A Denim Past, A Hopeful Future

I was eleven years old when Converse conjured up the brilliant idea to create denim uniforms for the ’95-96 Kentucky Wildcats, a team that ultimately won the National Championship and subsequently went down in history as one of the greatest teams college basketball fans the world over had ever seen.  I still own a # 40 Walter McCarty jersey from that (what most would call) aesthetically terrifying era – the same one Darius Miller, as a toddler, wore when he had his picture taken with Tony Delk (wrong player, Darius). Miller's McCarty denim

I remember the hoopla surrounding those uniforms in the media, in the streets…everywhere.  All my friends at school were talking about them.  We loved them; they were new and different, therefore awesome.  We were not yet the cynical twenty-somethings we soon would become, or the grumpy old curmudgeons we’re now becoming; and, perhaps in our innocent and childlike world, it never occurred to us to complain about something as insignificant as a particular shade of blue on a piece of apparel.  To us, or at least to me, the uniforms were just another thing regarding Kentucky basketball to be overjoyed about.  And so, even though it would probably fit a little snug these days, Walter’s denim jersey still hangs in my closet.  It reminds me of my younger days and my own history of being a Kentucky Basketball fan.  Those are days when I didn’t know what irony was. Today I call the denims a “brilliant idea” without being ironic. I still love those jerseys!

When I think of the history of my fandom, my mind never fails to drift toward thoughts of my childhood bedroom, which was completely decked out in Wildcat paraphernalia.  The memory of it even today is comparable to the nostalgia of Christmas.  I’m not sure when I decided to commit to such virtuous bedroom décor (it had to have been at some pivotal moment in the early ‘90s) but I will always recall those images.  I had UK bedding – sheets, pillowcases, comforter.  I had two windows and blinds with a huge Wildcat logo in the center.  I had a border at the top of the walls so that “Kentucky Wildcats” was written around the room.  I had street signs surrounding the outside of my doorway; one said “STOP: You’re entering Wildcat Country!” and the other said “Wildcat Way.”  I had a UK lamp where the bulb and the body both lit up.  I had Kentucky bumper stickers on each blade of my ceiling fan.  I had a tin Kentucky trashcan that sits in my bedroom still.  I fell asleep every night feeling surrounded by the tradition and mythology and spirit of Kentucky basketball, and I know I wasn’t the only one.

Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do about the maroon carpet.

Through the years, there are some things that especially stick out to me:

-Being a huge Reggie Hanson fan.  I went to my first game when he was a player and will always have in my mind the image of him walking from the bench to the scorer’s table to enter the game.  It was surreal.

-Sean Woods’ bank shot high off the glass in the infamous ’92 UK/Duke game, and just knowing that God loved Kentucky basketball like everyone else and that we were going to win.  And of course the utter sadness and bitterness of that defeat.  In the immortal words of the Ghost of Christmas Past from Scrooged, I cried like “Niagara Falls.”  Though I hated Christian Laettner like every other UK fan, I remember hating Bobby Hurley more.

-Dale Brown and Jamal Mashburn tearing it up against Michigan and the “Fab Five” in the ’93 Final Four, only to lose the game in heartbreaking fashion in overtime.

-Feeling sick every time Travis Ford missed a free throw.  It just didn’t feel right.

-Coming back from 31 down against LSU in ’94 and watching Travis Ford jump around like he’d just…well, helped his team mount a massive 31-point comeback and emerge victorious.  For some reason I wasn’t able to watch this game live, but watched the highlights over and over on every newscast that night.  I remember being stoked that the performance was nominated for an ESPY award.

-Winning the 1996 National Championship.  It was simply elation.  Absolutely everyone in the state of Kentucky was insanely happy for months.  The image of Walter McCarty running to greet his teammates at center court is a lasting one.

-Listening to the ’97 comeback against Duke on the radio of a Greyhound bus on the way back from a school trip.  The entire bus was going nuts.  I loved reliving that moment again and again watching the highlights of the game when we arrived home.

-Anthony Epps throwing the ball up high after we defeated Minnesota in the 1997 Final Four, as if to say, “Repeat is impending.”  And then watching what ended up being an unanticipated defeat in the championship game against Mike Bibby and Arizona.  I was in a hotel room with my mom and dad.  We were either heading out for or coming back from vacation, and we stopped off somewhere just to watch the game.  I was heartbroken about the loss and watching players like Padgett and Epps cry on national TV, and about not being home in Lexington with a heartbroken fan base.

