I don’t believe in superstitions. I don’t believe that black cats, broken mirrors, and Friday the 13th are the least bit unlucky. I don’t believe that four-leaf clovers, horseshoes, and rabbits feet will bring you good fortune either. Bring me a ladder and I’ll gladly walk under it. Unlike my brother, I don’t wear the same pair of “lucky” blue underwear to every single ballgame. I don’t believe in unicorns, leprechauns, or pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. In fact, I’m not even sure I believe in rainbows. The one thing I’m sure I believe in, however, is Memorial Magic. Trust me on this one. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. There’s definitely something spooky about Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium.
I’m down here in Music City on a cold and windy January evening covering the Wildcat’s annual journey into the depths of this most unconventional sports venue. Built in 1952 as the campus memorial to Vanderbilt students and alumni killed in WWII, Memorial Gymnasium is as weird as it gets for a basketball arena. Rumor has it that upon completion, the basketball gods were so impressed with the facility that they slipped some magic dust into the rafters. Just approaching the facility gives you an eerie feeling as if you’re walking into a turn of the century Lady Macbeth production. I was here as a fan back in 1993 for a NCAA tournament contest and when the house lights dimmed, I felt I needed opera glasses, a spot of tea, and breath mints.
So what’s so magical about Memorial? Over the years, I’ve seen the building make superstars out of lesser known players such as John Jenkins, Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Dan Langhi, and Billy McCaffrey—frequently at the expense of the Wildcats. You ever heard of Will Perdue? He went to Vandy and made millions in the NBA off of limited ability. Still not convinced? How about Kentucky natives Scott Draud, Barry Goheen, and Phil Cox—all good high school players who suddenly looked like college All-Americans when they faced off against their home state team. Memorial Gym has seen enough of its share of banked in 3-pointers, last second buzzer beaters, miraculous comebacks, and coaching melt downs to convince even the most hardened cynic that something mystical is going on behind the curtains. Just last year, UK’s Jamaal Murray dropped 33 points on the Black and Gold, but the Cats still lost 74-62.
As many a SEC basketball fan knows, the actual court in Memorial Gym is slightly elevated. The team benches are located in the opposing end zones, leaving enough room along the sidelines for Kevin Stallings’ recently departed ego. The best of the 14,316 seats in the house are actually located in the second level balcony boxes overlooking the baskets. The media seating for today’s game is horrific—located so far from court level I feel like we’re still back in the Eastern time zone. I’ll need the Hubble to be able to see anything tonight. Furthermore, my view of the scoreboard is completely obscured by the lineup of NIT and NCAA participation banners hanging down right in front of my face. The complimentary chick-fil-a sandwich boxes for media members were surprisingly tasty though, however nothing like the home cookin’ the Cats are about to be served after tip-off.
Memorial Magic certainly lived up to its billing tonight. I went to a basketball game and a whistling contest broke out. The men in striped shirts tweeted 43 total fouls throughout the evening. De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk both picked up two quick fouls even before the first media timeout. Kentucky jumped out to a 9-0 lead, out shot, out rebounded, and had fewer turnovers than Vanderbilt, but still only led 45-41 at the half. Vanderbilt later took a 2-point lead early in the second half before UK went on an 8-0 spurt, survived a barrage of Commodore 3’s down the stretch, and barely held on for an 87-81 victory. Isaiah Briscoe and De’Aaron Fox led the Wildcats with 23 and 22 points respectively, including several clutch buckets to preserve the lead. When the final buzzer sounded, the numerous Cat fans in attendance breathed a collective sigh of relief. I looked down and realized I had my fingers crossed. Memorial Magic—trust me, it’s real!
This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications.