Tonight at the Yum Center was yet another example of why when it comes to college basketball, there is no place in America quite like Kentucky. In their arch-rival’s arena, Kentucky fans nearly filled the place, watching the UK Legends fall to the Dominican Republic National team 91-86. It was another rather sloppily played game by the former UK stars, as two days worth of games, no training camp and a somewhat weakened lineup caught up to the boys in Blue. The Dominican team played its starters in the first half and reserves in the second, but the Kentucky players could never get closer than a one point deficit late. The game was entertaining, but the UK Pros were hindered by their inability to shoot from behind the arc, finishing 1-19 from three-point land in the loss.
But honestly, that is beside the point. What is much more important is to embrace what a great 48 hours it has been for Kentucky basketball. If you found your way into either Rupp Arena or the Yum! Center, then you know that these last 48 hours have embraced the best of what Kentucky basketball means. Think about what we saw:
FANS: Over the course of two nights, over 40,000 UK fans packed the two arenas to watch EXHIBITION BASKETBALL IN THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST! That is absolutely insane. Del Harris said that the game on Monday night was akin to a NBA playoff atmosphere and the game on Tuesday saw an opposing arena filled with their biggest rival’s colors. It was absolutely phenomenal to see. Plus both arenas were filled with a different type of fan from a normal game. I met many people who were watching UK play for either the first or second time live and who were excited to experience UK fandom in person. The raucous nature of the arenas suggested people thrilled to see the stars play, whether or not the game counted for anything.
THE FORMER PLAYERS: While Kentucky basketball has always been great, I have thought for some time that the program has dropped the ball on reaching out to its former players. Calipari has changed that. Seeing a guy like Keith Bogans, who had never been back to a UK basketball game since his playing days were over, once again in Blue and embraced by the fans, was phenomenal. Tayshaun Prince got the masses excited by hitting early threes, Rajon Rondo became part of the UK family again and Boogie/Wall/Bledsoe started the tradition of annual returns to their college home, all in games that fans were able to enjoy. Cousins told me before the game on Tuesday that spending time with Prince, Rondo, Bogans and Nazr was his favorite part of the whole experience and that he hoped it happened more often in the future. We want the players to love the events as much as we do, and reunions like this are how to make it happen. Calipari often talks about his players being a “family” and these games helped extend that family to those that played before he became the coach.
JOE B AND DENNY: Older UK fans would have never imagined that Denny Crum would get two loud ovations from UK fans in Rupp and Louisville. But it happened and he seemed genuinely touched by it. Joe B Hall, a coach who hasnt been on the sidelines since the mid-80s, became a cause for younger fans to rally behind and an entire new generation fell for the legendary homegrown Kentuckian. The two coaches had a blast interacting with the younger players and to the players credit, they completely embraced the former coaches. Watching their interactions was one of the highlights of the two games for me and the smiles on the coaches’ faces after the game Tuesday night were tremendous to see.
As far as the actual game tonight, it could have been played better. The UK players missed a lot of free throws and while they gave full effort, they were no match for a well-coached team that (a) had been in camp and in shape and (b) actually had offensive sets to run, rather than one-on-one basketball. It was actually a good lesson for a basketball fan, seeing that teams with some talent will beat players thrown together any day of the week. Simply running an offense and defense hides a lot, and showcases that when people say “X group of individuals could beat Y team”, they are usually going to be wrong.
Some quotes from the evening:
John Calipari: In the middle of August, over 40,000 people came and watched basketball over 2 nights. Only the University of Kentucky could do that.
Demarcus Cousins: When asked about the fact that the lights went out right before tipoff, Pitino probably had something to do with it….or they ain’t pay the light bill or something.
Denny Crum: Crum said that a late call against Brandon Knight was a “terrible call” and Calipari joked that if he said that, he would get in trouble with the SEC. Crum replied, I am not in any Cs”
And for me the oddest moment of the night came when Louisville Mayor Greg Fisher attempted to kill time while the lights were out in the Yum Center. He said that he loved the “International spirit” of the game and that he hoped the fans there would also come out for some International festival in Louisville in a few weeks. He said, “I hope people come see our Mexicans and Chinese and all of our other international flavor. Not his finest hour.
All in all, a great night and one that I hope can be repeated one day. Tomorrow on KSTV, we will have extended highlights of the Louisville game all show and then we will later put those packages up on KSR. In the interim, here are the FIRST AND SECOND HALF HIGHLIGHTS OF THE LEXINGTON GAMES, shot by our KSTV Cameras: