What a day.
I’ve watched Kentucky play basketball my entire life, but watching that banner unfurl in Rupp Arena is a memory for the ages. Although the title had been Kentucky’s for over twelve hours, I don’t think the weight of the National Championship really hit me until the team bus arrived in Rupp Arena. Rupp was full of fans who were unable to watch the Cats win in New Orleans, and were so anxious to see their team that they began camping out during halftime of the game Monday night for free tickets to the victory celebration. Rupp has been home to some very loud and special moments, but I’m not sure if any roar will compare to the one that greeted the team bus as it rolled onto the arena floor. It was a party fourteen years in the making, and fans young and old packed the 24,000 seat arena, the airport, and the streets of Lexington to celebrate.
Running on little to no sleep, the team came off the bus to individual introductions, looking energized on little sleep, feeding off the energy of the fans that love them so. Cal leapt off the bus and prowled the floor like a prize fighter, fist pumping the crowd and looking more put together than he has all season. At the podium, he recalled his first speech as Kentucky’s coach, back in 2009 at Midnight Madness, and how he wanted to restore Kentucky as the gold standard in college basketball, a program that would win championships and raise banners. Less than three years later, Cal turned to the crowd and uttered four beautiful words: “Let’s raise one today.” The Big Blue Nation watched as banner number eight slowly unfurled, each new inch bringing hope to a fan base that feeds on it like none other. It was an unforgettable moment, one in which fourteen years of wishing, hoping, thinking and praying were released into the rafters. Finally, we were at peace.
The man who showed the most emotion may surprise you: Mitch Barnhart. In his tenth year on the job, Barnhart has things looking up in the Athletic Department: the basketball team just brought home the National Championship, the baseball team is ranked number one in the country, the men’s tennis team is in the top ten, and the cheerleaders continue to do their thing, bringing home title after title. Aside from an anemic football team, you could say Barnhart’s doing a mighty fine job. Yet, despite all of his success, it took a simple bus ride to reduce him to tears. Maybe it was because they were finally home, or maybe it was because President Obama called on their way from the plane to the arena to congratulate them on their accomplishments, but Barhart said the enormity of it all hit him on the team’s victory lap around Lexington. Barnhart stood in front of the crowd of 20,000 people in Rupp to introduce the man he hired to erase the memory of Billy Gillispie and get the program back on track. Much to the chagrin of the Kleenex boxes in the Bluegrass, Barnhart became overwhelmed by the moment, and had to pause to collect himself after describing this team’s journey, which he said is the reason he came to Kentucky. After thanking his family, Barnhart looked at Calipari and said “The program was made for this man.”
It’s a bold statement that rings true now more than ever in the Bluegrass. Cal took a beaten and battered state and rebuilt it, recruit by recruit, line by line, win after win. It took three years, but Kentucky is back in its rightful position on the throne of college basketball. That was not lost on these players, who despite all the glory they’ve seen this season, looked stunned by their reception at Rupp Arena. One player who knows all too well is Darius Miller, whom Cal asked to address the crowd briefly. Miller, who looked emotional when his coach lauded him, the selfless “3-year starter who accepted in his senior year to come off the bench,” pulled it together at the podium, thanking the fans on behalf of the team for a great season and for four great years as a Wildcat. He received numerous ovations from a sniffling, teary crowd that was bursting with pride for one of their own.
It was great to see the players embrace each other and the moment, letting it wash over them in waves of Big Blue chants. To all the haters who preach that “one-and-done’s” don’t attach to their schools: not this squad. It was bittersweet to see Anthony Davis, quite possibly the most celebrated player in Kentucky basketball history, drink it all in one last time. There will be others, but for one last afternoon in Rupp, it was all about the banner.
Although many of them have only been on campus for nine months, this team has formed an unbreakable bond with the fans. During a radio interview this week, I was asked if this team, because of their youth and short time on campus, was as close to the fans as past championship teams. My answer? “Absolutely.” Just because they’ve only been Wildcats for one year doesn’t make them less special. In this day of social media mania, you could almost argue we know these kids better that their predecessors. Whereas most of the “insider” stories about previous squads passed by word of mouth, we’ve gotten to know this team through Twitter, millions of articles, and countless photographs. What many seem to forget is that nine months ago, they were mostly strangers to each other, too. It’s a testament to Cal’s talent that they became a solid unit, with the chemistry, poise, and focus of a veteran squad. I’d love to have each and every player return, but that’s not reality, and we can only be grateful for the time we’ve had with them.
As the 2012 National Champions surveyed the scene at Rupp Arena Tuesday afternoon, you have to think they were thinking the same thing.
The party rolls on Wednesday, as Matt and the crew return to the studio, starting at 10 a.m. Don’t miss it.