Historical marker #2616 in Jefferson County commemorates the founding of the Dirt Bowl basketball tournament in Algonquin Park.
In the summer of 1969, Janis Carter and Ben Watkins were serving as supervisors for summer activities at Algonquin Park. Watkins, a former basketball player at Central High School and Jackson State University, and Carter, a graduate of Shawnee High School and a Kentucky State University multi-sport athlete, started the tournament in the aftermath of the 1968 riots. The goal for the Dirt Bowl was simple: to bring people together in a difficult moment with basketball and family-style picnics.
What was first a concept and pickup games grew in size and popularity rapidly in the West End of Louisville. By the end of the first summer of the tournament, thousands of people packed the park on the weekends to watch high-level basketball from some of the best players in the region and to connect with other attendees. Ben Watkins lauded the Dirt Bowl as an opportunity for players to build their skills while preparing for the next step in their basketball careers. It quickly became the biggest event of the year in one of the nation’s most basketball-obsessed cities.
The Louisville Story Program and dozens of people in the Dirt Bowl community worked together to develop the book I Said Bang! A History of the Dirt Bowl, the Crown Jewel of the Most Basketball-Obsessed City in America. Darcy Thompson with the Louisville Story Program said about the Dirt Bowl: “It’s this beautiful grassroots community-building effort and that it wasn’t like the grand vision that he [Watkins] and Janis had that just grew organically out of that.” The tournament is now described as part basketball, part block party, and part family reunion.
Algonquin Park served as the founding site for the Dirt Bowl, but games were moved to Shawnee Park in 1971, where the tournament continues to be played over 50 years later. Louisville legends like Darrell Griffith, Dallas Thornton, Ron King, Rajon Rondo, Butch Beard, and Gerald Gray participated in the tournaments alongside Louisville’s amateur players.
Algonquin and Shawnee Parks were designed by the Olmsted Brothers, a well-known landscape architecture firm, in 1929. Both Algonquin Park and Shawnee Park are part of the city’s historic Olmsted Parks and Parkways System and continue to play an integral part in Louisville’s landscape. The parks are 2 of 17 parks in Louisville laid out by Olmsted and his sons over a fifty-year period. The construction of an interstate highway through Cherokee and Seneca Parks in the 1960s and other environmental factors resulted in the creation of a grass-roots effort entitled “The Friends of Olmsted Parks” to be created. Worried about losing a great asset to the city, Mayor Jerry Abramson established a task force which recommended the creation of Louisville’s Olmsted Parks Conservancy in 1989.
The marker was dedicated on August 14, 2021.
In 1969, Louisville natives and
Algonquin Park supervisors Janis
Carter and Ben Watkins created
the Dirt Bowl. What began as
pickup games grew into a playground
basketball tournament. Named for
the dirt surrounding the courts at
Algonquin Park, the Dirt Bowl moved
to Shawnee Park in 1971.
Sponsored by Metro Councilwoman Keisha Dorsey
in celebration of the 50thanniversary of the Dirt Bowl
Algonquin Park was designed by
Olmsted Brothers, a well-known
landscape architecture firm, in
1929. The sixteen-acre Algonquin
Park is one of seventeen parks in
Louisville laid out by Olmsted
and his sons over a fifty-year
period and is a part of the city’s
historic Olmsted Parks and
Olmsted Parks Conservancy