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Like Grandpa, Like Grandson

My grandson, Colby, loved getting a picture and autograph from coach John Calipari Wednesday in London. (Larry Vaught Photo)

LONDON — Taking my 10-year-old grandson, Colby, to London Wednesday for the autograph tour that Kentucky coach John Calipari put together with Kroger to benefit tornado victims in western Kentucky was a great reminder of just how popular Kentucky basketball remains.

Sure, Kentucky missed the 2021 NCAA Tournament and then went out in the first round of the 2022 NCAA but standing in line for 90 minutes waiting with my grandson so he could get photos with UK coaches and players along with Calipari’s autograph let  me interact with a lot of fans of all ages.

These fans have not lost faith in Calipari or the Cats. They believe Kentucky is headed for a banner year and also love the way he’s recruiting the 2023 class. Obviously, with North Laurel star Reed Sheppard already part of the 2023 class, fans here knew plenty about recruiting.

I watched one fan arrive with two basketballs for Calipari to sign when he heard a young boy’s mother tell him she was sorry she forgot to bring his basketball. The man gave the boy one of the basketballs he had just bought. No fanfare. No hidden motive. Just a man helping a young UK fan because he felt it was the right thing to do.

There was also a program for fans to sign. Calipari plans to use the rolled-up program at games again this year as a tribute to the late UK coach Joe B. Hall and watching fans sign the program — or explain to children what the program was all about — was touching.

Calipari was great with the fans, too. After he arrived he promised those in line he would stay to make sure everyone got an autograph and players Cason Wallace, Chris Livingston and Brennan Canada would also along with assistant coaches Orlando Antigua and KT Turner.

He kept his word just like he did Tuesday in Louisville when he stayed an extra hour signing autographs. Calipari and crew stayed about an extra hour again in London.

Wallace and Livingston were getting their first real look at the Big Blue Nation.

“You hear about Kentucky fans but seeing this today is unbelievable,” Wallace said.

He was smiling and joking with fans from start to finish.

“I love them,” he said.

The feeling is mutual for Rev. Griffin Ryan Phillips of London. She was there with her husband and 5-month-old daughter waiting in line for about 90 minutes. She joked she told her husband if the baby got fussy, he could take her home but she was staying. I believed her because a few years ago her honeymoon was a trip to see Kentucky play in the Citrus Bowl.

“No way was I missing this,” she said.

Same for Myles Bell of Danville, who came with his mother and aunt to get a basketball autographed for his Kentucky room. He’s a “special” UK fan who loves following the Cats and has written Calipari. The UK coach spotted him when he first arrived and brought him inside for the first autograph.

My grandson can be a bit impatient but he was perfect in the long line waiting to see the players and Calipari. He asked a lot of questions and also intently listened as fans talked with me. He really liked Antigua and Wallace — along with the 1978 and 2012 national championship trophies and Oscar Tshiebwe’s John Wooden Award from last season.

Kudos to Kroger, too, for great organization and keep the line moving smoothly and orderly. Kroger employees were all smiles and also handed out bottles of water to offset the heat.

But the best thing was seeing so many fans who either brought gift cards to be sent to western Kentucky tornado victims or who either made a cash donation or bought a gift card when they were in line. Calipari personally thanked each person who left a card or cash.

I’ve always been a believer that UK basketball needed to connect with fans in better ways and this is a perfect way to do that. It was a long day for Calipari, his assistants and his players — I would guess at least six hours for travel and time in London — but no one complained.

I also told Wallace that probably most of the folks at Kroger Wednesday would not have a chance to attend a game at Rupp Arena.

“And they still showed up like this?” Wallace said. “That means a lot and just shows how much love they have for us.”

Larry Vaught
Larry Vaught is a seven-time winner of the Kentucky Sportswriter of the Year award and has covered University of Kentucky sports since 1975. Larry now has a syndicated UK sports column appearing in 34 newspapers across the state as well as http://www.yoursportsedge.com/, and http://www.cameronmillsradio.com/. Larry also joins Mark Buerger and Anthony White on WLAP Sunday Morning Sports each week in Lexington as well as appearing each Tuesday with Tom Leach on The Leach Report.

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