Kentucky diehards flock to Internet like no other hoops fanbase
Kentucky boasts the most active online fanbase in all of college basketball
With no professional teams to root for, the Wildcats are huge celebrities
John Calipari was the perfect choice for a program that is a 24/7 commitment
Terrence Jones built quite a reputation for himself during his two seasons at Kentucky, one that included of all the buzz words that a prospect does not want to hear pundits use: talented but enigmatic, inconsistent, moody, lacking motivation. In simpler terms, Jones headed into the draft with more red flags than the Soviet Union.
But on court question marks don't always translate off the floor, and while one act certainly doesn't define a person, there is no arguing the fact that what Jones did two days before he was selected by the Rockets with the 18th pick was an incredibly cool gesture.
William Bolden is a 22 -year-old Lexington resident and a diehard Kentucky fan. When he was 13, Bolden lost his three front teeth in a fight and could never afford to get them fixed. That's where Jones came in. Throughout the month of June, Jones paid for Bolden's dental work through the proceeds generated by the iTunes sales of a song he recorded called "Teach Me 'Bout Kentucky" and, when that fell short, out of his own pocket. On June 26, the work was finally completed. Bolden had his new teeth, not a co-pay in sight.
There's more to this story than Jones simply helping out a local fan, however.
Bolden was something of a celebrity in Lexington this season. A superfan known as Stone Cold Willow, he developed a following among the students thanks to a series of videos that he posted on YouTube calling out future UK opponents that got published on the popular fan website Kentucky Sports Radio.
"I think Kentucky fans like to have something to rally around every year. It was the John Wall dance then it was Free Enes and Jorts and then it was three goggles, the Unibrow and Willow, in some ways, became one," KSR founder Matt Jones said. "The phenomenon of him is a student thing, once you get past students, I'm not sure how many people know him. ... He had sort of a little cult status, and through that I think he met some of the players."
Willow's quick rise to prominence during the season is just one example of the way the Internet works in Kentucky, whose fanbase has the most powerful online presence in college basketball.
Jones' site has grown to the point that he can afford to pay one full-time employee as well as a couple part-time employees and still make it profitable enough to be worth quitting his job as a lawyer. He has well over 50,000 followers on Twitter and managed to turn his popularity into a morning radio show that is on in 15 markets across the state and, up until last month, a gig as the host of a Kentucky Sports TV show.
And KSR is just one of many successful Kentucky fan sites. The success that Jones has had resulted in a competing site, Nation of Blue, getting a chance to host a radio show on a different station.
Think about that.
A state that has just under 4.4 million people according to a 2011 estimate -- which is the 26th highest total population in the U.S. -- is able to generate enough interest in Kentucky basketball to sustain a number of websites, newspapers, radio shows and TV shows. It is no secret that Kentucky fans drive college basketball traffic on the Internet.
How is that possible from such a small state? Why does the Big Blue Nation have such a powerful online presence?
Jones credits The Cats' Pause, a fan magazine covering the team that was launched in the 1970s. The magazine made an early transition to the Internet, which drove Kentucky fans online. Jones freely admits that he built a following on the message boards of The Cats' Pause site before he launched KSR. He also said that a number of the people covering the team got onto Twitter early on, which is why it seems like every single Kentucky fan has a Twitter account.
"The biggest reason, of course, is the passion of Kentucky fans," Jones said. "They're so passionate, they'll seek coverage wherever it is.
"There's no pro team. The only other equivalent would probably be Alabama football. The people of Kentucky kind of get their sense of self-worth from basketball. This is a state that is the butt of most jokes about rednecks, toothless, no shoes. And you have basketball as the one thing that we do better than everyone else. They embrace the thing that sort of levels you out with the rest of the country."
The fans aren't just passionate; they are also knowledgeable. And while the fanbase has a reputation for having a legion of online trolls waiting to attack anyone that makes the slightest negative comment toward their team, the overwhelming majority of Kentucky fans are good-spirited.
That passion is a blessing and a curse for Wildcat players. On the one hand, it is impossible for them to do anything around town. The mob that swarms them is reminiscent of Justin Bieber walking through a Girl Scout convention. For a superstar like Anthony Davis, it is worse. He gets swarmed everywhere he goes. But it is also terrific prep work for the NBA. Josh Harrellson managed to play his way into becoming a second-round pick in the 2011 NBA draft before latching on with the New York Knicks. But the man known as "Jorts" in Lexington will never again reach the level of celebrity he had as the center for a Kentucky team that made the Final Four.
In Lexington, fans ask for his autograph and a picture with him. In New York, the fans are frustrated that some big dude is taking up so much space on the sidewalk.
You think Marquis Teague will ever face the kind of pressure as Derrick Rose's backup as he did running the point for last season's Kentucky team?
That's the kind of pressure that Tubby Smith and Billy Gillispie struggled with while coaching Kentucky. They wanted to go to work, to do their job and then go back to being a regular person. It doesn't work like that in Kentucky. Coaching that program requires being on the clock 24 hours a day. Even in the middle of June, the fans want something -- anything -- about their team, which is what makes John Calipari such a perfect fit for that job.
"You have to be bigger than life in Kentucky," Jones said. "Calipari, he lives and breathes this stuff. Every day he's trying to figure out another way to make news and get Kentucky out there, and that's what fans want. They want Kentucky basketball to be 24/7, all-encompassing. And for Calipari, basketball is 24/7, all-encompassing. And he's a relentless self-promoter, as Kentuckians are."
Jones took a two-day bus trip with Calipari after Kentucky won the 2012 national title. The point of the trip was to chauffeur the national championship trophy around the country to allow people outside of the city of Lexington to get a chance to see it, see the coaching staff and experience the title.
"Here [Cal] goes to all these communities, and there's probably 1,500 people at each stop, and he wouldn't leave until he had taken a group picture with every person there," Jones said. "So he would do groups of about 15 and take literally 100 pictures and let each person touch the national championship trophy. That's just how he is. He gets that this stuff matters to these people. I wouldn't say he's one of the people, I don't think he's walking the streets and going into Walmart and hugging people. But I do think he loves meeting Kentucky fans. He loves the stories behind them."
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