Last Saturday night anxious fingers tuned radio dials in Gap Tooth and Wet Rye. On a lonely mountain in eastern Kentucky, two men sharing a quart of moonshine pulled a coughing car to the edge of the road and listened in. An executive, off duty from a Louisville boardroom, settled down in front of his fireplace to rekindle memories of Groza, Spivey and Hagan. A Rabbit Hash widow turned her radio upside down and placed it in the hallway for better reception. All across the state folks were ready for some of that good ol' time religion called Kain-tuck-eee basketball.
Through war and peace, good crops and bad, this is the way it is in Kentucky, the state that gave us the hook shot, the center screen and the guard-around offense. Last week in Lexington it was a time for celebration, nostalgia and maybe a tear. The University of Kentucky began the week with a victory over Indiana, the defending national champion, and ended it with a crusher over Kansas. In the Kansas game the school dedicated the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, the largest basketball facility in the country, and said perhaps its last goodby to Adolph Rupp, the legend in the brown suit.
Now 75 and in failing health, Rupp was present Saturday night to see Kentucky defeat Kansas, ironically the old coach's alma mater. Rupp recently spent 25 days in the hospital, and as he stood before the crowd, his strength ebbing, it was an emotional scene. Over the years Kentucky fans rarely have had cause to bury their heads in their hands, but on this dramatic night some hid their eyes.
To understand Kentucky basketball, consider the marvel of a 23,000-seat arena in a farming and horse-breeding community of 200,000 people. The arena is part of a $53 million complex called Lexington Center that includes a hotel, shopping mall and exhibition hall. Rupp Arena was sold out almost as soon as the first shovelful of earth was turned during construction. Rumor has it that there were 100,000 applications for tickets, so many that the last group had to be disbursed by lottery. When a block of 400 tickets was discovered and unexpectedly offered for sale, an eager crowd stood vigil outside the ticket office and people offered up to $100 for a place in line.
This kind of enthusiasm might be anticipated even if Kentucky were destined for its first losing season since 1927. But basketball fever is rampant, because the Wildcats are one of the best and most physical teams in the country. The key to the season seems to be how well Coach Joe Hall is able to blend his two 6'10" big men. Rick (King) Robey and Mike (Kong) Phillips, players that Kansas Coach Ted Owens said "will give you a smack just for the fun of doing it."
Phillips, in particular, is fun loving. He currently has several stitches in the corner of his left eye, a trophy from a fight in the recent 103-53 laugher over Texas Christian. A quiet, well-mannered sort off the court, Phillips was ejected from the Mississippi State game last year and picked up a couple of technical fouls at Tennessee. "I get out of control sometimes," he says softly. Robey, meanwhile, nailed Kansas Forward Herb Nobles in the eye Saturday night, a blow that left Nobles with troubled vision the rest of the evening.
This two-fisted defense, sometimes called the Steal Curtain, has caused Kentucky opponents to commit an average of 25 turnovers a game. The only problem is that officials tend to raise their arms and blow their whistles whenever they see King or Kong so much as breathe. Against Indiana on Monday night, the pair was limited to cameo appearances because of foul trouble. The series between the two schools has been filled with acrimony, and the officials were loath to let it get out of control in front of the Bloomington, Ind. partisans. Between them, King and Kong played only 33 minutes. The Wildcats won easily, however, 66-51, thanks to the long jumper ICBMs of freshman Guard Jay Shidler, a rawboned, fearless sort who is nicknamed "While Lightning" because, as Hall notes, "He's a blond out of a bottle." Shidler peroxides his hair once a month.
Indiana looked as if it needed Quinn Buckner in the backcourt during the first half as it contended with the Kentucky 1-3-1 zone defense, the same one Rupp installed back in 1963, and a defense that is copied by high school coaches throughout the state. The young but talented Hoosiers had 15 turnovers in the half and were behind 38-21. Although they fared better in the second half by moving Kent Benson to the wing and using 6'9" Scott Eells as a guard, they never really got back in the game. The defeat broke Indiana's 35-game home-court win streak and was only its third loss at Assembly Hall since 1972.
Kentucky's victory margin should have been larger. The Wildcats missed the front end of bonus free-throw situations nine times in the game, a criminal offense in Lexington. One year, after Mike Pratt missed his fourth free throw in a row, Rupp fell over backward in his chair.
That is the sort of incident that is savored throughout the state, discussed avidly along with the price of tobacco and cattle. Rupp was a caustic sort, called the Baron as much for his imperial manner as anything. His autocratic style caught on with the fans, who to this day are proud to point out that Kentucky players always say yes, sir and no, sir.