Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wildcat Memories: a Review

As the NCAA men's basketball season roars into our winter consciousness, I have a confession to make:  I am from Kentucky, have always lived in Kentucky, yet, I was not born into the Big Blue Nation of UK basketball. As a child, I sat with my sisters and father on Saturdays in front of the TV and dutifully rooted for the UC Bearcats. My dad was not really much of a sports fan, but he did enjoy college basketball, the Cincinnati Reds, and Big Time Wrestling. So, when those events were televised, we often gathered together in front of our black and white television, equipped with our own Jiffy Pop popcorn. We had no idea that nearly all of our rural neighbors were listening to Cawood Ledford on transistor radios, or standing on their rooftops to get their antennae to pick up the faint and faraway signals from Lexington.

I married into the phenomenon known now as The Big Blue Nation. You could not enter my father-in-law's house without the big console TV tuned in to the Wildcats. And forget about listening to whatever the network color commentators might have to say about the game. True blue fans of UK basketball--at that time--had their radios cranked up to hear the play-by-play from Cawood Ledford.  Never mind that the sound seldom matched the picture. We sometimes heard that the Wildcats had scored way before the basketball on the screen circled the rim and dropped through the net.  "This is the way true fans experience the game," explained my husband, "unless they are lucky enough to get tickets."

Because I know and love many members of the Big Blue Nation, I found Doug Brunk's Wildcat Memories : Inside Stories from Kentucky Basketball Greats, both informative and inspiring. Published in August by University Press of Kentucky, the narrative informs because Brunk organizes his material chronologically, tracing the development of the UK program to the very roots of basketball itself through the mentoring of storied coach, Adolph Rupp by his own coach at Kansas, Dr. Forrest C. Allen and Dr.James Naismith, the inventor of the game. But what sets this book apart from others on UK's winning program is the emphasis on inspiration.  Each interview subject reveals the people who influenced them the most while they played, coached, or worked for Kentucky basketball.  Some credited coaches, other players, secretaries, business leaders, pastors, equipment managers, governors, and coaches' wives. But all of them discussed the influence of the fans and the personal connection those UK fans have to the team. 

All-SEC forward MIke Pratt tries to sum up why UK fans travel the globe, selling out arenas and cheering their team wherever they play with this statement,  "Kentucky is a small state. It doesn't have  a professional baseball team or a professional  football team." Pratt  then continues to emphasize the devotion of the fans with this story, "The first time I realized how important basketball was to Kentuckians was during my freshman year when we traveled to Louisville to play at Freedom Hall. The varsity team went out and practiced, and then our freshman team went out and practiced--a shoot around  There were twelve thousand people there to watch that day's shoot around."

Says former coach, Joe B. Hall of the fans, "Kentucky is the Commonwealth's team, and the support goes from border to border."

"They're very knowledgeable, passionate fans," adds Kevin Grevey.

"The fans refer to themselves as 'we.' They say things like 'We're not rebounding the ball enough,'" says Jeff Sheppard. "They may live in Pikeville and have nothing to do with rebounding during a game going on at Rupp Arena in downtown Lexington, but they consider themselves a part of the program. They are." 

Each chapter of Wildcat Memories begins with important statistics to satisfy the serious basketball aficionado, but continues with first person stories of character, triumph, and connection that will draw in those readers who care more about the human factors that create this special basketball program.  Says Dan Issel in the foreword, "Once Doug emphasized that he was after stories about the people who impacted me during my time playing at UK, that got my interest. I know of no other book that has taken this approach and presented it in a format of firsthand reflections. We are all shaped and influenced by others in some way."

I personally enjoyed all the stories about equipment manager, Bill Keightly, also known as Mr. Wildcat, who served the program for 48 years. And I totally love that I can now put faces and stories to names like Cotton Nash, Jack "Goose" Givens, and Johnny Cox of the Johnny Cox All-Star Highway.

Heart-wrenching, yet inspiring is Derek Anderson's story about being on his own from age 11. He credits the UK program as being the first real family he ever had.

As a newbie UK fan, I often sat around the Schultz table at the holidays and heard epic stories about "Rupp's Runts," Larry Conley, and Pat Riley. I joined the club somewhere around Joe B. Hall and have been a serious fan all through the days of Eddie Sutton, Billy Gillispie, Rick Pitino, Tubby Smith and Coach Cal.  Every season we start anew with high hopes to make new memories.  We won't be in Rupp Arena working on rebounding, but we will be parked in front of our TVs and possibly our laptops and phones, tuning in our team. Or, we'll make a trip to one of their road games part of our family vacation. So, love us. Understand us. Forgive us. We adore our Wildcats. We cherish our Wildcat Memories. Christmas is coming. A fan near you could really appreciate Doug Brunk's fine book.

(Listen to the review at this link)
This review aired on on November28, 2014.

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