As you’ve probably heard by now, there is a new book out that’s got everyone in Kentucky buzzing.
No, we’re not talking about that book…
We’re talking about the new book, on John Calipari’s first club at Kentucky with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and others, during the 2009-2010 season!
The book is called “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats” and for those who aren’t familiar, the book is exactly what it sounds like. It takes fans behind the scenes of an unforgettable season, from the days leading up to John Calipari’s arrival at Kentucky, all the way through the historic draft night where five ‘Cats went in the first round. The book is now available on Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle versions. More details are also available at KentuckyBasketballBook.com.
Chances are pretty good that you may have heard Aaron on KSR last week, or potentially read his guest post last Sunday following Big Blue Madness…. But in case you didn’t, we’ve got a special treat for KSR readers: Matt has been nice enough to let us run a couple excerpts from the book on KSR over the coming weeks, to get you the fans, fired up for the upcoming basketball season!
Today’s excerpt actually brings us towards the end of the season, where a simple road trip to Mississippi State turned into an unforgettable moment in Kentucky basketball history.
A moment, that is simply referred to as “The Call Me” game…
If you want to know the biggest difference between Kentucky basketball in the late 2000’s and Kentucky basketball now, a good place to start might be to take a road trip with the team. Back before John Calipari arrived in Lexington, the Wildcats barely drew a second glance when they went on the road in the SEC. Sure, they were still the biggest name in the conference. And yes, they had more historical cache than anyone else. But after two down years — in which just about everyone in the conference beat them at least once — they didn’t elicit fear from their opponents. And they certainly didn’t elicit the kind of attention they do now.
“Like now, when we go to a bigger city, we might have extra security and bring them with us,” DeWayne Peevy said. “We weren’t doing that stuff back then. We might have campus police, but we didn’t know what we were in for (when we started going on the road in 2010).”
No they didn’t, although in Kentucky’s defense, there was never a need for extra security before Calipari arrived. While the Wildcats are now mobbed everywhere they go on the road, that just wasn’t the case back before 2010.
“In future years, we took out of our media guide where we were staying,” Peevy said. “That year we had a list of where we were staying on the road.”
Yes, you read that correctly: Right up until 2010, if a Kentucky fan (or any fan for that matter) wanted to know where the Wildcats were staying on the road, all they had to do is pick up the team’s media guide. Listed there, in big, bold letters (or at least normal sized, non-bold letters) were the team’s lodging accommodations. It’s something that’s laughable now; the Wildcats have evolved into one of the biggest road shows in college basketball (if not the biggest) and making that information so readily available would lead to thousands of extra visitors every time the team left Lexington.
Of course things changed drastically that year for Kentucky basketball, and it’s doubtful the policy will ever go back to the way it was. That’s because (as you’ve probably figured out by now) by 2010, Kentucky wasn’t just another team in the SEC, but instead, the team that everyone had to see. And boy, did they in fact see them. UK fans — who’ve always traveled well to road games even in the down years — came out in droves to check out the 2010 team in person. And with a slew of future first round draft picks on the roster, opposing fans came out to see them too. It was a phenomenon which started with that huge crowd of Kentucky fans at Madison Square Garden for the UConn game, and turned into a huge crowd period — of both Kentucky fans, and those of the opponent — every time the Wildcats went on the road in the SEC.
“As we went on the road and we would show up for shoot-around, there would be students in line the night before, at road games that didn’t normally sell out the crowd,” former Director of Basketball Operations Martin Newton said. “But Kentucky was coming to town.”
That’s right, Kentucky had become the ultimate road show in the SEC; back in 2010 John Calipari might not have yet coined the term “Kentucky is everybody’s Super Bowl” but the feeling was already prevalent. When Kentucky came to town, normally disinterested basketball fan bases came to life. Schools which might only draw 5,000 to most games, would all of a sudden get 10,000 to see the Wildcats in their home building.
And there might not have been a better example of that phenomenon for Kentucky, than a trip to Starkville, Mississippi during the second week of February in 2010.
Understand that Mississippi State’s fan base is a lot like most in the SEC. They have a very hot and cold approach to the sport of basketball, even though the school itself actually has a pretty good tradition (at least relative to other SEC schools). The team actually made a Final Four back in 1996, and entering 2009-2010 were coming off two straight NCAA Tournament appearances. They had good players — center Jarvis Varnado was an All-American, who would be selected in the NBA Draft in 2010 — and entering a visit from Kentucky, they had a solid, 18-7 record.
