Every time I enter Rupp Arena, I am struck by the tremendous rich history that encompasses the UK basketball program. Part of the breadth of that history is found in the individual jerseys that have been retired over the years honoring the various players that have worn the Blue and White. To look at the rafters is to view a lens of Kentucky basketball going back to the very roots of the sport. When one sees the names Beard, Groza, Nash, Ramsey, Issel, Givens, Walker, Mashburn, etc, it allows the fan to view all that has been important to this program over the years and the great names that have placed it as the top college basketball program in history. However the last time I looked up in the rafters, I noticed another thing as well. Jamal Mashburn is the last player to have had his jersey placed with the greats in program history. It is time to add to that list and put another player up with the all-time legends….and that player is Tony Delk.
The qualities to make it into the rafters in Rupp are not set and defined at Kentucky. Unlike at North Carolina, where only NCAA players of the year get the honor, at Kentucky the criteria is more flexible and can be used to honor legends of all sorts. The retirement of the jerseys of the Unforgettables showcases the value of that system asvirtually all Big Blue fans acknowledge their importance to the UK legacy. However without such a standard criteria, it sometimes seems that names can be forgotten and the retirement of jerseys postponed for too long a time. The last name to be put in the rafters as a player at Kentucky was Jamal Mashburn….however he last played nearly 15 years ago. Since that time, Kentucky has won two national championships, been to three NCAA title games in a row, had two coaches named NCAA coach of the year, produced more NBA professionals than any other college program and produced arguably one of the great 5 year runs in modern NCAA history between 1995 and 1999. Yet there is not one player’s name up in the rafters to symbolize that excellence. The 1978 national title team has not one, but FOUR members of its team in the rafters….the 1996 team (which most would agree was even more dominant) has none. That needs to be changed.
And the player that most deserves the initial entry into the hallowed area is the sharpshooter from Brownsville, Tony Delk. The man with the high shoulders is arguably one of the best pure shooters in UK history and has amassed a set of individual achievements that is unmatched since Jamal left campus. He was a First Team All-American, a two-time First Team All-SEC, the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four, the SEC Player of the year and a member of multiple all SEC Tournament teams. He is currently fifth all-time in scoring, second all-time in steals, first all-time in three point shots made and his number of 283 is so high, it may never be matched in the future. But his achievements were not only that of an outstanding individual player. He was the leader of a national championship team in 1996, was a key contributor on the Final Four team in 1993 and was the cornerstone of the creation of arguably the best collection of college talent in the past 20 years. Tony Delk was quiet and unassuming….but his performance on the court was right up there with the greats who have ever played the game and he deserves to be honored as such by the University.
Now some old-timers will try and discount modern players like Delk and minimize their accomplishments. Dont listen to them. College basketball is harder now than it ever was in the past and to score the points that Delk did in his career is an amazing achievement. No, Tony Delk and other modern stars didnt average the points-per-game of older players….but their competition is MUCH better and the defensive schemes they face on a nightly basis more sophisticated. I am all for retiring the jersey of guys like Carey Spicer, Forest Sale, John Demoisey, Layton Rouse and Ken Rollins, but the game they played is not exactly like the game that is played now. Even guys like Pat Riley, and Phil Frawemeyer were great players, but their achievements even in their own era dont match up to a guy like Tony Delk. However even if you disagree, comparing Delk to older players misses the point anyway. He was the most decorated, and arguably the best, player of an era that produced one of the great runs in UK basketball history. He deserves then to be with the all-time greats.
Tony Delk is not the only one who should receive such an achievement. I think a case can be made for Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans and possibly a member of the 1998 championship team (although who it would be is tough….Scott Padgett may be the most worthy member (31st in scoring), Wayne Turner may have been the most important player (39th in scoring), but the one most often mentioned, Jeff Sheppard, is 45th all time in scoring, for perspective sake, one spot behind Randolph Morris….yes he was the 1998 MOP, but if you are measuring the career as a whole, the other two are likely more worthy). But the one slam dunk is Tony Delk. He may go down as one of the more underappreciated UK stars in history, at least when viewed from an historical perspective. Because he wasnt loud, brash or particularly outspoken, he is often forgotten, even as we remember how great that 1996 championship team truly was. But he should be remembered for having one of the great all-time careers in UK basketball history and as such should have his jersey retired by the University of Kentucky.
Come on UK, its time for another legend to see his name hang in the rafters. Retire Tony Delk’s jersey.