The Kentucky Wildcat Basketball Program’s quest for another national title begins this month with the annual spectacle known as Big Blue Madness. Hopes are especially high this season as Coach John Calipari has reloaded his roster, combining some returning experienced upperclassmen with his usual highly rated group of incoming freshman. The near misses these last few years have added some additional urgency and expectations to a rabid fan base that will settle for nothing less than Championship Number Nine.
It’s a great time to be a Kentuckian during the month of October. Although the football team has usually imploded by then, the autumn days turn pleasantly cool, the fall foliage is fantastic, Keeneland is in session, and the melodic sounds of bouncing basketballs soothingly reverberate throughout all of Big Blue Nation. During the other months of the year, Kentuckians collectively don’t have a whole lot to be proud of. Our commonwealth traditionally ranks near the bottom in terms of education, health and commerce and we’re one of the poorest states where income levels are concerned. However, the one thing that unites us all and gives us undeniable bragging rights is our basketball team—part of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. Everywhere I’ve traveled, I see fellow Wildcat fans proudly donning the blue. It’s more than just a game to us, it’s our lifeblood and we all live and die with the fortunes of our University of Kentucky roundball heroes.
I’m old enough to remember the Issel years. I was nine at the time and cried uncontrollably when UK’s all-time leading scorer fouled out on a bogus call as we lost to Jacksonville in the NCAA regional finals. I was depressed for months after the Laettner shot against the Unforgettables nearly two decades later. I still haven’t recovered from the questionable shot clock violations that ended our hopes for an undefeated season just two short years ago at the Final Four in Indy. If you’re truly blue-blooded, then every loss hurts, burrowing deep into your gut and curling your hair like a bad Eddie Sutton perm.
Although we’ll never forget the losses, we’ll always remember the wins—especially the title years—’48, ’49, ’51, ’58, ’78, ’96, ’98 and ’12 branded into our brains as if personalized passwords to our online bank accounts. A record 2205 total victories, 17 Final Four appearances, 53 All-Americans–all part of our proud regal heritage. Nobility such as The Fabulous Five, Rupp’s Runts, The Goose, Sky Walker, Monster Mash, Boogie, The Unibrow and Karlito rolling off our tongues as a natural part of our Big Blue lexicon. Icons such as The Baron, Cawood, Oscar and Mr. Wildcat stamped on to our beating hearts as part of our royal blue lineage.
As the season fast approaches, we’re anxious to see how this current team will compare to others within the rich tradition and history of our beloved program. The unrealistic demands of perfection require that they win every game by twenty points while cruising toward 40-0 and another national title. By the way, let’s also beat, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, IU and Louisville along the way just for good measure. Coach Cal says we’re a “players first” program. That may be fine and dandy, but those words ring hollow without some additional championship hardware to go with it. Kentucky Basketball is not just about recruits getting to the NBA or even about total team victories. It’s about the hopes and dreams and pride of our entire state ultimately riding on the untested shoulders of kids named Zaaay, Bam, Dom, Tai and company. If you live outside of Kentucky, it all sounds so foolish and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. If, however, you were born and bred in the commonwealth, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s October–Get in line for number nine. Let the Madness begin!
John Huang is a retired orthodontist from Lexington. He currently covers UK Sports for Nolan Group Media. You can reach him at http://www.huangswhinings.com
Portions of this column were originally published in the op-ed section of the Lexington Herald-Leader on 10/14/16.