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8 more UK Basketball stories worthy of an ESPN “30 for 30”


Last week, word broke that ESPN is working on a “30 for 30” special about John Calipari. Tentatively titled “One and Never Done,” the documentary will cover Calipari’s career, starting from his days as an assistant at Kansas to his struggles in the NBA, rebirth in Memphis, and finally, his ascent to college basketball’s biggest throne at Kentucky. According to ESPN’s David Scott, the film will be directed by Jonathan Hock, a ten-time Emmy Award winning producer, director, writer and editor with four “30 for 30″s under his belt: “Unguarded” (2011); “The Best That Never Was” (2010); “Survive and Advance” (2013); and “Of Miracles and Men” (2015). ESPN camera crews followed Calipari a lot over the past year, reportedly shooting footage at his Hall of Fame induction and the team’s trip to Kansas in January, a fitting return to where Cal’s coaching career began.

I’m a big fan of the “30 for 30” series, so news of Calipari’s got me thinking about other events in Kentucky basketball history that might also be worthy of one. The program has such a long and storied history, that honestly, it could probably fill an entire season’s worth of documentaries if Kentucky fans had their way. Of course, that won’t happen, so here are eight suggestions in case the “30 for 30” crew circles back to Lexington any time soon.


Kentucky vs. Texas Western

Honestly, I’m shocked this isn’t already a “30 for 30,” although I guess Disney did make a whole movie about it. I still haven’t seen “Glory Road” because I think it would make me mad, but I do remember the backlash from UK fans over Jon Voight’s portrayal of Adolph Rupp and Dick Gabriel’s follow-up documentary, “Adolph Rupp: Myth, Legend and Fact.” It’s easy for Hollywood to paint Rupp and UK as the villain in this story, which I think makes it an even better subject for the “30 for 30” crew to shine a light on.

“What if I told you the story of a team with an all-black lineup beating a team with an all-white lineup for the NCAA Championship was a lot more complicated than black and white?” 

The Unforgettables

The story of the 1991-1992 Kentucky team already seems straight out of Hollywood. Coming off a two-year postseason ban for recruiting violations under Eddie Sutton, a young and hungry Rick Pitino led a historical program back to prominence with the help of four seniors (three of whom are from Kentucky) and a superstar sophomore. Add in arguably the greatest basketball game ever played and you’ve got a story far more interesting than its villain.

“What if I told you that, even in the darkest times, loyalty can bring you back to the spotlight?”

Ed Reinke, AP

John Stewart’s passing

Even 17 years later, it’s hard to look back at articles about John Stewart without getting a little emotional. At only 18 years old, the seven-foot Kentucky signee collapsed and died on the court during the regional championship game of the Indiana high school playoffs in 1999. The loss shook the entire UK fanbase, particularly Tubby Smith, who made sure the program honored Stewart on what would have been his Senior Night in 2003.

Actually, “30 for 30” doesn’t need to bother with this one because our friend TJ Beisner already did it justice back in 2014 with his documentary for KSTV, “Wildcat Forever: The John Stewart Story.” I encourage you to grab some tissues and head over to to watch if you haven’t already.

“What if I told you the saddest story imaginable…and it was true.”

Bill Keightley

Most college basketball fans outside Kentucky have no clue who Bill Keightley was, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more beloved figure in the program’s history. Mr. Keightley was the heart and soul of UK Basketball, serving as way more than the equipment manager at the end of the bench. I would love to hear interviews from past players, coaches, and staff members about Keightley’s life, and, given his impact on the program, I bet others would too.

“What if I told you the heart and soul of Kentucky basketball was also the man that used to wash its jerseys?” 

