As Anthony Davis playfully swatted at Michael Kidd-Gilchrist’s soaring jumper mere feet from my seat on Saturday, I thought about pinching myself. Considering the day I’d had, the people I’d met, and the giddy glee hanging around Rupp Arena, I decided against it. A dream like this should never end.
Before the loss to Western (a hangover on an otherwise perfect day), I was on cloud nine. My first “game” as a member of the media will be hard to beat. Everywhere I turned, fantasy turned reality smacked me in the face. Walter McCarty dunking like days of old? BAM! Anthony Davis guarding Wayne Turner? BAM! Almost running into Terrence Jones on the way to the bathroom? BAM! Trading three goggles with DeMarcus Cousins? Double BAM!
Even better? It was all for a good cause. Cal and the former players raised over $350,000 for charity over the weekend, an impressive figure further buoyed by the interactions between the recipients and their heroes. During the second half of the game, members of each charity came to center court to accept their check from Cal and the players, who graciously fulfilled their duties. Because he doesn’t know any other way, Cal upped the ante for next year’s game, pledging to raise at least a million dollars for charity.
The goodwill extended past the giant cardboard checks. Saturday was a family reunion for Kentucky basketball, organized by the program’s new Godfather, John Calipari. As with most families, respect for history and tradition was a priority. UK legend Wah Wah Jones was helped to the court to a standing ovation to meet Anthony Davis, a fellow gold medalist. The 1996 team had their time under the lights, proving they still have moves sixteen years after winning the National Championship. No family reunion is complete without one silly squabble: John Calipari and Jeff Sheppard engaged in that age old debate as to which championship team was better: ’96 or 2012. They put it to a crowd vote, only to find out that to us, it doesn’t matter. They’re all winners.
Lineups made only in dreams faced off with hilarious results. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis joined forces for a whopping eighty-two points, mostly off dunks and threes. Cousins was so dominant behind the arc that Cal seized the microphone at one point and told the crowd that DeMarcus was right, he “held him back.” Between him and Davis, I thought the rims at Rupp might just surrender. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist showed off all the hard work he’s put in over the summer with thirty-two points and about a million trademark smiles.
Wayne Turner and Derek Anderson, two of the 96ers brave enough to face off against the current pros, more than held their own, with twenty points a piece. Even Perry Stevenson got in on the fun, flexin’ them bones five times for ten points. Although they couldn’t play due to clauses in their contracts, John Wall, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, and Jorts made Mark Krebs proud on the bench, cheering, clapping and laughing like kids. Wall took his coaching duties seriously for about five seconds, making a case to the ref for Anthony Davis to get a set of free throws after being fouled as the buzzer sounded. The players huddled around the program’s latest Golden Boy as he hit two of three free throws, a fitting end to a fun day.
As expected, it was more of a highlight reel than a game, but if we could find a way to bottle up the joy in that building on Saturday, we’d be rich enough to go to Cal’s Fantasy Camp ourselves. The gathering of past, present and future generations emphasized Kentucky’s return to the top. Although most of them had never met, the former players acted as family, trading brotherly barbs and playful jabs throughout. United under a common jersey and cause, the players brought “La Familia” to life, to the point that superstar Drake felt the need to pledge his allegiance to the Big Blue afterwards, telling the crowd that being around the program inspired him to finish high school after dropping out.
The current Cats played their parts, too, acting as team managers during both games. The new kids on the block all had different reactions to their first real taste of Rupp: Archie Goodwin took his task to heart, dutifully mopping up sweat and passing out water to fantasy campers and alums alike; Nerlens Noel seemed accustomed to stardom, signing autographs and posing for pictures like a pro; Alex Poythress, notoriously quiet and reserved, looked a bit dazzled by it all; and Willie Cauley-Stein just looked huge, all limbs and length, with a familiar set of black framed glasses perched atop his nose. Will he be our next Boogie?
Don’t forget the other VIP in the house: 2013 star Julius Randle, who sat right behind Drake during the festivities. His presence was impossible to ignore, especially when the crowd started chanting his name in the second half. Cal, who had the mic at the time, merely smiled and said “I think I’ll let you all finish.” Randle acknowledged the crowd with a smile and a wave; if all of that didn’t impress him, I don’t know what will.
Since he took the reins at Kentucky three years ago, Cal has dedicated himself to fostering a culture of elite talent, success, and brotherhood. As only he can, Cal accomplished three important things on Saturday: he raised money for charity, honored the program’s past, and ensured its future. The only bad thing about the “La Familia Reunion? It only happens once a year.