-Winning the 1998 National Title and not hearing (or caring) about how Tubby won with Pitino’s team.  I’ll always remember the picture on the front page of the Herald-Leader the next day, trophy hoisted high and everyone all smiles.  I’ve probably still got it stuffed away in a drawer somewhere.

-Teachers in high school letting us watch first-round games of the NCAA tournament against teams like Holy Cross and San Diego State.  And we didn’t have to ask.  Sometimes tests were postponed.

-Always looking forward to the challenge of playing Arkansas when they had the likes of Corliss Williamson, Corey Beck, and Clint McDaniel, with Nolan Richardson at the helm.  If he can get his players under control, maybe Pelphrey can have the good fortune to garner that kind of talent as well.

-Dwayne Wade’s breakout game in ’03 when Marquette beat top-ranked UK.  The media hyped him up as the gamechanger.  I’d never heard much about the guy so I thought it was all…well, hype.  Of course, I was wrong.  When Gillispie miraculously (as it now seems) lead the Cats to the NCAA Tournament in 2008 and drew Marquette as a first-round game, all we heard about was how Dwayne Wade had dominated UK years earlier.

I’ve been a UK basketball fan through the tenure of three coaches; Cal will be my fourth.  My memories of the Sutton era are foggy, so I don’t count him.  My favorite of the bunch is Rick Pitino.  Yes, I’m one of those. Call him what you want: traitor, cheater, schmoozer, big-headed; I’m sure he’s heard it all.  But the guy can coach, and never was that fact more abundantly clear than when he was at UK.  He had that Michael Corleone swagger, and for that matter, even looked the part of Mafia big-shot.  He looked like a man who got what he wanted from his players.  The teams he coached are mythical in the minds of Kentucky fans, and at one point so was he.  I remember being confused as to why he would want to leave a place where he was universally loved; the lure of money and the desire to reach the pinnacle of coaching – to become one step closer to attaining the dream of becoming a bonafide NBA coaching legend – never entered my mind.  But when Pitino started drafting and trading for former Kentucky players I was sold — an instant Boston fan.  I thought success for him there was imminent; I never considered the egos and selfishness that run rampant in the pros, traits that many players wear like a badge these days.

I wasn’t necessarily offended by Pitino’s return to college basketball when he took over at Louisville.  Did I think it was smart?  No.  But I didn’t run around screaming “How could he!?”  If anything it made for good drama and, as RV:WT has already pointed out, the Louisville/UK – Pitino/Calipari drama doesn’t look like it’s dying anytime soon either.

Next was “OrLANdoohh ‘TUBBY’ SMITH!”  Tubby seemed universally loved and destined for greatness after winning the 1998 National Championship.  Sure, everyone likes to point out that he won the title with Pitino’s team, but Pitino didn’t coach the 17-point comeback against Duke that kept the title dream alive.  Tubby may have won with Pitino’s recruits, but he also coached his butt off.  You don’t win the National Championship and ultimately end up with a 35-4 record without a good coach.  Tubby didn’t stand idly by while the players just “did what they do.”  He channeled the massive amounts of talent on that roster into a cohesive unit, a well-oiled, smoothly-running machine.  One could perhaps even argue that the challenge to bring that team together was made even greater by the fact that they weren’t his players, not to mention the outstanding pressure he faced as a first-year coach at an elite program.  But this isn’t the place, and that person isn’t me.

I say all that to say that the way the Tubby era came to an end never has sat well with me.  It’s got nothing to do with where any kind of fault lies; the whole situation was just sad.  I will be the first to admit that I absolutely abhorred what came to be known as “Tubby ball.”  I mean, Tubby didn’t even play Tubby ball until his last few seasons!  I remember the descent into flat-footed madness being a sort of gradual process.  It was at first very subtle and nuanced – perhaps sneaky is a better word — like Robert Duvall’s acting in Lonesome Dove or a good Wendell Berry novel; you don’t realize the full effect of what you’ve just taken in until you think about it a little bit.  Likewise, I’m not sure UK fans realized what they were witnessing.  But suddenly the next thing you know, every game we were staring – no, glaring — at our TVs screaming, “WHY IS EVERYBODY JUST STANDING AROUND ON OFFENSE?  MOVE!”

As a current resident of Atlanta I can say with full assurance that the similarities between Kentucky Basketball and Georgia Football are tantamount.  An 8-4 season for the Bulldogs is cause for much concern, whereas an 8-4 season for Brooks’ Cats is certainly enough to keep him around (though it seems even UK football fans are getting spoiled as of late).  Georgia might not even make 8-4 this year and I can tell you that Bulldog Nation is none too happy.  Likewise, when a Kentucky basketball team starts losing more than ten games per season, the natives start getting restless; if anybody cared about Georgia basketball, losing only ten games in a season would be a milestone and enough reason to extend the coach’s contract into the unforeseeable future.

I don’t hear many people debate about whether Tubby was a good guy; the consensus seems to be the same wherever you go: he is an outstanding human being.  When he settled into his own coaching groove here, however, it started becoming clear that he and UK were not two peas in a pod.  I remember being excited for the future of UK basketball when Tubby left of his own accord; maybe we would find someone who could make the game fun to watch again while at the same time meeting the high competitive standards of UK fans.  I recall being excited for Tubby, too, because Minnesota seemed like a great fit for him, and he seemed genuinely happy about the opportunity available there.  But there was still a pit at the bottom of my stomach about the way the whole thing went down.  Perhaps Tubby was not meant to coach elite-level college basketball.  But perhaps that says more about elite-level college basketball than it does about Tubby Smith.

Enough has been written about the Gillispie era in recent months and, to be honest, the last two years seem to me not to have even happened, so I’ll waste no time on BCG in this already too long first post.  (Okay maybe a little: Let’s just say I defended him more ardently than he deserved because he was a bachelor, which to me meant that he could devote his life to Kentucky basketball 24/7; none of those pesky familial responsibilities to attend to.  Of course, I forgot the vices of the middle-aged bachelor are booze and college girls.  Lastly, I have to share that my old roommate’s brother called Gillispie “Gary Sinise on hotdogs,” which is hilariously spot-on.)

Gary Sinise Billy Gillispie

Now we find ourselves at the beginning of a new era in Kentucky basketball.  Excitement and hype surround this program the likes of which I’ve never seen, and it is all unequivocally because of John Calipari.  I remember DVRing his press conference when he was officially announced as coach.  It was hard to go to class that morning because I wanted to watch it live, but at the same time I wanted to be on campus and hear what everyone was saying. (Who says Calipari doesn’t care about academics?)  I think it was that press conference that won us fans over, heart and soul. It was just a taste of the charisma and good vibes that were to come.

But let’s be honest: I think there are a few things about Calipari’s history that make a good number of UK fans a tad nervous, and that doesn’t mean they aren’t just as die-hard as the fans who think Calipari is the perfect savior of Kentucky basketball.  It stands as fact that the two previous college programs on our coach’s resume, whether Cal was directly implicated by the NCAA or not, have each had a Final Four vacated from their records.  I’ve read and heard things from fans that resemble, “I don’t care if he cheats, I just want to be back on top.”  This isn’t the forum to discuss whether or not cheating is rampant in college basketball.  But there is something to be said for running a program with integrity, and when I hear comments like the one above, I grow queasy. Fans should not only want to get back on top, but get back on top the right way. As it stands, Calipari has done everything he can to alleviate fans’ concerns, and after Billy Gillispie, there is no doubt that all coaching candidates are thoroughly vetted by the university; if there was ever serious concern over whether or not to hire Cal because of some past blemish, I don’t think he would be our coach.

Beyond his inaugural press conference Calipari has won me over even further, and not just because of his super-inspirational tweets.  So when he says he is going to run the UK basketball program with integrity like is supposed to be done, I believe him.  So far, he has done just about everything right.  His PR acumen is second to none.  His charisma is palpable.  He has pierced the heart of Big Blue Nation with the arrow he shot himself. He is a man meant for the spotlight.  UK fans the world over hope he is a man meant to bring Kentucky basketball back into the national spotlight not just of the college basketball world, but of the sports world in general.  If the first few months of his tenure are any indication, he’s already succeeded.  And we haven’t even crushed Morehead State in his first real game yet.

And who knows?  Maybe he can convince Nike to conjure up some denims of their own.

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One Response

  1. […] tenure at UK he built Kentucky into what now represents a large part of my childhood.  In my inaugural post for Lexpatriates I mentioned that Pitino had legendary teams in 90s. Check out this list of names; even those […]

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