For Cats fans, any Game Day in Rupp Arena is a special, even spiritual, experience. Some contests — rivalry games, tough conference matchups — can be especially exceptional: the crowd is unusually animated; the cathedral’s congregation united in one voice.
And then, there are the truly otherworldly experiences. When the play just seems preposterous; when the fan volume overwhelms and uplifts; when the stranger sitting next to you feels like family, everyone captured by the magic of the moment.
December 8, 2001 may have topped them all.
The day was particularly special to me: My dad, who had been battling cancer, felt strong enough to join me for the first time that season. Like so many other fathers and sons, Kentucky basketball was an unshakable bond between us: Even through the awkward teen years, when I was too embarrassed to hug or say “I love you,” we always had the Cats in common — Goose and Macy and Bowie and Dirk and Sky and on and on. In 2001, by now in my thirties, I still was a little chagrined that he wore his baby-blue V-neck cashmere sweater — the hue was far too close to University of North Carolina Blue, that game’s opponents.
Apparently, though, the sweater was a lucky charm. Two minutes into regulation, the unranked visitors had scored the game’s first four points. But then, sophomore guard Gerald Fitch found senior Tayshaun Prince at the top of the key, and the lanky but graceful forward stroked his signature southpaw three-point shot. The Tar Heels scored another basket, and Prince topped it with another three from just beyond the center of the arc. Two more UNC twos were answered with two more Tayshaun threes, this time from closer to the right corner.
And then…Fitch stole the ball in the Carolina front court, handed it to Prince, who ambled down the court. And then — suddenly — his foot grazing the “U” of the center-court logo — he threw up a forty-plus foot jumper…
Nothing but net.
Words simply fail. Watch the whole series yourself:
It turned out to be the last game my dad would attend — a fitting fashion to retire his baby-blue sweater.
But for Tayshaun, it was merely the capstone of a spectacular four-year career in blue and white — a record of triumph that places Prince among the greatest of Wildcat greats. That’s why I hope that the next time we see the long-limbed lefty strolling toward center court in Lexington, it will be to witness his jersey being retired in Rupp Arena’s rafters.
For a team with THE GREATEST TRADITION IN THE HISTORY OF COLLEGE BASKETBALL, it’s perhaps the most special tradition of all.
Last week, during halftime of the Auburn blowout, superstar guard Tony Delk entered the pantheon of Kentucky basketball majesty, as the drapes were raised on a larger-than-life replica of his 00 jersey, just caddy corner in the nosebleeds of Rupp to the 1996 championship banner he helped to bring to Lexington. In the century-plus history of the elite of elite college hoops programs, Delk is only the 38th player so honored, with three coaches (Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, and Rick Pitino) and two street-clothed icons (broadcaster Cawood Ledford and equipment manager Bill Keightley) rounding out the remarkable array.
The ritual was born early in the Rupp era, when the legendary coach presented his 1940 captain, Mickey Rouse, with his uniform at the team’s annual banquet. Nine years later, Rupp retired the jerseys of the “Fabulous Five” — Alex Groza, Cliff Barker, Ralph Beard, Kenny Rollins and Wah Wah Jones — who won two national championships and Olympic Gold in 1948. Two other team groupings later received a similar honor: seven members of the undefeated 1954 squad (Cliff Hagan, Frank Ramsey, Lou Tsioropoulous, Bill Evans, Gayle Rose, Jerry Bird and Phil Grawemeyer); and, lest we forget, the Unforgettables (Richie Farmer, Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey and Sean Woods), who helped restore a scandal-plagued program on the road back to glory.
But for the remainder of the honorees, the jersey symbolizes individual achievement, both on and off the Cat court. For decades, this highly subjective selection was approached on an ad hoc basis, with the head coach often dictating the rules and standards.
That all changed when Mitch Barnhart was named UK’s Athletic Director. According to Tony Neely, UK’s Assistant Athletic Director, Barnhart was committed to standardizing and formalizing the way the school’s athletic heroes were honored.
Accordingly, in 2005, the UK Athletics Hall of Fame was inaugurated, and its charter class included 88 athletes from baseball, football and men’s and women’s basketball who had previously seen their jerseys retired. By 2006, a Hall of Fame Committee was established — consisting of alumni, campus reps, coaches, administrators, the media, and previous Hall of Famers — and was charged with selecting for induction six athletes each year from the school’s 22 sports teams. As with many such honorific institutions, the standards are amorphously subjective: The only objective requirement is that the athlete must have left UK at least five years previously.
These newer classes of Hall of Famers provide the pool for jersey retirement candidates. As Neely explains, a new subcommittee was established in 2014, consisting of eight members, to specifically select the elite athletes who will have their uniforms memorialized. To qualify, an athlete must have been inducted into the Hall of Fame at least five years prior, and must qualify as “the best of the best.” Subcommittee members can vote for up to ten people in the pool each year, and only those athletes who win at least seven out of the eight votes will witness their uni up in the bright lights. Delk was the first men’s cager to qualify under the new Barnhart protocol.
When the jersey subcommittee meets in 2016, it will, for the first time, be able to consider the UK Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2010. (OK, math wizards — Neely tells me that there’s a one year lag before the five year clock starts ticking.) The 2010 HOFers include golfer Steve Flesch, rifle woman Nancy Napolski Johnson, track star Valerie McGovern Young, and hoopsters Mike Casey, Billy Ray Lickert, and…you guessed it…Tayshaun Prince.
I’ll let others debate the merits of the rest of the 2010’ers, or the value of retiring in 2015 the jerseys of hardcourt (and broadcasting) legends Mike Pratt and Larry Conley, who entered the Hall in earlier classes.
But well beyond that enchanted December day, Tayshaun Prince earned his spot among the arena ceiling’s crossbars. While he never won a cherished NCAA title — neither did most of the men whose jerseys we honor — the kid straight outta Compton was the premiere player in the Tubby Smith Era. As a junior, he was named SEC player of the year, and twice earned consensus second-team all-American status. With 1775 points, he’s 8th on the all-time scoring list: Every one above him, with the exception of the not-yet-eligible Keith Bogans, hangs in the rafters. Prince is, by all accounts, a prince of a man: a quiet leader, a generous supporter of children’s charities, and a prototypical ambassador of the Big Blue Nation. After leaving, his career sparkled beyond anyone’s expectations: winning an Olympic Gold Medal and an NBA Championship, and executing the most spectacular, gravity-defying blocked shot in NBA playoff history.
I can’t wait to stand up and cheer when Tayshaun Prince’s jersey is presented to him at the site of his most spectacular college moment. And if you’re looking for me that day, I’ll be the guy in the hand-me-down, baby blue V-neck cashmere sweater — with the big smile and the watery eyes.