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Why the Alumni Game Matters

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.

Alumni Game

“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.

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.”

Alumni Game

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.

Alumni Game

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.

Who wouldn’t?

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.

17 Comments for Why the Alumni Game Matters

    8:45 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Who was the tall bald guy in warm up gear that was sitting between Del and Skywalker most of the night?

  2. SECtvdeal
    8:53 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Don’t tease us about this being the last Alumni game post. KSR is to the point of being embarrassing over this game.

  3. kentuckyjoe
    9:21 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Great post Mrs. TT.

  4. UK Homer
    9:37 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    The Alumni game was even better because of KSR’s coverage before, during and after. Thanks for letting us have access to this even if only by association (for those not able to make it)

  5. lesigh
    9:43 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Very nice write up, Ms. TT. For those of us who could not make it, this is the next best thing.

  6. acd
    9:45 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    1- If I remember right, Andre Riddick.

  7. Patches
    9:47 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Who wouldn’t? Mudiay. He’d rather be invisible at SMU.

  8. @SaggyWheels
    9:53 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Did anyone hear me yell “Crank Dat Mustard” when Cuz and Bledsoe were at half-court before the game saying why they couldn’t play? if so holler at me on twitter. @saggywheels

  9. Tall trees
    10:15 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Was Jeff Sheppard at the Alumni game? What about Darius Miller?

  10. bigcatstanding
    10:57 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    #9 could care less if Jeff came or not lol, as for Miller he’s out with a injury. I liked when J Wall was asked about the UofL rivalry, and he responded by saying what rivalry that he didn’t see it as a rivalry, because in a true rivalry team’s trade wins back and forth. I love it can’t wait to get this year underway!!! BBN RULES ILF#9.

  11. James
    11:01 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    I find it frustrating to attempt to read the new site. I get some really odd loading behavior where the page jerks and makes it incdibly hard to read on the main site. This happens in Safar & Chrome and i’m on a Retina macbook.Issue goes away if I view individual posts.
    Also pictures don’t load sometimes.
    Fonts too small on the iPhone.
    These issues weren’t present previous to upgrade.

  12. Cat Fan in Vegas
    11:11 pm September 10, 2013 Permalink

    Damn… I can barely contain my love for my home state and the Big Blue Nation. Seeing the pics and vids of the alumni game is incredible. Kentucky basketball is my lifeline back to the bluegrass. I have been a diehard fan all 39 years of my life. I’ve lived through the Joe B. years… Eddie Sutton’s two year stint… the Pitino run… Tubby’s time…Gillespie? Well, I suffered through it… and now the most glorious era of all, the Calipari Era. And… I can’t thank KSR enough. This website is like an IV feeding everything Kentucky basketball right into my veins. We are the most intense f***ing fanbase on the planet, and everyone knows it. To all the haters out there… you’re so jealous it’s not even funny. Peace

  13. cotton
    12:32 am September 11, 2013 Permalink

    Sheppard is a traitor. KSR is UK!!!!!!!! Nothing tickles me more than what you guys have done to the irrelevant Herald Leader,..completely blown them out of the water. No real Cat fan reads them anymore. Tipton, Story,…et, al. Thorns in the flesh of Kentucky basketball. What morons! You guys have cornered the market on UK sports,..and rightfully so. Thanks to Matt Jones for this site. Course Drew Franklin and Mrs Tyler are the glue. You folks are under-appreciated. (Give them a raise, Matt. Please and thank you!) And Coach Cal is KING!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Go Big Blue!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  14. RexRox
    5:14 am September 11, 2013 Permalink

    Totally agree with Cotton on subject of KSR vs. Herald Leader. Who needs ’em?? Would have loved to haves seen Darius, Rajon and Derek at the Alumni Game. Understand Darius is injured. What about Rajon and Derek? Any ideas as to why neither was present?

  15. KG
    6:41 am September 11, 2013 Permalink

    I was at the game. My passion for Kentucky Basketball demanded that I be there.
    I brought my Grandson( who will be a freshman at UK next year) so I know my love for the University will continue to be in good hands.My Son graduated from UK during the Pitino years.
    I’ve been a fan since 1958 and grew up listening to Claude Sullivan and Caywood Ledford. I remember my first live game in Memorial, suffered through all the tough years, relished the good ones but The Alumni game was a lifetime thrill! The passion displayed by the attending fans matched the fervor and effort from our wayward sons whose love for their school and coach was clearly seen by the smiles on their faces. They felt the love generating from the stands. You could see it in their body language. It was the ultimate family reunion!
    KSR IS GREAT!!!!!!!!!!! Before I turn in every night I check out KSR. My first sip of morning coffee is taken while I am reading (or commenting)on KSR. My membership at a premium site is forgotten now because KSR is my favorite. Thank You ALL

  16. spookykim
    2:15 pm September 11, 2013 Permalink

    Well done, Mrs. TT — you are an awesome writer. And, well said, #12, I agree. I was there & that game was incredible. Love all those guys so much! I wonder if all those crybabies that were complaining about wasting their money on tickets when they thought it should only be 2010 vs 2012 & no other players, are still posting & whining? BBN doesn’t need fans like that. All of those players are family!

  17. come on
    2:28 pm September 11, 2013 Permalink

    Tyler, Moms ALWAYS get to the heart of things.
    Make her a sandwich.