The semester is drawing to a close for the student population at the University of Kentucky. Most students are a few papers and finals away from their summer vacation. Between the closing of the school year and the impending NBA Draft, the final days in Lexington are swiftly approaching for the departing seniors and early draft entrants from this year’s Kentucky men’s basketball team. Darius Miller, Eloy Vargas, Doron Lamb, Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Anthony Davis could have all spent their final days and weeks in Lexington a number of ways. In between finishing up classes, studying for finals and finding time to spend in the gym to stay in shape before the pre-draft workouts (for some), all seven of those guys could have easily made any number of excuses not to literally cover hundreds of miles across the state of Kentucky to reach out to fans. Instead, they have done just that.
We predicted that this team would be special from the moment the roster was finalized. We watched this team do special things on the court all season long. We were validated on just how special this team was when they brought home the national championship. This team has been compared by anyone with two eyes, a keyboard and a Twitter account to the most recent “special” 1996 team. Depending on your age, preference for Derek Anderson or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, or gut feeling on denim– you can almost divide the fan base on which team they feel was better. None of that really matters though. This 2011-2012 team has separated itself and in my opinion, defined itself, by what it has done from the moment the banner was lifted in Rupp Arena.
John Calipari started things when he took off in a bus with the national championship trophy in hand, and brought the celebration to as many cities, counties and Walmarts as he possibly could. Calipari found a way to let almost everyone in the state of Kentucky have the opportunity to feel a part of the moment. He didn’t have to do that. But he did. And then his players followed his lead.
The list of destinations on the autograph tours of each of the Kentucky players is almost overwhelming and impossible to keep up with. They have covered just as much, if not more ground than Calipari. Many of the players have been going nonstop for multiple weeks now as well. Stories have trickled out about players showing up late to an autograph session in one place because they stayed late to make sure everyone who showed up at the previous place got a chance to meet them. Some of the players have thrown out pitches at various baseball games, whether it be UK or the Lexington Legends. Some have been frequenting the UK Children’s Hospital to spend time with the kids and their families. Terrence Jones– in Calipari’s terms, is “the needle” of this whole thing because he is even performing “Teach Me Bout Kentucky” tonight in Louisville to benefit a charity.
Make no mistake, players in the past who have played for Kentucky have done similar things. Autograph tours are nothing new for the departing players. I can’t remember a collective group of players though who have covered as much ground, put in as much time, reached as many fans, etc. as this group of players. Maybe it’s just the rise of the internet era, so we have quicker access to hearing about the players doing these kinds of things. I tend to believe though that this group of players has gone above and beyond to allow Kentucky fans to feel something special. The players seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves along the way too, tweeting pictures of their fans and taking the time to go beyond simply signing autographs in many cases. I have heard especially positive stories of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist being extremely personable and having fun with the younger fans.
For anyone who thinks that some of these players who only spend one year at Kentucky aren’t giving enough back to the University and the fans in their short time, just take a look at time and effort they are expending right now in their final days in Lexington. They could be doing absolutely anything right now. Anything at all. And they are choosing to be with the fans.