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    Standing five foot three inches tall, Janis Carter Miller hardly looks the part of a basketball legend. Raised in west Louisville’s Chickasaw neighborhood, she was drawn to sports because her brother, whom everyone called “Rock,” turned everything into a competition. They arm-wrestled for the remote and raced for the privilege to sit in the front seat of the car. Carter Miller went on to run track and play basketball during her freshman year at Kentucky State University, then became known worldwide as a jazz singer. But those things aren’t why strangers stop her in Louisville for a picture. They do that because at age 19 she co-founded the Dirt Bowl, one of the longest-running summer basketball leagues in the country, held annually in west Louisville. 

    It was the summer of 1969, and Louisville Parks and Recreation hired Carter Miller and Ben Watkins as park supervisors. Carter Miller, who graduated from Shawnee High School, knew Watkins because he had  been an all-state center for Central High School. Once word got out that Watkins was in the park, other top players started to show up. “Before long, we had enough guys to play full court, and other people would be waiting to play. So I said, ‘Why don’t we have a tournament?’” Watkins says. They had four teams that first summer, each putting in $20 to cover the cost of T-shirts and a trophy. Back then, dirt surrounded the Algonquin Park court. “If the ball hit the dirt it was out,” Watkins says. “That’s why we called it the Dirt Bowl.” 

    The Dirt Bowl proved so popular that it moved to the larger Shawnee Park in 1970. By then, Carter Miller had dropped out of Kentucky State to join the R&B group New Birth. She eventually started a jazz career, which led her to Las Vegas and Paris before returning to Louisville in 2004. “After I left town, I didn’t think about the tournament anymore,” she says. “I come back home and it’s still going. I got guys coming up to me in the grocery store talking about how they played in the first tournament.” 

    This summer, the Dirt Bowl celebrates its 50th anniversary. Carter Miller helped fundraise for the festivities, which kicked off at Algonquin Park with the unveiling of a historical marker. Following this year’s tournament (the first two weekends in August), the Frazier History Museum will host an awards dinner on Aug. 25 with Louisville native and former NBA player Derek Anderson, who has competed in the Dirt Bowl. “When we kicked off the ceremonies in Algonquin Park, I saw how something I helped put together impacted generations of people,” Carter Miller says. “I realized this tournament is part of my legacy.”

    This originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline "Belle of the Bowl." To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photo by Terrence Humphrey

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