No doubt about it, Kentucky Basketball is going through some rough times. It’s more than just the 1 – 6 record, mind you. There’s a general apathy and groundswell of malaise surrounding the 2020 version of Big Blue Nation. Of course, die-hard fans still pay attention to every dribble and drive. But there’s not nearly the level of investment in the program there once was.
Let me explain.
While I was guest-hosting the radio show last week, I took a call from a listener named Mitchell Smith. Mitchell told me the story of how he and his brother, Charley, have been life-long UK sports fan. They’re typical die-hards bleeding blue. Charley missed his first UK Football home game in twenty-nine years this season due to the pandemic.
“Back when we were kids in the 60s, Charley sat by the radio and listened to Cawood Ledford call the games,” Mitchell explained to me. “For two years, when Dan Issel was a junior and senior, Charley kept the stats on a notepad of the games. He’s got handwritten stats for every game. I’ve got the whole folder for what he did.”
Mitchell shared the contents of that precious folder with me, and it brought back a flood of cherished memories. You see, I—like I’m sure countless other ten-year old boys—did the exact same thing Charley did. We weren’t quite old enough to play for our beloved Wildcats (we could barely watch them play since very few games were even on TV), but by gosh, we could listen to Cawood and chart every field goal, free throw, and rebound that he described. Glued to our transistor radios, we were as wholly invested in our Cats as we could possibly be.
And that’s why Kentucky Basketball resides at the pinnacle of the college basketball mountain. That’s why we’re set apart from other blue-blooded programs. It’s because of people like Mitchell and Charley—the foundation of a passionate fan base—who understand the importance and pride painstakingly generated through decades of excellence. There’s an ownership, kinship, and brotherhood they feel to the program that simply can’t be reproduced through this one-and-done era. When talking about love for your team, you can’t fake history or fabricate relationships.
As cued in as Coach Cal has been to the fan base in his dozen or so years at the helm, I’m still not quite sure he gets it.
“Our true fans—the fans that are really with these kids—keep cheering them on,” Calipari said after the Louisville loss. “You think they want to play like they’re playing and losing games like this? You’re crazy.”
Of course the players want to win, but the fans want it more. Regardless of where the state of the program currently stands, the fact remains that Kentucky Basketball has always held a treasured space in the hearts of people in the Commonwealth. Their love for their Wildcats existed long before John Calipari—and it’ll continue to exist long after he’s gone.
In fact, the stars of today are enjoying their lot only because of the merit and sacrifice of those who have gone before them. Without Dan Issel, Mike Pratt, and Mike Casey, there is no Brandon Boston, Terrence Clarke, or Isaiah Jackson. Without dedicated and loyal fans like Mitchell and Charley Smith, UK greats like Jack “Goose” Givens and Kenny “Sky” Walker become soon-to-be-forgotten footnotes in a dusty library journal.
The University of Kentucky is the program with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball for a reason. It’s because of the passion of the fan base. IT’S BECAUSE WE CARE!
“Let me tell you, the greatest thing about Kentucky is that you have a raging fan base,” Calipari admitted. “But when things are going south, you gotta be able to deal with that or you’re not going to have a raging fan base.”
WRONG! The fan base will always be there. They just need their coach to right the ship.