Burnside officials have never given out the key to their fair city — but there’s a first time for everything.
Today — February 27 — marks the annual occasion of George Conley Bryant Day in the City of Burnside. It’s been that way since 1971, when former mayor Oscar Fitzgerald first designated the date to honor his former sports star Bryant.
The occasion got forgotten as years went by; however, last year, Burnside Mayor Ron Jones decided it was time to recognize Bryant for his accomplishments on the hardwood once more.
This year, the city will do Bryant one better. At 6 p.m. Monday, before the March Burnside City Council meeting, there will be a special “meet-and-greet” ceremony in honor of Bryant, who starred at the old Burnside High School during the mid- to late sixties before moving on to Eastern Kentucky University, where he was twice named to the All-Ohio Valley Conference team.
As part of Monday’s function, Jones plans to prevent Bryant with the ceremonial “key to the city” for Burnside. Jones noted that such an honor hasn’t been bestowed on anyone else previously.
“The key is bigger than the city,” laughed Jones when asked about the size of the key. “It’s a little bitty town.”
Jones called Bryant “one of the most outstanding basketball players ever to come out of the community,” and acknowledged that events like Monday’s help instill a sense of community pride in Burnside citizens.
There will be refreshments served.
After averaging 30 points a game his senior year with the Burnside Generals, Bryant enjoyed an even greater collegiate career. He finished as EKU’s 13 all-time leading scorer with 1,385 points.
As a junior, he averaged 24.7 points per game, good for second in the league, and was runner-up as the OVC’s Most Valuable Player. Again as a senior he put up 21.2 points a game, won the OVC championship, and cemented his berth in EKU’s All-Century Team, one of 15 Colonels to receive that honor. (He’s also in the 12th Region Kentucky Basketball Hall of Fame for his Burnside heroics.)
That 1972 trip to the NCAA Tournament connected Bryant in a unique way with legendary University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp.
Rupp’s last year as head coach of the Wildcats, with whom he won four NCAA Championships, was that same year. The last game he coached was in the ‘72 NCAA Tournament against eventual runner-up Florida State and its coach Hugh Durham, himself a Kentucky native, with several players from the state (including Otto Petty, Ron King, and Larry Gay) on the squad .
The Seminoles beat the Wildcats in the NCAA Regional final. FSU’s first win of the tourney? Against Bryant’s Colonels, a game in which EKU had the team from Florida down by 13 points before the ‘Noles came back to win 83-81.
Bryant called Burnside’s recognition a “great honor,” one that only endears him more to the community he fondly recalls as home. Though he lives in Lexington now, Bryant still visits Burnside often — his parents, Brother Dudley Bryant, a well-known clergyman from Burnside, and Nida, still reside there — and the “only town on Lake Cumberland” holds a place forever in his heart.
“When a community that did so much for me for 18 years honors you, that’s very special,” said Bryant. “There’s a lot of people in that community as well as the city (for whom) I always wanted to make sure I did something so they knew their interest in me hadn’t been in vain. This let’s me know I’ve given a little something back.”
Bryant made mention of Fitzgerald, the late former mayor and coach of the Generals, as a highly influential figure in his life.
“I never could have done anywhere close to what I did without Oscar Fitzgerald,” said Bryant. “He was my basketball coach from 5th grade through 12th. He was my Sunday School teacher, and the best man at my wedding.
“He probably did as much for the youth of Pulaski County as any one man I know,” added Bryant. “Had it not been for his pushing me and his interest in me and what I wanted to do, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I was able to do.
He was one of the greatest coaches that I ever played for.”
Bryant spent approximately 25 years working for Beatrice Foods after he hung up his sneakers. He’s lived a successful life since that time — but the fact that Burnside still remembers his hoops heroics is something he greatly appreciates.
“It was a surprise in the beginning,” he said of Burnside’s interest. “(When the day was first named for him), I was right out of my sporting career. This many years later, it will make it even more of an honor. Burnside will always have a very special place in my heart.”