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The team's appeal is such that an intrasquad game draws a standing-room-only crowd, and 5,000 fans have shown up to gawk at the players shooting around the morning of a Notre Dame game in Louisville. A fledgling private newspaper called The Cats' Pause that highlights UK sports already has subscribers from all 50 states and 13 foreign countries. Serious fans from the state's far reaches put extra food in the dogs' dishes and drive to Lexington to watch the Wildcats. V. A. Jackson, M.D., the team physician, often drove 330 miles each way from Clinton, Ky. before he moved to Lexington in 1964. The game against Kansas was the 173rd straight Kentucky game he had seen, and most days he is at team practice, reminiscing with a coterie of fans who chuckle at the Rupp stories that are passed about so much that the facts are worn smooth.
Even in his absence, Rupp may be contributing to Kentucky's victories. The vast arena named after him should do much to awe Southeastern Conference foes visiting Lexington. "It's intimidating," says Rick Robey.
Kentucky's current win streak of 14 games is the nation's longest and is immensely satisfying for Joe Hall, who took over for Rupp in 1972. After a 13-13 record in his second season, some UK adherents clamored for his removal. The team responded with a second-place finish in the 1975 NCAA tournament and a victory in last spring's NIT, although Robey missed the last half of the season with a knee injury. Having survived the gunfire, Hall now can joke about the battle. Last week he said he was disappointed that he was not hired by UCLA to replace John Wooden. "Why ruin two men's lives?" he said.
Hall speaks slowly and thickly. He has a 160-acre farm where he raises corn, tobacco and cattle, and often takes recruits frog-gigging, but he's about as much a country dolt as Jimmy Dean. When Jay Shidler put up a hopeful 25-footer against Indiana, Hall screamed from the sidelines. Shidler looked at him contritely and said, "I'm sorry." The curator of basketball's Vatican called him over and shook him as if to point out that being a UK player is never having to say I'm sorry. "I'm not colorful," says Hall, looking out behind plain glasses, "but it doesn't bother me."
As the team prepared for Kansas, which came to Lexington undefeated, Hall tried to get the players down from the penthouse and back to ground level after the Indiana win. At practice he chased freshman LaVon Williams all the way downcourt after the rookie half-stepped through a drill, and he yelled in disgust at senior Larry Johnson, "You coming to practice tomorrow? You sure aren't here today."
"Coach is hard on us sometimes, but he's not abusive," says Johnson, probably the team's most improved player and a valued member of its Steal Curtain. "There's a difference. He's constructive."
While Rupp Arena was under construction, its namesake said that all he desired was a preferred parking space and a halftime bratwurst sandwich at every game. For the meeting between Kentucky and Kansas, the two schools with the most college victories, Rupp arrived wearing a white carnation in his brown suit. At halftime ceremonies he was helped to center court and surrounded by local and state politicians. Rupp was given a number of mementos and accolades, and the band played Auld Lang Syne. One gift was the game ball from the first half when Kentucky's pestering defense forced 17 turnovers and helped produce a 48-27 lead. "You ought to leave that ball in play because the boys seem to be doing mighty well with it," mused the Baron.
Kansas was in trouble most of the night as it tried to match power with Kentucky. One big Jayhawk, Ken Koenigs, played only seven minutes in the first half before committing his fifth foul, and the team's other giant, seven-footer Paul Mokeski, was whistled to the sidelines with his fifth after only three minutes of the second half. "We stress tight defense," said Jack Givens, who was the leading scorer against Kansas with 15 points. "We don't play to hurt anyone. It's just our aggressiveness."
Givens and his buddy James Lee grew up as friends in Lexington, where they picked up the respective nicknames of "Silk" and "Steel." The muscular Lee is the team's sixth man and looks strong enough to break your arm with a dirty look. He made six of 10 shots against Kansas, including a play where he took a rebound and dribbled the length of the floor for a stuff shot, scattering bodies along the way. The final score was Kentucky 90, Kansas 63.
Rupp calls it the best team in the country; not the best in Kentucky history, of course, but a fine one still. That is good enough for the people in bluegrass country. The tobacco is in, the mares are in foal and Kentucky basketball is big again, an ol' time religion.