we miss you so much already. We're going to sit down and read back through your chapter tonight.”

The Dirt Bowl recently celebrated its 50th anniversary and named the tournament after Watkins. It's unclear how COVID-19 will affect this year's tournament. 

Contact sports reporter Tyler Greever attgreever@whas11.com. Follow him on Twitter andFacebook.


Make it easy to keep up-to-date with more stories like this. Download the WHAS11 News app now. For Apple or Android users.

Have a news tip? Email assign@whas11.com, visit our Facebook page or Twitter feed.

Before You Leave, Check This Out