Yet despite all that, the best way to describe the fan’s interest in the team during that 2009-2010 season would have been best described as “indifferent.” The Bulldogs had routinely drawn around 5,000 people to games earlier that season. For their SEC opener, they had just 7,200.
Of course when Kentucky arrived, it was a different story altogether. A record crowd was expected at Humphrey Coliseum when the Wildcats came to town. As Newton alluded to, fans camped outside the arena before a showdown with the No. 2 ranked team in the country. Oh, and there was one more way that Kentucky knew this game was big.
“We got to the arena, and they had all the shirts out,” Peevy said. “Most everywhere to this day, they still have some kind of t-shirt giveaway when we go on the road.”
Ah yes, the t-shirts. It’s the oldest trick in the college basketball playbook, a ploy to let fans know that they are attending a big game and to hopefully give them one unifying feature against the opponent. The hope is also that an arena full of fans all wearing the same shirt will intimidate the opponent.
However, the move clearly didn’t rattle one specific Wildcats’ opponent.
“DeMarcus is just randomly going around the arena and signing the t-shirts,” Peevy said, laughing while remembering that absurd moment in time.
The moment may have been light and loose, but for DeMarcus Cousins, it had been an interesting couple days in the lead-up to the game. That’s because as the Wildcats got set to depart for Starkville, something strange happened: DeMarcus Cousins’ phone started ringing… and ringing… and ringing some more. As it turned out, someone on Mississippi State’s campus had gotten ahold of Cousins’ phone number and had passed it all around campus, to the point that it seemed like every single person at Mississippi State had it.
Cousins was already more loathed than any Kentucky player by opposing fans, and the phone number allowed Mississippi State’s fans the chance to potentially unleash on Cousins. So they started calling him. And calling, and calling again. The calls came in all shapes and sizes; some were funny, some were mean, and some were outright racist. They began before Kentucky even left campus, and after Cousins turned on his phone after a flight to Starkville, his inbox was essentially full of voicemails.
At first Cousins became enraged by the calls, but then he learned to actually embrace them. As game-time inched closer, Cousins even learned to have a little fun with the whole ordeal.
“He’s on the bus, and he’s on the phone and we’re like, ‘Who are you talking to?’” Peevy said. “And he’s just answering the phone, and talking to people, and talking to them all. And finally we got him to hang up. But he was just talking to people.”
Tensions were high in the lead-up to the game, and they stayed that way as tip-off approached. Again, Mississippi State had a darn good team in 2010 and they took it at the Wildcats early. The two teams traded the lead six times before a TV timeout with just under eight minutes to go.
And it was out of that timeout where things went beyond “chippy” to just plain unforgettable. The Wildcats had possession up 25-21, when John Wall (as he had done so many times that season) took the ball at the top of the key, beat his defender off the dribble, and pulled up for a floater in the lane. This time though, Wall missed the shot, and it was quickly rebounded by Cousins. With two Mississippi State defenders draped on him, Cousins slammed the ball home for a seemingly innocent two point bucket. But then, just as he got set to run back up court, he turned to the student section, and put his hand right up next to his ear.
The message was unmistakable.
“DeMarcus dunked,” senior guard Ramon Harris said. “He put his (hand, shaped like a) phone up to his ear and said ‘Call me?’ And so everybody on the bench did the same thing.”
Yup that’s right, Cousins had used all those phone calls from Mississippi State fans as fuel, and that exact moment would go down as one of the most unforgettable in Kentucky’s season, if not the entire John Calipari era. The game will forever be remembered in Lexington as the “Call Me Game” although what many people have forgotten, is that after DeMarcus Cousins put his hand up to his ear, the “Call Me Game” turned into one of the most competitive games of the season for Kentucky.
The two teams traded blows the rest of the first half, and most of the second half stayed tight as well. At various points it looked like the Bulldogs might hand Kentucky their second loss of the season; just like the South Carolina game, it seemed like every time the Wildcats made a move, Mississippi State had a counter. At different points in the second half, the Bulldogs took leads of 42-40, 47-44 and 49-47. Every time Kentucky gained any momentum, Mississippi State took it right back.
Finally with about 13 minutes left, Kentucky made their move. Cousins (who played one of the best games of his Kentucky career that night in Starkville) went on a personal 5-0 run, and after a Mississippi State bucket, Patrick Patterson hit one of his own. Kentucky had a 58-54 lead, and seemed like they would once again pull away for another close, late win.
