Forgive me, I needed one more day of basketball. Last night was just too good.
There was a moment during the Alumni Game in which Cal called his players out to midcourt during a timeout and surveyed them like a proud papa. “I just got to tell you, folks,” Cal crowed to the crowd, “How proud are you of these guys right here?” Fans responded, standing to their feet and giving generations of Cats an ovation that spoke volumes about the state of the program right now. It was a catharsis of love for the players, gratitude for the memories, relief that last season is finally over and a new one is about to begin. The players soaked it in, sending the love back to the fans in a Big Blue Nation moment for the ages.
For the players, last night was a chance to not only play with their former teammates, but square off against those they didn’t get to play with at Kentucky, finally putting all of those debates as to who’s better to rest. Most fans probably came into Rupp last night expecting a no-defense dunk fest, but for some of the guys, it was not your normal All-Star game; it was a legitimate competition. The best showdown had to be 11 vs. 11: Wall vs. Knight. Before the game, Eric Bledsoe bet John Wall he couldn’t score 40 points, so Wall, never one to back down from a challenge, went out there and scored 40 points. Two of Cal’s best point guards–Wall the flashier slasher, Knight the silent shooter–didn’t back down from each other, egged on by fans, DeMarcus Cousins (“Go to work, John!,” Boogie screamed after Knight drove past him for a dunk), and their own competitive drives.
“We’re both competitors and it’s tough for us to just get out on the court and kind of just not play,” Knight said. “So you get on the court and you want to make sure nobody gets hurt and play smart, but at the same time go at each other a little bit and have some fun.”
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and DeAndre Liggins, two of UK’s best defenders in recent years, showed off their trademark smothering styles, dispelling the notion that in all-star games, defense is pretty much an afterthought. Terrence Jones took on anyone who came between him and the rim and won, with an arsenal of dunks that could fill an entire highlight reel. As my new best friend Jay Bilas (if I say we’re best friends, then it’s true, right?) says, real recognize real, and from the show last night, that might as well become the motto of the Alumni Game.
The haters like to describe Cal’s “one-and-done system” as cold and impersonal. They call UK an NBA factory, where five-star recruits come for one season, take NBA 101, and go off to earn their paycheck, or if they’re not so lucky, get “discarded” by Calipari because they’re not good enough. While the harsh reality of the one-and-done system makes leaving the cozy confines of Kentucky inevitable for most, all of the players said last night that it’s never really goodbye:
“A lot of coaches, once you’re done playing for them, you don’t hear from them,” Brandon Knight said. “That’s not the same with Coach Cal. I not only hear from Cal, but (Rod) Strickland, Coach Strick, Kenny Payne, Coach (John) Robic. I hear from all those guys all the time. So it’s really a family when you come here. It’s not you play for us, you leave, we’re done with you. We always stay in contact, always keep in touch. It’s really family oriented.”
Wall agreed, calling the “la familia” atmosphere evidence that Kentucky’s handling the one-and-done rule in “the right way.” Even further, the family doesn’t just include Cal’s most famous pros; former players like Andre Riddick, Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford, Ramon Harris and Perry Stevenson have been welcomed into the fold and got their time in the spotlight last night, something Stevenson says shows him the staff genuinely cares for all of them:
“Just getting to see that it’s an actual family, and (that) even after you’re graduated the guys that recruited you still care about you and they want you to come back and see you and know what’s going on with your life.”
For Cal’s critics, it’s easy to write off the Alumni Game as a simple recruiting tactic, but it’s so much more than that. Yes, recruiting is a big part of it, and I’ll get to that in a minute, but after seeing what went down in Rupp last night, to me the Alumni Game is the La Familia reunion that the fan base needs in the modern era of one-and-done college basketball. It’s the spoonful of sugar to help the pain of saying goodbye to our boys year after year go down.
The evidence? Almost 20,000 of you came out on a Monday night in the middle of September for an exhibition game. My mother may have put it best last night after the game when she said, “It’s like watching your kids play. You don’t really care how well they do, you’re just so happy they’re there.”
John Wall, who would have just graduated this past May he had stayed four years, wasn’t surprised by the great turnout:
“It’s a state of basketball, so it’s not surprising to me knowing that anytime you put something together and this great group of guys come back, it’s all like a brotherhood. Coach Cal and the University of Kentucky do a great job of getting everybody organized and putting stuff together. I’m happy to have the opportunity to come back and have fun and put on a show for the fans.”
Knight echoed those remarks, telling reporters that the game is just as meaningful to the players as it is to the fans:
“It just shows the appreciation that’s here, the tradition and how much the fans are behind the players here. I think that’s why we take the time out of our schedules now to come back and play in things like this, because we know we have a lot of support when we were here. It means a lot to us, so we have to take time and come back and do things like this.”
The playful shove DeMarcus Cousins gives Nerlens Noel towards the end of this is priceless.
There was something very comforting about seeing all of the past greats under Rupp’s roof once again. John Wall may be older, richer and attend fashion shows, but he still slashes to the basket with such speed you can only shake your head and smile. DeMarcus Cousins didn’t get to play on the court, but played the roll of assistant coach and big brother as only he could. Anthony Davis and MKG are just babies in the league, but even they seemed more mature. For the current team, the Alumni Game is a glimpse into the future. It’s surreal to me to think that next year, Julius Randle, the Harrison Twins, and others may also participate, and we don’t even really know them yet.
And what about the year after that? Jahlil Okafor, Tyler Ulis and Devin Booker were in the stands last night, and from everything we’ve heard, left the game very, very impressed. For obvious reasons, we can’t talk about what happened during their visit, but I’ll just say that the Alumni Game may have surpassed Big Blue Madness as the ultimate recruiting event. What better way to show recruits what could happen if they pick UK than to put literal evidence of it on the court? Eric Bledsoe said that if they had an alumni game back when he was a recruit, it would have sealed the deal: “I can definitely tell you, it would have made me want to commit right on the spot.”
Brandon Knight agreed, and said that if he were a recruit, seeing all those pros on one floor would give him a goal to strive for and Kentucky the tools to achieve it:
“Back then it would motivate me. I would know I had the opportunity to come here and be in their shoes at some point if I did the right thing. I would think, why are so many guys going here and making it to the next level, and making it to the next level and being successful, as well? I would want to be a part of it.”