FARMERS SON

On a snowy February night in eastern Kentucky, Richie Farmer has been granted permission to walk into Clay County High School’s cavernous gymnasium for his son’s basketball game. Richie hasn’t been here in a while, and he wasn’t even sure his parole officer would allow him to come tonight. But it looks just as he remembers it. His jersey—number 32—still looms over the court, and a photo of him hangs in the lobby, both reminders of the indelible impact he’s had on his hometown. Now his signature mustache is gone, and he hasn’t played a meaningful basketball game in years. He’s here on Senior Night to watch his son Trey close out his final regular season as point guard for the Clay County Tigers. Come October, schools around Kentucky gear up to com-pete for one single championship trophy. The winners of the state’s 16 regions play in a five-day tournament called the Sweet 16, held every March in Lexington’s Rupp Arena, where the Kentucky Wildcats play. Every season matters and the expectations are clear. For the Clay County Tigers, it’s Rupp or bust. A drive through Clay County today reveals a struggling community searching for an identity. The coal companies have left town or closed up altogether. Restaurants, the local theater, and other businesses are boarded up and decrepit; a prescription drug epidemic that erupted in the 2000s had devastating effects. But their basketball program has stayed strong, claiming 62 district titles, 29 regional titles, and a state championship in 1987. They set a state record with 120 straight victories on their home court between 1984 and 1993. They have earned top 10 rankings nationally, an accomplishment unheard of for a team hailing from an area of roughly 1,600 people. Clay County basketball also has a first family, a name synonymous with the longevity, weight, and legitimacy of the program’s accomplishments: the Farmers.

Photography: Brian Kelley | Author: Jarrett Van Meter | Art: Aleli Tanghal

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A team’s fate is never certain, but having a Farmer at the helm is a good sign. A high school senior, Trey has been a starting guard for the Tigers for three years now, amassing over 1,500 points. Standing 6’4” with a thick beard, he is one of the top shooters in the state. He is both a Tiger and a Farmer, and if you ask anyone in Clay County, that’s like catching lightning in a bottle. Trey is the third Richard Farmer to don the number 32 jersey for the Tigers, following in the footsteps of his grand-father, Richard Farmer Sr., and his father, Richard Jr., aka Richie, who is perhaps the most legendary player in Kentucky high school basketball history.

Trey lives with his grandparents, Richard Sr. and Virginia, in a cozy home overlooking one of the many hollows of the Appalachians. He moved to Clay County after a turbulent freshman year living in Frankfort, the state capital, where a rocky relationship with his mother prompted him to ask his grandparents if he could finish out high school under their watch. His grandparents welcomed him, with a few conditions: “I told him no drinking, no drugs, and he’s got to be a good person,” says Richard Sr. They put him up in his father’s old bedroom, and word quickly spread throughout the mountains that the next Farmer was set to suit up in black and gold.

Richard Sr. was a star for the Tigers in the 1960s and turned down a basketball scholarship to marry Virginia. The couple had three children: a daughter, Rhonda, followed by sons Richie and Russ. The two boys took an early interest in basketball, and every morning Richard Sr. would show them a new move before heading off to his job at Shamrock Coal Company. They would practice until he returned home at the end of the day, only breaking when Virginia called them in for bologna sandwiches and soda. Their backyard court was made of dirt and sat on top of a hill, which Richard Sr. credits for their shooting ability: “Every time they’d miss, the ball’d go rolling down the hill. They would come complain and I just told ’em if they didn’t want to have to go chase the ball they better focus on making their shots.”

Measuring 5’11” on a good day, Richie was not particularly strong or quick. He was not a lights-out three-point shooter like his brother Russ, nor a high flyer like some of his teammates. A point guard like his son, he played on the high school varsity team starting as an eighth grader. Richie’s signature move was to bring the ball down and slowly back his man to within 10 to 15 feet of the basket before shooting a quick turnaround jumper. The shot was the same every time—it would hang in the air for what felt like an eternity before finding its way through the net. Defenses always knew it was coming, but struggled for five years to find a solution. In 1987, Richie gave the Clay County community what they had long craved and would not soon forget: their lone Kentucky high school basketball state championship.