Rick Pitino goes to Louisville

As Kentucky fans, there are some moments you just don’t forget. Most of you probably know where you were during “The Shot,” when Kentucky won its national championships, and maybe even when Rick Pitino was announced as the head coach at Louisville in 2001. I remember exactly where I was: the Galt House in Louisville for a high school journalism conference (ha!). The months that followed were a confusing time for UK fans, leading into another moment I’ll never forget: Pitino walking out of the home tunnel during his first trip back to Rupp as Louisville’s coach. (Oh, the nerve!) Add in the rivalry once Calipari came to Kentucky and Rick’s meltdowns during the scandal — including flipping off his old fanbase — and you’ve got some must-see TV.

“What if I told you a coach that was once considered a god became enemy number one four years later?”


Randolph Morris and the missing fax

Okay, so delving into this story might not be in UK’s best interest, but come on — haven’t you ever wondered what the REAL story was behind Randolph Morris and the missing fax? After Morris went undrafted in 2005 and returned to Kentucky, the NCAA suspended him for 14 games before Tubby Smith miraculously found a seven-month old fax on his desk stating Morris’ intent to enter the draft but NOT sign an agent, which helped Morris regain his eligibility with half a season left to play. Of course, the story would have been a lot better had Kentucky gone further than the second round that year, but still, I would watch this.

“What if I told you the key to a season laid not in a locker room or basketball court, but on a messy desk underneath some Dunkin’ Donuts wrappers?”

The Rise and Fall of Billy Gillispie

By far the strangest story in recent UK history is Billy Gillispie’s two-year tenure as head coach. Most of us really believed Billy would succeed when he came to UK, and boy, were we wrong. I’d LOVE for the “30 for 30” crew to go digging and interview Billy’s players and co-workers to tell us what really happened behind-the-scenes. From late night drunk golfing to Alex Legion’s girlfriend to the Alan Cutler foot chase, this story is begging for primetime.

“What if I told you that Kentucky gave the keys of the program to a man who almost ran it into the Merrick Inn pool?”

Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Photo by Chet White | UK Athletics

Pursuit of Perfection

If I said it once, I said it a million times last year: Kentucky’s 2014-2015 season was made for a “30 for 30.” I’m sure Calipari’s film will cover it in part, but that season was awesome for so many reasons. I would start with the 2013-2014 season to include the hype around the recruiting class, the struggles that prompted Aaron Harrison to say it could still be a “great story,” Aaron’s threes to take UK to the national championship game, and then most of that class’ decision to come back to school. Then, the Bahamas trip, Kansas and UCLA beatdowns, and the march to 38-0…which is exactly when I would turn it off.

“What if I told you a team won thirty-eight games in a row, but the one they lost would haunt them forever?”

Article written by Mrs. Tyler Thompson

No, I will not make you a sandwich, but you can follow me on Twitter @MrsTylerKSR or email me.

12 Comments for 8 more UK Basketball stories worthy of an ESPN “30 for 30”

  1. E Cat
    8:40 pm May 24, 2016 Permalink

    Well done. Though we’d not really love to re-live it, but the Emery Express package is also a great mystery. Anyone who really knew some of the disorganization under Tubby found it very plausible that the letter could be in a desk. Plus, I don’t think Tubby would EVER lie about anything. First rate person. But there was a lot of disorganization at the end of his tenure here.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      8:21 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

      A documentary about the Emery Express could possibly even uncover new and relevant information about what really happened. We know that Dwayne Casey was wrongly accused by the NCAA; he proved it in court by suing the. So who was the real culprit? Was it someone else at UK, or was the “UCLA conspiracy theory” actually with some merit? Maybe after 30 years, someone might be ready to talk.

  2. jim tom
    8:50 pm May 24, 2016 Permalink

    Definitely don’t want to relive Pursuit of Perfection. Most painful loss in my 40 years as a cat fan. Still can’t believe it.

