When the final seconds ticked away last night in the Superdome, I had trouble choosing which player I wanted to watch. My eyes were drawn to a leaping Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But then I wanted to find Darius Miller, our hometown Kentucky boy, our beloved senior. Then I had had to find Coach Cal. Where was he? What was his reaction? And how about Terrence Jones? A player who has had his ups and downs at Kentucky. A player who decided to return in part to chase a national championship that escaped him just twelve months earlier. And then another part of me just wanted to personally soak up the moment, trying to put it into perspective as a lifelong, die-hard Kentucky fan.
When the dust settled upon an evening for the ages, I started to debate who exactly I felt the most excited for following Kentucky’s 8th national championship. In a season full of stories, on a team full of likable personalities, with a fan base oozing with passion and love for their program, who are you the most excited for?
Talk about a coach who has, for lack of a better term, had a monkey on his back for years now. Calipari has continually pieced together teams with enough talent to find themselves squarely in the conversation for a national title. He has had one team a few made free throws away from a title in Memphis. He’s had a team one off shooting night away from a Final Four and potential national championship. And he’s had one team a Kemba Walker away from a national title birth. Add to all of those near misses a slew of national writers seemingly hung up on the fact that Calipari had yet to win a national title doing it “his way.”
Even more so than proving any doubters wrong, Calipari has done so much for so many young men who have come through his program. The love, mixed with structure, stability and opportunity that he offers to his players often gets overlooked. He promises very little to them in the way of playing time guarantees before they arrive on campus, but he does promise them that he will always put them first. And he does. Time and time again. He has helped players reach their dreams of playing in the NBA. He has changed the lives of, and opened doors for players such as Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins, that very few ever thought possible. He has been coaching for over 20 years now. For the coach who says he doesn’t need these type of things, he got his championship. He will deflect all of it on his players, to his athletic department, to his coaching staff, to the fans. But if you saw his face when he walked into Rupp Arena and stood in front of that crowd, after driving through the city from the airport being greeted by thousands of fans, it meant something to him.
Or Darius Miller?
Darius Miller has been through as much as any Kentucky player I can remember. He came in during a time of great turmoil, experiencing some of the lowest lows since the program’s probation. He adjusted to a new coach, a coach he did not get recruited by to come to Kentucky. He surpassed many people’s expectations by carving out a role for himself on each and every loaded John Calipari team in his final 3 years at Kentucky. And in perhaps the greatest sacrifice of all, Darius Miller, essentially a 3-year starter, came off the bench for the majority of his senior year. Granted, he played starter minutes, but he sacrificed one of the things every player aims for: a spot in the starting line-up.
He could have found himself resenting some of the younger players who were starting over him, such as freshman phenom Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Instead, according to every player interview I’ve heard in the past month, Darius Miller took on the role of big brother to these young players. They all gush about him. They look up to him. They value him. They love him. For a guy who grew up in Kentucky, chose to stay home and wear a Kentucky jersey–during a time when it wasn’t the most popular choice, the culmination of a career ending with a national title is about as picture perfect as it comes.
Or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist?
We’re talking about a kid who lost his father at an extremely young age. We’re talking about a kid whose uncle passed away on the day he signed his letter of intent for the University of Kentucky. That was supposed to be one of the happiest days of his life. Instead, it was marked by tragedy. We’re talking about the kid who added his uncle’s last name to the back of his jersey to honor him when he got to the University of Kentucky. We’re talking about a kid who played harder every single minute of every single game and practice than any player to ever don the Kentucky uniform before him. We’re talking about a player who wanted to do more for his team when he didn’t have the ball in his hand than when he did. We’re talking about a teammate who re-defined what being a good teammate meant, by starting a Breakfast Club to bond the team, who asked his coach to let his teammate start over him in the SEC Championship game. We’re talking about a player who lit up an entire state with a simple smile. Who isn’t happy for that kid, who played and acts like more of a man than many people years older than him?
Or Terrence Jones? A player who re-wrote his legacy as a Kentucky basketball player throughout this season, going from a player who often left fans frustrated to a player who sacrificed individual accolades and shot attempts to make his team better. Or Doron Lamb? He didn’t have to come back. He didn’t have to agree to be an option on the offensive end of the court rather than a priority. Or Marquis Teague? He was chastised as hard as any freshman in recent memory during the first month of the season. He was questioned, analyzed, scrutinized, doubted, etc. He dug down deep. He changed the way he went about his business. He became coachable. He became the catalyst for the offense rather than the key cog. He became a leader. He became the first in Calipari’s long line of storied point guards to become a national champion. Re-read that. Derrick Rose. Tyreke Evans. John Wall. Brandon Knight. All great point guards, some even brilliant. But Marquis Teague is the only national champion. Or how about Anthony Davis? I’m almost done with this blog entry and I haven’t even mentioned the National Player of the Year. Yeah, how about that guy?
Or the fans? How about the fans? What about the 90 year old fans who have lived through Adolp Rupp, Joe B. Hall, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith, John Calipari and a few other coaches? What about the fans who spend their last dime, saving for an entire year, to follow Kentucky to the SEC tournament or the Sweet 16 or the Final Four. What about the college students who sit in lines for hours to obtain student tickets for the Erupption Zone? What about the young fans, who are just now falling in love with Kentucky basketball? The ones who have only been told of the rich history, but have just now for the first time experienced the pinnacle.
What if it doesn’t really matter who you are most excited for? What if, just like with this team and who has the ball in their hands taking the last shot, it doesn’t really matter? What if, just like with this team, it’s about every single person? We’ve all made a sacrifice in our lives at some point for Kentucky basketball. Maybe we’ve called in sick for a Thursday afternoon NCAA first round tournament game. Maybe we’ve passed up a trip to Florida to go to Nashville for a SEC tournament instead. Maybe we’ve stood in lines for hours just to get a championship t-shirt, even if it’s a triple X-Large. Calipari said it time and time again in the wake of this national championship: “They’ve all sacrificed for each other.” We all have.
So really, we don’t have to decide who we are the most excited for following this national championship. It’s exciting for everyone involved. And that is exactly how it should be.