Monday, March 23, 2009

THE KENTUCKY BASKETBALL EXPERIENCE

BY SCOTT MORGANROTH
LEXINGTON, KY—As I watched FAU basketball media relations director Nick Mirkovich look at the numerous banners and listen to the passionate crowd of 24,018 at Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY, during FAU’s Dec 27 meeting against the Kentucky Wildcats, it was easy to tell by his body language that he was in awe about what he was experiencing.
After the game UK media relations Director DeWayne Peevy had a packed house in the media center with press conferences from FAU’s Mike Jarvis and Kentucky’s Billy Gillispie along with several players.
What Mirkovich would find out was “Kentucky Basketball” is more than a sporting event, it’s a way of life. In 104 seasons, UK’s record going into this year was 1,966 - 621 - 1.
When I asked Mirkovich if he had ever heard of former Wildcats coach Joe B. Hall, he politely said no. Hall was the coach who followed Adolph Rupp. Rupp coached the Wildcats from 1931-1972 and in 42 seasons compiled an 876-190 record for an .822 winning percentage and four national championships.
Instead of being overwhelmed following a legend, Hall embraced the challenge and adding a legacy of his own. Hall guided the Wildcats from 1973-85 and compiled a 297-100 mark, 748 winning percentage and one national title. A few of the players on his championship team include Jack Givens, Kyle Macy, and Rick Robey. Florida State University head basketball coach Leonard Hamilton was an assistant coach for the Wildcats. Kentucky was 30-2 during the 1977-78 season and broke a 20-year championship drought.
Hall’s name hangs in the rafters at Rupp Arena and he is a beloved figure as fans take photos with him. He is very accessible to all media especially out of town writers because he relishes the opportunity to promote UK’s program nationally.
During half-time of Kentucky’s 76-69 win over FAU, Hall took the time in this Observer interview to explain what it’s like to be a part of college basketball’s all-time winningest program which has won seven national titles.
Q: How do you describe Kentucky basketball?
A: It’s a long history of love for the game that started in the mountains of Kentucky. A team from Ashland won the 1928 national tournament and that sparked a great interest in basketball and then Coach Rupp came to Kentucky in 1930, won some conference championships, then took New York by storm winning three national championships in a four-year span. It took a very early place in the fans of Kentucky and a source of pride for the excellence that their players performed at and it grew into being a passion for the sport of the Bluegrass. It has continued to grow with success and the fans are constant as you can tell. What is a Saturday night during Christmas and New Years, the fans are packed and that’s with the students gone? That means a lot of non ticket holders have an opportunity to buy tickets. It’s a great thing and something the people of Kentucky can point at with pride. It’s a sustaining type of experience for those residents of the state.
Q: What’s it like to lead your basketball team in front of 24,000 coaches in the stands watching every move you make?
A: For one thing, they insist on perfection. They want a winner and they’re going to support you winner or not but they’re going to express their disdain if you’re not producing the way Kentucky should produce. That’s good. Their expectations are very high and that carries over to the coaches and players. There aren’t many programs that can say they have four different coaches that have won national championships. Rick (Pitino) and Tubby (Smith) did when they followed me and that speaks well of the fans here and the support that the program gets.
Q: What was it like for you to follow Rupp?
A: It’s inexpressible! I don’t think I can describe it in words as to what it was like to inherit this program that was at such a peak. The good part about it was Coach Rupp built the foundation on solid stone. He left a tradition wasn’t that difficult to continue. I appreciated the opportunity I had to be in his footsteps and take advantage of all that support here at Kentucky. Being the winningest program in college basketball means something, is a tradition we have to uphold and the fans are going to insist that it continues.
Scott Morganroth can be reached at Scottsports33@aol.com

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