With the Kentucky Wildcats on the cusp of claiming their eighth national championship tonight, I find myself with mixed emotions. On one hand, I am excited, thrilled, elated, and any other adjective one can find to describe the joy that this team has brought me this season and how happy I am about the win over Louisville on Saturday.
But there is also nervous anticipation-the kind that comes from knowing without a doubt that the Wildcats are the best team in the nation – that they deserve to win it all – but knowing that the Kansas Jayhawks want it just as much, and, though they may not be as talented, certainly have the ability to take what UK fans believe is rightfully theirs.
I’m also feeling a little nostalgic. I’m in my 40’s, and although I grew up in Southern Indiana, my blood is as Blue as it gets. My dad was a Kentucky fan for most of his life, and I got my love for the Wildcats because of him, but something changed in his later years. He became convinced that Coach Rupp was racist, and it turned him away from the Cats. I didn’t realize this until later in life, and tried unsuccessfully to combat this notion that has no basis in fact.
We had friends of the family that were really close, however, so close I called them aunt and uncle. They were season ticket holders, graduates of UK, and as Blue as Blue gets. They kept the Blue flame alive in me, much to the chagrin of my parents, who turned to the hometown Louisville Cardinals to follow.
The first Wildcat team I really remember following was the 1974-75 team that ended Indiana’s undefeated season in the Mideast Regional finals but lost the national title game to UCLA. I remember being so proud of Wildcat Mike Flynn, who was from my hometown of Jeffersonville, Indiana.
I remember the 1978 team that won the NCAA title over Duke. Like many young Wildcat fans of the time, I copied Kyle Macy’s routine every time I shot a free throw, even though it didn’t help me nearly as much as it did him!
I remember suffering through the early 80’s and watching Indiana and Louisville winning two national titles each. Even though UK had some terrific teams in that era, including the 1984 Final Four team featuring the Twin Towers (Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin), I often wondered to myself whether the Cards and Hoosiers had passed my Cats by, especially after the debacle that was the Dream Game in Knoxville that saw the Cats fall to Louisville.
I remember heated arguments with my brother, a U of L fan, because neither one of us was mature enough or smart enough to understand that basketball isn’t worth arguing about, but that we could both co-exist as fans of heated rivals.
I remember the dark years, the sadness and anger that followed the disaster that Eddie Sutton visited on the program, landing Kentucky on probation, nearly getting the so-called death penalty, and the national disgust and ridicule that was heaped upon us, and deservedly so. I remember the day the sanctions came out and feeling like I was at a funeral…but I also remember the elation I felt when Rick Pitino was brought in to resurrect the program back from the depths.
I knew Pitino would turn things around, but I never dreamed he would do it so quickly. That 14-14 year of 1989-90 was one of the most fun seasons I remember, even though the Cats weren’t even on live TV. It wasn’t that they were great-they certainly weren’t, but it was the fight that they had that made me happy. In a season where the most optimistic forecasts were a six-win season, those Wildcats were already clawing their way back.
The next season the Cats rose to 22-6, but were still banned from post-season play, but it set up one of the most Unforgettable seasons in UK history, one that left me weeping as Duke’s Christian Laettner ended perhaps the best game in college basketball history with a miraculous shot that has been shown countless times since.
Then there was the national championship in 1996 with Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Ron Mercer, Derek Anderson, and company. Like this season, there was little doubt about UK being the best team in the country. The comparisons don’t end there. Like now, the Cats were a perfect 16-0 in the SEC yet lost in the SEC tournament championship game. That team also suffered just one regular season loss and then avenged it in the NCAA tournament. They were arguably one of the best teams to ever wear the Kentucky uniform.
And they probably would have won it all again in 1997 if it weren’t for the knee injury to Derek Anderson - which would have led to the rare three-peat, as the Wildcats won it all again in 1998 under new coach Tubby Smith led by Jeff Shepherd.
When Tubby left, the Wildcats again faced dark times with new coach Billy Gillespie. It takes a special person to coach at Kentucky, and it was obvious early on that the job simply overwhelmed Gillespie, who was fired after two seasons.
Again, the program was in need of a charge to put it back where it belonged, and they found it in John Calipari.
While many national media types groaned at the hire due to Calipari’s two vacated Final Four seasons, a closer look at both of those incidents show that Calipari was not implicated in either, and the Kentucky administration decided it was OK to hire him, and the rest is history.
What Calipari has accomplished in his first three seasons is astounding. 35-3 in his first year and an Elite Eight appearance, 29-9 last season and a Final Four appearance, and now 37-2 and playing in the national championship game - simply amazing!
There are those who don’t like the recruiting strategies of Calipari, but that’s not his fault-talk to the NCAA and the NBA about that. His results speak for themselves.
Win or lose tonight, this season has been one for the ages. 37 wins breaks the school record for wins. Anthony Davis has been the most dominant player in a generation, nearly sweeping all of the national awards and a lock to be the top pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Though young, these Cats play with a fire and passion not seen in many years.
Seasons like this don’t come along very often. 1996 was one of them. 1978 was another. After that, take your pick, but you see the trend. Seasons like this come along once in a generation. They are the seasons you remember forever, seasons that raise banners, and seasons that families talk about for their lifetimes.
Kentucky basketball is an emotional thing to those who call it their passion. It’s more than a basketball game, and those on the outside looking in don’t quite understand that.
It’s like a family. We mourn its losses, including legends such as Coach Rupp and Bill Keightley. We also weep with joy at its triumphs. We feel empty when the season ends, and nervously watch the recruiting circuit to see who our next family member will be, and then we welcome them into the family as if they were sons, no matter where they come from.
Wildcat basketball is bigger than one coach, one player, or one team. It’s the fabric that binds families, communities, and a Commonwealth. It permeates every corner of Kentucky and is followed all over the world. This is who we are, this is what we do.
This is Kentucky basketball.go back