Richie finished his Clay County career with five regional championships, five Sweet 16 berths, three state champi-onship games, two Sweet 16 MVP awards, and that 1987 state title, when they beat Louisville’s Ballard High 76–73 in overtime in front of 17,800 people. To end his senior season in 1988, the Tigers again faced Ballard (and future New York Knick Allan Houston) in the state champion-ship game, losing 79–88. Richie scored 51 points and became the only player in tournament history to be named MVP from a losing team. He exited high school atop the Clay County all-time scoring list.

Richie doesn’t hesitate to rank the ’87 championship as the pinnacle of his athletic career. “Basketball has always been really important to this area. This community, especially back in the ’80s—it just meant so much to the whole town,” he says. “The next day, there were cars lined up on both sides of the road from the time we got off the interstate all the way to Manchester. It was an unbelievable homecoming.”

There are still odes to the 1987 team all over Clay County. The Farmers live on Richie Boulevard. A mural commemorating the championship graces the side of one of the county’s few gas stations, and the current Tigers enter their gym to the radio call of the 1987 title game’s waning moments.

In 1988, Richie enrolled at the University of Kentucky, playing in the same building where he earned statewide popularity during his prep career. Like at Clay County High School, Richie’s number 32 jersey hangs from the rafters. Under coach Rick Pitino, Richie helped lead an upstart bunch of seniors to an unlikely Elite Eight appearance. It was there, on March 28, 1992, that Duke’s Christian Laettner ended their season (and college careers) on arguably the greatest buzzer beater in tournament history.

Richie’s basketball playing days ended, as they had begun, in Kentucky. He did not play in the NBA or try his hand at a career in an overseas league. Instead, he graduated with a double major in agribusiness management and agricultural economics, and held jobs in a variety of fields in Lexington and Clay County, including sports marketing and insurance sales. “You have to be realistic,” Richie says. “When you graduate from the University of Kentucky you have a window of time and opportunity. I know a lot of guys who went and chased a dream for a couple years and then they come back here and people are like, ‘Where? Who? What?’ It’s been different with me—the people of this state have always supported me.”

In 2003 Farmer ran for, and was elected to, the position of Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner. It was actually Richard Sr. who had urged his son to run for office. He told Richie, “You’ve got three boys. To get involved and to do something positive, make this a better place for them, would be the greatest gift you could ever give.” A successful reelection bid followed in 2007; four years later, he opted to run for lieutenant governor, sharing the Republican ticket with State Senate President David Williams.

The Williams-Farmer ticket was easily defeated, amid swirling reports that Richie rang up hefty bills on personal expenses and extravagant accommodations at events like the Sweet 16 and Kentucky State Fair. In March of 2013, he was charged with 42 counts of violating state ethics laws. Among the accusations levied were that Farmer created no-show positions for his friends, inappropriately used government funds, and had his employees conduct errands such as construct-ing a basketball court in his backyard. Richie entered into a plea bargain to avoid decades of prison time. He would go to federal prison for up to 27 months and owe $120,500 in restitution.

Before he reported to West Virginia’s United States Penitentiary, Hazelton, Richie was on hand to see Trey, then a sophomore, named the MVP of the 2014 13th regional tournament. A judge also granted Richie permission to suspend his sentence by a week so he could attend the Sweet 16. He watched Trey score 19 points in Clay County’s District Tournament game on Thursday, March 20, 2014. He reported to Hazelton the following Tuesday.

Like his father, Trey’s trademark is his facial hair, and he shoots the same mid-range turnaround jumper. Trey practices on the same court out back of his grandparents’ house, only now the dirt has been covered in blacktop. Leaning against a tree are Williams-Farmer campaign signs left over from 2011. As a matter of faith or local pride, many residents believe Richie to be innocent. In their eyes, he never stopped being a hero to Clay County. On December 18, 2015, Richie was released from prison and placed in a halfway house in Lexington, over 70 miles from Clay County.

A little more than two months later, Richie watches Trey lead the Tigers to their 63rd 49th district championship at Jackson County High School, and advance to the regional championships and their coveted spot at Rupp. It is an endless parade of handshaking and backslapping from fans grateful for the return of their prodigal son. Even opposing coaches approach him to pay their respects before the game. There’s a steady stream of photo requests and hugs. The crowd jumps up to cheer on Trey and his teammates as they take the court for warm-ups. Richie is away from the bright lights of Rupp Arena and Frankfort, and free from prison. He is back watching his boy play basketball for the Tigers. “With all the stuff he’s been through, I know what it meant to him to be there,” Trey says. “I’m glad he got to see some of my senior year.”