  3. runningunnin.454
    12:39 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

    Once again, watched the Texas Western game once, live; don’t need to relive it. And once again, people tend to ignore the fact that Don Haskins benched two white players that had started all year so he could play the race card. So the racist was…..
    Also, in the early sixties, Rupp wanted to recruit Seneca’s Wes Unseld and Breckinridge County’s Butch
    Beard; but he had to be straight with them….trips to the deep south would not be pleasant.
    When other SEC teams turned down ncaa bids due to integrated competition, Rupp took his teams in their place, and often scheduled integrated teams in the north and east on a regular basis.

    • theWilkman
      9:56 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

      But that doesn’t fit the clean black and white narrative Disney and the media like to portray!

    • runningunnin.454
      10:23 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

      True, Hollywood and ESPN. The the most disgraceful thing about that movie (which I’ve never seen,but have heard how they portrayed Rupp and UK as villains) is the title. In Rupp’s farewell address he said, “to those of you that have gone down the glory road with me, my eternal thanks”.
      Cawood Ledford also “borrowed” the phrase in his final sign-off after he called his last UK game.
      Actually, I think the movie would have been worse; but Jon Voight, who portrayed Rupp, told the producers that, based on his research to play Rupp, he was uncomfortable with the original script. In his mind, Rupp was not a racist.

  4. Sentient Third Eye
    8:19 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

    I’ve always thought the Unforgettables would make an amazing feature film. The story has everything built right in: a fall from grace, a redemption story and then a twist at the end that avoids the movie cliche of always winning at the end. The ending is bittersweet. About the only reason for Hollywood to not make such a film is an opposition to making possibly the best sports movie of all time.

  5. symphonist41169
    8:39 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

    Great ideas, Tyler. I’d add the “golden era” of 1942-1958 to examine how Adolph Rupp built UK into a powerhouse in the first place. This could start with how all college basketball rosters were depleted due to World War II & the first Final Four of 1942, the WORLD domination of basketball winning 3 titles in 4 years as well as the Olympics gold medal. You’d have to throw in the hiccup of the point-shaving scandal (which could also re-examine the debate of paying college athletes a stipend) but also show how he re-built the dynasty from the ashes of probation to the building of Memorial Coliseum, the 12-year 129 game home winning streak, and culminating the comeback from the 1-year death penalty of ”52-’53 with the championship of ’58. Haters will always say what they want about UK and Rupp but maybe it could give a glimpse into why we’ve been so passionate and successful for generations of rabid fandom.

  6. symphonist41169
    8:44 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

    “What if I told you the most successful and storied program in college basketball history began with the hiring of a 29 year-old Illinois high school basketball coach?”

  7. devotedsoles
    9:08 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

    “What if I told you a team won thirty-eight games in a row, but the one they lost would haunt them forever?”

    The “Pursuit of Perfection” would be difficult to watch. Don’t get me wrong, die hard UK fan here, but in all honesty it MEANS NOTHING without the championship…

    Sure it was awesome going 38-0, but just like you are seeing now in the NBA with the warriors, they weren’t the same world beaters we watched during the regular season. Given all the talent on that team and a 6 point lead, you don’t lose to Frank Kaminsky and Sam Decker, but they did. That loss erased a special season and directly led to UK’s nemesis, DUKE, winning the title. It swayed recruiting in Duke’s favor as we are seeing now.

    It would no doubt be a great 30 for 30, digging deep into the affects of that loss, but the conclusion will always be the same; it doesn’t matter if you went undefeated through 38 games because you still came up short. You were two wins away from a perfect season (actually one win away. You beat WISCO and you win the title. UK would’ve destroyed DUKE). “Almost” doesn’t get it done. Just like the GS Warriors right now…If you don’t win the title after the record setting season; it doesn’t really mean that much? No, it means nothing if you don’t win the title!

    • theWilkman
      9:59 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

      Means nothing? You’ve wasted years of your life watching UK basketball then, since we only have 8 titles. Do you watch UK football? I sure hope not, because it will always mean nothing to you.

    • Sentient Third Eye
      10:34 am May 25, 2016 Permalink

      It’s about the journey, not the destination. Though sometimes the destination is nice, too.