If you listened to the radio on Saturday, you know that Connecticut journalist/blogger Aaron Torres was in town to catch his first Kentucky game. We first learned of Aaron from this article he wrote in 2009, after seeing Kentucky and UCONN play in Madison Square Garden. He spoke about how passionate the UK fanbase seemed to be and we told him then, he had to come to Lexington. Well he was here this weekend, covering the game for KSR and seeing the sights of Big Blue Nation firsthand. He is a great guy who fell in love with Lexington, whose experience on the radio suggests that Kentucky fans seemed to like him as well. This is the first of two articles he is writing for KSR on his experience:
When I reflect back on my first trip to Rupp Arena, the biggest thing that sticks out, is the welcome message fans received right prior to tip-off. It came from the P.A. announcer, and happened when he belted out the following sentence: “Welcome to Rupp Arena, home of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.”
Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m unsure if Kentucky has the “greatest” tradition in the history of college basketball. I simply don’t know. Lots of others schools have great traditions, and I’m sure if you asked the fans at Duke, Kansas or Carolina, they could probably state a pretty compelling case for their school.
But while I don’t have the answer to the first question, what I will say unequivocally is this: If Kentucky doesn’t have the “greatest” tradition in college basketball history, it’s certainly the most unique. You feel it from the moment you drive up to Rupp, until the second you walk out the door, and pretty much every second in between. In Rupp Arena, tradition practically drips from the roof tiles.
And above all it is those traditions, and the memories of those traditions that I will take with me as I am not getting set to leave Kentucky. While I might not remember what happened on the court in a week or a month, it’s the non-basketball memories that will stick with me most clearly.
I’ll remember getting to the Hyatt hotel attached to Rupp Arena at 9:15 in the morning (nearly three hours before tip-off), and seeing dozens of blue-clad Kentucky fans milling around, having a few beers and eagerly awaiting the game. I’ll also remember walking around with KSR’s Matt Jones an hour or so later, and seeing probably 500 times as many people doing the same. Apparently I wasn’t the only one enjoying the experience of being at Rupp.
I’ll also remember getting into the arena and seeing the banners hang in the rafters, as the players warmed up and the fans slowly started to trickle in. I’ll remember eating the lousy pregame meal that Drew Franklin warned me about on the radio Friday, as well as snapping a quick picture of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, after my buddy Mark begged me to before I left town earlier this week. As he told me, “AT, help me out. MKG is my college basketball man-crush.” Actually Mark, he’s a man-crush for a lot of us.
Of course I’ll also never forget the over-the-top, kinda-cheesy, yet equally cool player introductions right before the game. My initial thought was, “Are fireworks really necessary for a mid-afternoon, mid-January game?” I then followed that up just seconds later by thinking, “Man, that was actually kind of cool,” before it eventually just turned to, “Damn, I wish somebody lit off fireworks when I walked into a room.” Unfortunately, unless UK’s athletic department is in charge of my next birthday party, I don’t expect that to happen anytime soon.
Speaking of the introduction, one of my favorite parts was seeing the players walk back to the bench afterward, as John Calipari sat alone in a chair 10 feet from the sideline, a spotlight shining directly on him. At that moment, Calipari wasn’t so much basketball coach as he was mob boss alone in the back of a restaurant, and honestly, it was freakin’ awesome. Not to mention, it was the perfect symbolism for the Calipari Era at Kentucky. The spotlight was shining bright, as Cal sat alone on his throne.
Once the game started, the first thing I noticed was that common press box etiquette simply doesn’t apply at Rupp Arena. As a general rule, the media aren’t supposed to “cheer” for either team when they’re covering a game. After all, they are professionals. And this is a job.
Thankfully, Rupp Arena isn’t most places, and most of the people sitting around me had no problem making it quite clear who they were rooting for. Hell, the woman next to me practically knocked me unconscious throwing her hands in the air every time Kentucky made a basket. And you know what? I thought it was funny. If you can’t have fun at a basketball game, why even bother going?
And then there was the crowd, which was simply fantastic. Quite frankly, entering the game, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In all honesty, I had heard stories both locally within Kentucky and from outside the state that UK crowds weren’t always the most boisterous. While I can’t speak for any game other than Saturday’s, I found the fans to be informed and totally into everything that was going on. If there were 23,500 seats in Rupp Arena, 23,475 of them had butts in them at tip-off, rearing to go from the first possession. The fans were loud more often than not, and when they weren’t loud, it was usually only because Alabama had killed a Kentucky rally with a big shot get them right back in the game. If you didn’t see Saturday’s game, that probably happened at least 20 times, and is no knock on the Wildcats. Alabama absolutely came to play Saturday.
Speaking of which, I should probably talk a little bit about the basketball, and admit how impressed I was by both teams. Simply put, this was one of the hardest played games on both ends of the court I’ve seen in a long time. The calendar may have said “January 21,” but it felt like early March at the SEC Tournament.
And while I’ll leave the heavy-hitting analysis to the guys at KSR, what I will say is that if I had one personal takeaway, it’s that this Kentucky team has heart. Lots of it. Given the circumstances for Alabama (the road venue, two days after a bad loss), I’d say they played Kentucky about as tough as anyone this season. For the ‘Cats to hold on for the victory- despite foul trouble and some, umm, bizarre whistles from the refs- said more than 20 blowouts against Arkansas, Auburn or LSU ever will.
As a matter of fact, I actually thought Calipari summed up the game pretty well when he said to the media, “I told the guys, enjoy this win. It was a tough game.”
At first glance, that might not mean much. But how many coaches would’ve said the same, at this point in the season, especially to a team so young? Not many, but it’s safe to say Calipari’s point was clear: “This wasn’t just “another” win. It meant more than most of the others.”
Really though, if you want me to sum up why Kentucky is different than every basketball program on the planet, I’ll fast-forward beyond the basketball action and to when the game went final. Because if you’ve never been to a game at Rupp, you probably won’t believe at what I’m about to tell you…and if you have, well I apologize for covering something that might seem like total common sense to Big Blue Nation.
After a long day at the arena, an incredible game, and all the postgame fluff that us sportswriter types have to do (which is mostly just scrounging around the corridor looking for free food to take home with us), I went back out to the court to start writing this piece that you’re hopefully still reading.
But before I could get there, a funny thing happened: I turned the corner, and well, there were well over 1,000 fans sitting in the lower bowl at Rupp Arena. My initial reaction was that maybe they were friends and family of the players, but seriously, nobody has that many friends. Then I thought maybe there was a high school game or something being played following Alabama-Kentucky.
Nope, instead those 1,000 people were sitting around, watching John Calipari conduct a postgame radio interview. Like me, they were having way too much fun at Rupp, and weren’t ready to call it a day. Of course, they also do that after every single game, not just the afternoon I was there.
And really, I thought that summed up Kentucky basketball better than anything. I’d heard all the stories, read all the blog posts and hung out in the state for a few days, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realized just how important this team is to the people who cheer for them.
Now, does that make Kentucky the “greatest” tradition in the history of college basketball? Honestly, I’m not sure.
If not though, they’re pretty darn close.
Aaron Torres is a freelance writer who is writing two pieces for KSR. This was his first, and the second, about his time in Kentucky in general will run later this week.
Be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter, and also be sure to check out his first book, about UConn’s 2011 National Championship team. It’s called “The Unlikeliest Champion” and is available in both paperback and Kindle, on Amazon and at UConnBook.com.