SI Vault
 
BLUE HEAVEN
Alexander Wolff
October 10, 2007
THE BASKETBALL GODS HAVE BLESSED KENTUCKIANS WITH MORE THAN A CENTURY OF GLORIOUS SIGHTS AND SOUNDS
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 10, 2007

Blue Heaven

THE BASKETBALL GODS HAVE BLESSED KENTUCKIANS WITH MORE THAN A CENTURY OF GLORIOUS SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3

RVs with Kentucky plates in parking lots throughout the SEC, the closest college hoops will ever come to a tailgating culture.

Growing up in a Cats family, you learn to count by fives, from the Fabulous Five, the 1948 NCAA champs ( UK's first), to the Fiddlin' Five, who dillydallied their way to the same achievement 10 years later. The Unforgettables of 1992 didn't win a title, but with a single, noble loss to Duke they did more to redeem a program working its way back from NCAA probation than mere victory ever could. Four years after that, perhaps the greatest UK team of all time tore untouched through the SEC and withered every opponent in the NCAA field. The Comeback Cats, winners of a national championship in 1998, erased a 17-point deficit in the final 10 minutes against Duke to reach the Final Four, and in the final against Utah they wiped out a 10-point halftime deficit, the largest ever overcome in a title game.

As a dynasty Kentucky basketball has its raiments, like Rupp's brown suit (for games) and starched khakis (for practices), and Eddie Sutton's towel and the hosiery on which Kyle Macy wiped his hands before every free throw. It has its footmen, like longtime Rupp aide Harry Lancaster, and equipment man Bill (Mr. Wildcat) Keightley and chronicler cum raconteur Oscar (Cats' Pause) Combs. It has its strategic rivals in neighboring kingdoms, like Denny Crum and John Wooden, Ray Mears and Dale Brown—and Mike Krzyzewski. It has its palaces—Alumni Gym and Rupp Arena on either side of the time line from Memorial Coliseum, the old Kentucky home on which, during the early '50s, the sun shone bright, as the Cats won 129 games in a row, a record that still stands. It has its lineage: Rupp played at Kansas for Phog Allen, who had an office down the hall from basketball's inventor, James Naismith. And it has its divine right of kings, or so believed the Baron, who stocked his teams with boys from eastern Kentucky and liked to quote Scripture: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." ( Kentucky basketball has no court jester, alas, or at least didn't under Rupp. "No joking, no laughing, no whistling, no singing, no nothing," said Alex Groza. "Just basketball.")

The Baron was no merciful monarch, and he instilled the same attitude in his players. "Cruel and cold-blooded," he called the Fabulous Five, of whom he was hugely proud. No title left Rupp more satisfied than the 1958 crown, won by his "barnyard fiddlers," so-called because their coach believed that the " Carnegie Hall" schedule they faced cried out for classical violinists. That edition of the Wildcats had little size or speed and lost more games, six, than any previous national champion. But in the end the NCAA panjandrum who had forced Kentucky to sit out the 1952-53 season for rules violations wound up handing Rupp the trophy.

With an offense that counted but 10 basic plays, the Baron still made of basketball a huge entertainment in a region of the country inclined to take seriously only the Big Two (football and spring football). Joe B. Hall consolidated the power of the program like a CEO planting the Big Blue flag in every recruitable corner of the nation. Sutton, so allured by the tradition and import that he famously offered to "crawl to Kentucky" to take the job, stamped UK hoops with Ibaesque defense. And with his 1996 NCAA champions, Pitino put together his own redemptive run in the Bluegrass, banishing memories of another turn in the NCAA hoosegow, this one on Sutton's watch. (Pitino did more: Under his system the Wildcats did nothing less than turn the game inside out; where teams to that point had largely attacked the basket on offense, only to fall back after scoring, Pitino ordered his players to press on defense, then hunt three-point shots at the offensive end—and college basketball has never been quite the same.) Tubby Smith's tenure in Lexington mooted the last vestiges of segregationism once associated with the scions of the SEC. And in Billy Gillispie, Big Blue Nation found a worthy successor: dynamic, yet purposeful; crisp, not slick; ambitious, but not ticketed for the next flight out.

The sheer size of Kentucky basketball allowed it to throw a canopy over the entire sport, assuring that, as it evolved, the rest of the college game would forever be throwing glances at whatever was transpiring in Lexington. Which says it all, really. Kentucky basketball has always been just that large: If the Cats did it, it mattered—and whatever they did, they could be relied upon to do very, very well.

1 2 3