By J.R. Simpson
I don’t remember the exact game that we were listening to that night, as I sat on my grandfather’s carport, listening to the soothing sounds of Cawood Ledford’s voice describing every aspect of the University of Kentucky Men’s basketball game playing on the radio. It was 1984 and I was six years old and remember Cawood describing every move, from crisp passes by Ed Davender, to the thunderous dunks by Kenny “Sky” Walker, in great detail. His voice was mesmerizing and his knowledge of the game is still unmatched in my mind. What made that evening so memorable in my mind was not just Cawood’s call of the game, but the sharing of the moment with my grandfather, who I called “Pap” (short for Papaw). Sitting outside, under the cover of the carport, side by side with Pap, with the sound of Cawood coming from the radio was everything I could have ever wanted. It is one of my first memories of Kentucky basketball and one of my favorite memories with Pap. Kentucky had a good season that year and, had it not been for a cheap shot by Chris Mullin, we might have made the Final Four. Alas, it was not to be that year.
A few years later, in the summer of 1988, I got the opportunity to meet several UK basketball players, as that year’s seniors made their annual trek across the Bluegrass on their exhibition tour. U.K. seniors Rob Lock, Winston Bennett, Ed Davender and Cedric Jenkins joined alumni Jack “Goose” Givens and others to put on an exhibition at James A. Cawood High School. Rex Chapman, who had declared early for the NBA, was supposed to have attended, but bowed out for a workout for an NBA team. I distinctly remember these events because it was the first time I had gone somewhere fun with my new stepdad. He and I did not get along initially, but we shared two loves: my mom and Kentucky basketball. We had a great time that night. I got several autographs that night and thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him. From that point on, and forever more, I was a die-hard Kentucky basketball fan.
Fast forward to March 28, 1992. I was laying in my living room floor watching the East Regional Final with my stepdad, my mom and my little brother Michael. He was five years old and was well on his way to becoming a card carrying member of the Big Blue Nation. As the game ebbed and flowed, Duke leading and Kentucky making runs, I felt like something huge was going to happen. I felt like we were going to win and make the Final Four for the first time since we came off of probation. Little did I know my intuition was correct, but in the worst way. When Christian Laettner stomped on Aminu Timberlake, my stepdad went nuts, yelling at the television. I could not believe that they did not throw him out and later realized how big that non-call was for Kentucky. As Deron Feldhaus put back the John Pelphrey Miss to tie the game with 33.6 seconds left, I was hopeful we would win. As the teams traded baskets in the overtime, I grew more nervous. That was until Sean Woods hit the driving layup to put Kentucky ahead 103-102. I was ecstatic, running up and down the hall yelling. My stepdad gave me the cautionary warning, “they still have time”. I never dreamed that the events of the next 2.1 seconds would be replayed ad nauseam for the next 25 years, every March. I witnessed “The Shot” and, while the results were terrible, the bonds of Kentucky basketball grew stronger with me, my stepdad and my brother. From that point, we watched most Kentucky basketball games together. From the 1993 Final Four against the Fab Five, to the 1996 and 1998 National Title games, we were always watching together. Me and my loud cheering, my stepdad and his often pessimistic views (particularly in the Tubby years) and my brother asking a million questions, gleaning every piece of information he could about every player and game he could. I got married in 1999 and we didn’t watch as many games together after that. We would get together as much as possible, but time has a way of changing your routine. Never was that more true than during the 2011-2012 season.
Going into the season, we knew that the team that Coach Cal had assembled was a special one. The team, with a freshman class of Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marquis Teague and Kyle Wiltjer, mixed with veterans Darius Miller, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, was loaded with talent and potential. As the year progressed, our excitement continued to build. That was tempered, however, by the discovery that my mother had colon cancer. The hardest thing I have ever had to do was try to enjoy this magical season, knowing that my mother was facing a terminal diagnosis. As the Wildcats won game after game, my mom got sicker and sicker. My mom passed away on March 7, 2012. A week later the NCAA Tournament began. The tournament and the championship run that Kentucky made helped me to take my mind off of the pain that I was feeling with the loss of my mother. The greatest moment of that difficult time was the trip that me, my brother, my son and my cousin made to New Orleans to watch the Wildcats win their eighth National Championship in the Superdome. It is one of my favorite memories to this day.
I will never forget all of the moments and memories I have that are tied to Kentucky basketball. A line from one of my favorite books, Jesse Stuart’s The Thread That Runs So True, is a folk song lyric:
“The needle’s eye does supply, The thread that runs so true”
To me, Kentucky Basketball is that thread for not only me, but for most Kentuckians. It is a topic that we can all discuss. It is a source of pride, as we have enjoyed consistent sustained success. We live, eat and breathe Kentucky basketball and all things associated with it. Many of us are die hard Kentucky fans in every sport. Others only care to follow the basketball team and that’s okay. All I ask is know the roster, scout the schedule before the season starts, never boo our boys (coaches ARE fair game) and cheer loud! Go Cats!
Don’t forget to follow @ukfansallday on Twitter and Facebook!