As It Happens

Rival teams 'band' together at state basketball championships in Kentucky

It was the regional semifinals of a high school men’s basketball game in Eastern Kentucky, and the game was tied 64-64. One side of the court at the Appalachian Wireless Arena exploded with music and the sound of excitement, but the other side of the court was silent.

Team finds themselves without orchestra for cheer squad, but rival refuses to let them face the music alone

A large group of students wearing red shirts that say "Bands for Bands" play various instruments in the upper level of a large stadium.
Pike Central Band joins Martin County High School to help cheer on their team at the state basketball championships in Lexington, Ky. (Angela Lockhart)

It was the regional semifinals of a high school men's basketball game in Eastern Kentucky, and the game was tied 64-64. One side of the court at the Appalachian Wireless Arena was exploding with music, but the other side was silent. 

Due to a bus driver shortage, the Martin County Cardinals had no band to cheer them on in the tense match against the Lawrence County Bulldogs. 

But as the fourth quarter drew to a close, music suddenly erupted from Martin County's side of the court.

Their rival team, Pike Central High School, was waiting to play in the next game of the tournament when Martin County fans and cheerleaders started chanting for their band to join in and play. Pike Central Band was already set up in the band pit and couldn't resist the call, said their director, Jason Johnson. 

"It was just students cheering on the students at that moment," Johnson told As It Happens host Nil Köksal.

"They didn't care about what school they were from or what colours they wore. It was just about students supporting students and it was kind of a beautiful thing."

The rivalry between the two teams disappeared as the Pike Central Band accompanied Martin County to an 80-71 victory in overtime.

Nearly 100 band members wearing blue play a variety of instruments at a large arena with a basketball came and cheerleaders in the background.
Pike Central Band steps in for Martin County High School's missing band at the regional semifinals on Mar. 4. (Angela Lockhart)

Bands helping bands

At first, Johnson said he was uncomfortable with the situation because Lawrence County's band was playing and he didn't want his students to upstage them. 

"I was just kind of an innocent bystander to the excitement of the students," he said. "I was telling them that technically this isn't our game. We shouldn't be playing at all."

But once their excitement rippled through the court and infected the crowd, he put his misgivings aside. 

"I decided to step back and just let it happen, even though I was uncomfortable," said Johnson.

A bald man with a long beard wearing a black and blue shirt directs a band of high school musicians on the side of a basketball court. There are blue bleachers behind.
Jason Johnson directs Pike Central Band at the Appalachian Wireless Arena. (Angela Lockhart)

Luke Hale, 17, was on the court playing for Martin County when the booming sound from his Pike Central rivals filled the arena and surprised his teammates. 

"The atmosphere immediately changed when the band started playing," said Hale. "The crowd's energy just skyrocketed and really pushed us to the end."

Johnson agreed the excitement was infectious. As Pike Central Band played, Martin County's student section and cheerleaders sang along.

"It was a pulling together of their student body, rallying around our band program," he said.

After the Cardinals won the game, administrators, parents and players surrounded Johnson, thanking him and his band for giving their team the extra edge they needed.

Johnson was really moved by the gratitude he felt. He said he couldn't believe the impact his band's impromptu performance had on the community. When Pike Central took to the court in the next game, the whole Martin County crowd stayed back to cheer them on.

Two schools, one team

After their semifinal victory, Martin County went on to win the regional championship and secure themselves a spot in the Sweet 16 state tournament for the first time in four decades. 

Pike Central's basketball team didn't qualify for the tournament, but their band was invited along for the 2½-hour ride to the Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky on Mar. 16. Their nearly 100-member band joined Martin County's 23-member band to help cheer on the Cardinals.

"The kids were ecstatic to be able to join that once again and to just bring the community together," Johnson said. 

A giant arena with a basketball court and game going on down below, 23,000 blue seats filled by fans and band members, and a big screen that shows the basketball players in action.
The 23,000 seat Rupp Arena, home court of the Kentucky Wildcats, hosted the Sweet 16 state basketball championships from Mar. 15 to 18. (Angela Lockhart)

Martin County ultimately lost to Frederick Douglass High School, but Johnson said the "incredible display of sportsmanship" between the two rival teams was a victory in and of itself. 

"We had a wonderful time," he said. "Martin County may have lost, but we all felt like winners."


Magan Carty


Magan Carty is a journalist with CBC Radio's As It Happens in Toronto. Originally from Ottawa, they possess a deep love of storytelling and come from a performance background, with over 10 years of experience across Canada as an actor. They have written and reported for CBC News, Yukon News, Glue Magazine and The Algonquin Times. You can reach them at

Interview with Jason Johnson produced by Morgan Passi.

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