Charles Francis “Cotton” Nash, one of Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball’s all-time greats, died early Tuesday. He was 80.
According to Lexington attorney Patrick Nash, one of Cotton Nash’s three children, the former UK basketball star had been battling significant medical issues since around Thanksgiving.
“Baptist (Health) Hospital was taking good care of him but, finally, he just wasn’t able to overcome everything,” Patrick Nash said Tuesday.
In a stellar three-year varsity career (1961-64) playing for Adolph Rupp’s Wildcats, Cotton Nash scored 1,770 points and grabbed 962 rebounds.
A 6-foot-5, 220-pound forward from Lake Charles, La., Nash was Kentucky’s all-time leading scorer when his UK career ended. It was a mark he held for six years, until Dan Issel (2,138 career points) subsequently left Kentucky in 1970 with the scoring record.
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An unusually versatile athlete, Nash departed UK and become the rare player who played in the National Basketball Association, the American Basketball Association and Major League Baseball.
According to Baseball Almanac, only 13 men have played in both the NBA and Major League Baseball.
Nash was one of them — and he played in the ABA, too.
“I’m on a very short list of guys,” Nash said in a 2020 interview. “And I’m grateful for that unique experience.”
UK matinee idol
What Rex Chapman was to the Kentucky Wildcats basketball experience in the 1980s, what Kyle Macy was to the 1970s, Nash was to the 1960s: The UK hoops star who crossed over and became a statewide matinee idol.
Hollywood handsome with a distinctive thatch of blonde hair (the inspiration for his nickname), Nash was a star from the moment he joined Rupp’s varsity in 1961-62.
Forced to play pivot at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds on undersized Kentucky teams, Nash averaged a double-double for his UK career — 22.7 points and 12.3 rebounds.
“Cotton was a tremendous athlete. Really good speed for a guy his size,” Nash’s former UK teammate Larry Conley said in 2020. “He had a lot of strength, (and) great moxie about how to play the game.”
Former Kentucky center John Adams (UK varsity 1962-65) said Tuesday that Nash was “one of the best basketball players I ever saw, played with or against. He worked at it, too. People thought it came easy for him but he stayed after practice to work on his game a lot of the time.”
Nash was born and spent his early years in New Jersey. As a little boy, he fell in love with baseball — and New York Yankees legend Mickey Mantle.
Yet, when Cotton was 11, his father’s job transfer took the family to Indiana. The move to a place where basketball was king initiated the process that brought Nash to UK.
Cliff Barker, one of the starters on Kentucky’s 1948 and ‘49 NCAA title teams, coached Nash in Indiana. “(Barker) tipped Adolph off about me,” Nash said in 2020.
Before Nash’s junior year of high school, his dad was again transferred. Nash wound up playing his final two high school seasons in Lake Charles, La.
By his senior year, Nash’s athletic prowess was such that LSU recruited him as a tight end for football, Kentucky and UCLA wanted him for basketball and major-league baseball scouts vied for his signature.
“I wanted to go in the SEC and the only place logical if you wanted to play basketball, at that time, was Kentucky,” Nash said in 2020.
At UK, Nash made the AP All-America team all three seasons. Yet in Nash’s three seasons of varsity play, Kentucky won only one NCAA Tournament game — an 81-60 victory over Butler in the 1962 Mideast Region semifinals.
Still, Nash left a lasting mark on UK basketball.
In his 1976 book “Kentucky Basketball’s Big Blue Machine,” author Russell Rice noted that, before Nash, UK home games in Memorial Coliseum did not routinely sell out.
But when season tickets went on sale before Nash’s senior year, Rice wrote that the lines to buy them were longer than a city block.
“From that point on, there would be no season UK basketball tickets for sale to the general public,” Rice wrote. “‘The House that Rupp Built’ had become ‘The House that Cotton Filled.’”
NBA, ABA and MLB
In the 1964 NBA Draft, the Los Angeles Lakers selected Nash in the second round with the 14th overall pick. The Los Angeles Angels signed him to a professional baseball contract, too.
Nash was now a two-sport, professional athlete.
“Looking back on it, I’m not real sure how I did it,” he said in 2020. “I never had an offseason. I went consistently from one sport to the next with no off days.”
In his rookie season (1964-65) in the NBA, Nash averaged 3.0 points and 1.8 rebounds in 45 games split between the Lakers (25) and the San Francisco Warriors (20).
After that season, he made the decision to leave the NBA. “Baseball was always my first love,” he said in 2020.
In 1967-68, the Kentucky Colonels of the newly formed American Basketball Association put the full-court press on Nash to come back to the commonwealth to play hoops.
“I think the only reason they signed me, they wanted to see if the fans would still come out to see me play,” Nash said in 2020.
In 39 games with the Colonels, Nash averaged 8.5 ppg and 4.9 rpg. However, when baseball spring training fired back up, he left basketball behind for good.
Overall, Nash spent nine seasons playing professional baseball, mostly in the minors.
A power-hitting first baseman/outfielder, Nash had some monster years in Class AAA. He belted 28 homers for Indianapolis in 1967, 33 for Evansville in 1970 and 37 with 102 RBI for Portland in 1971.
Yet in “cups of coffee” with the Chicago White Sox (1967) and Minnesota Twins (1969 and ‘70), Nash logged only 16 career major-league at-bats and collected three hits and two RBI.
Nevertheless, it was MLB that provided Nash with the sports thrill of his lifetime.
On Sept. 4, 1967, in one of Nash’s first days as a member of the White Sox, he peered across the baseball diamond at Yankee Stadium in New York City and saw his boyhood hero occupying the opposite dugout.
Across the way, wearing the familiar No. 7 on his New York Yankees pinstripes, was Mickey Mantle.
“My childhood idol,” Nash said in 2020. “That was a thrill for me, my gosh, yes.”
Back to Kentucky
After retiring from professional baseball in 1972, Nash made his life in Lexington. He and his wife, Julie, met as UK students.
The couple raised three children, who gave them nine grandchildren.
Cotton Nash “was a wonderful father. A wonderful husband,” Patrick Nash said. “He and mom were married, it would have been 59 years this November. They had a great marriage, a long-lasting marriage. Of all the athletic things he did, I think he was more happy and proud to be a husband and a father.”
Once his days as a competitive athlete ended, Cotton Nash kept his hand in sports through breeding and racing standardbred horses.
Rock N Roll Heaven, a horse bred by Nash and associates, was a world-champion pacer and the 2010 Horse of the Year. Artistic Vision, a mare owned by Nash, was elected into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in 2011.
Of his time as a UK sports star, Nash said in 2020 he had few regrets.
“I really didn’t have many. I enjoyed my stay (at UK), played basketball, baseball and I was even on the track team (throwing the discus) a couple of years,” he said. “I enjoyed going to classes, playing three sports and enjoying the college experience.”