Mississippi State had other plans however. They’d seen Kentucky come back on opponents all year and refused to let the Wildcats do the same to them. Instead, they clamped down on ‘D,’ slowed down the game, and slowly began to chip away at the lead. There was a bucket by guard Barry Stewart. Then, they jammed the ball down low to Varnado who threw down a dunk. He was fouled and hit a free throw, and before anyone knew it, the Bulldogs had gone on a 13-4 run to give them a 67-60 lead with just three minutes to go. Just as quickly as the Wildcats had seized possession, Mississippi State had seized it back. Kentucky was in trouble.
But as John Calipari said earlier in this book (and throughout most of the actual 2009-2010 year) the one thing his team had during the 2009-2010 season was a great will to win. And that will was never more evident than on that February evening against Mississippi State.
Down seven, Kentucky’s final run began with a DeAndre Liggins three. Then off a miss, Wall drove the length of the court and hit Eric Bledsoe in stride for a perfectly executed two-on-one fast break. Mississippi State immediately called a timeout to try and stop the bleeding, but even a break in action couldn’t slow down the ‘Cats. Kentucky got the ball back with just a minute to play and took their time working down the clock. In a final sequence, they swung the ball around the perimeter, where Liggins made a quick final dish to Patterson in the corner. Patterson was wide open, and hit a jumper to tie things up at 67.
Again, Mississippi State called a timeout.
Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, the timeout once again did little to help. Out of the break there were exactly 40 seconds left on the clock and the Bulldogs ran down almost all of the 35 second shot clock. Finally, they put their offense into action, but it was too late. Stewart forced up a three-pointer with just a few seconds left on the shot clock, but it missed the rim completely and fell out of bounds. Kentucky got one last shot, but an attempt by DeAndre Liggins rimmed out. The game was headed to overtime.
In the extra session the two teams traded scores early, before the key sequence came with 1:30 left. The Bulldogs hit a bucket to tie things up at 72, but before they could even blink, John Wall caught the ball on the in-bounds pass and sprinted up court. In just a few quick steps he exploded towards the basket, and as Wall released a quick shot, he was fouled. The ball went in the basket, and Wall made the subsequent free throw to give the Wildcats a 75-72 lead.
It was quintessential John Wall: He had made another play, to essentially seal another win. And then, just when it seemed like Wall had done it all, he somehow topped himself.
Mississippi State got the ball back with the score still 75-72 and had one, last ditch effort to keep the game in reach. For just a brief window it looked like they’d get that much needed bucket, as guard Dee Bost beat his man off the dribble, turned the corner and attacked the basket. He appeared headed in for an uncontested lay-in to cut the Kentucky lead to one, but just as he released the ball, Wall came out of nowhere and pinned it to the basket. After Wall’s brilliant defensive play, UK recovered and the Bulldogs would never again be that close.
Final score, Kentucky 81, Mississippi State 75.
After the game, John Calipari was all smiles, and in a season where he never seemed to be content with his team’s play (even after wins), well he couldn’t help but smile after this one. He also couldn’t help but deliver one of the best lines heard at a press conference all season.
“We made plays. We made shots. We made blocks. We did enough to win the game,” Calipari said. “And now we’re going to get out of here.”
It was classic Cal, but as he returned to the locker room, he realized something: His team wasn’t ready to leave just yet. They were in the midst of a raucous celebration, one reserved for a young team, coming off an emotional win, in a hostile environment.
The Kentucky support staff had even gone out of their way to treat the team, to a rare, local delicacy for the post-game meal: Popeye’s!
“Popeye’s Chicken, was the craziest thing that year,” DeWayne Peevy said. “If we were somewhere and we got Popeye’s Chicken, we could do no better for them. I look at things now, and what we do, but back then it was a big deal. John Wall was always a picky eater, so if we found out they had Popeye’s after the game?”
Again, Peevy couldn’t help but laugh at the moment all these years later. He also wondered how different things might have turned out, if they had only gotten the team Popeye’s Chicken a bit more often.
“If we had told them, ‘We’re going to have Popeye’s in the post-game we might have won a lot more games,” he said.
Finally, with their bellies full, and their hearts content the Wildcats made their way back to the bus. The team charter was set to bring them back to Kentucky, but before the flight took off DeMarcus Cousins had some final business to tend to.
“After the game he was (still) answering phone calls,” Jon Hood remembered. “The crazy thing was, I don’t think he ever changed his phone number. Until he got to the pros, I don’t think he ever changed his phone number.”
It was typical DeMarcus, and typical Kentucky basketball in 2010.
But as much fun as the Wildcats were having, the season was quickly coming to an end.
To read more about DeMarcus Cousins, and the rest of his teammates at UK, pick up your copy of “One and Fun: A Behind the Scenes Look at John Calipari and the 2010 Kentucky Wildcats” which is available in paperback or Kindle on Amazon.com.