Milestone belongs to Cats past and present

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 22, 2009 

The journey began Feb. 18, 1903.

Win No. 1 for the Kentucky Wildcats basketball program came by one, 11-10, over the always formidable Lexington YMCA.

On Monday night, the fascinating journey that is Kentucky basketball reached 2,000 wins first — before any other college hoops program — with an 88-44 obliteration of Drexel.

"This is for the greatest fans in the history of college basketball," UK Coach John Calipari said.

What a trek UK2K has been.

Win No. 108 (1921) came when Bill King's free throw with no time left gave Kentucky its first major tournament championship, 20-19, over Georgia in the finals of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association tournament.

Win No. 489 (1946) occurred when a freshman from Louisville walked to the foul line in Madison Square Garden with his hands shaking from nerves and UK's first national tournament title hanging in the balance. Ralph Beard's foul shot beat Rhode Island, 46-45, and made Kentucky champions of the NIT.

Wins No. 557 (1948), 591 (1949), 648 (1951), 791 (1958), 1,216 (1978), 1,650 (1996) and 1,720 (1998) will always have resonance through the ages — each having made Kentucky an NCAA champion.

A series of coaching luminaries are most responsible for UK reaching 2,000 first.

Joe B. Hall completed the full racial integration of UK basketball and contributed 297 wins. Rick Pitino took Kentucky from one of its bleakest periods and returned it to national prominence while adding 219 victories.

Tubby Smith represented the commonwealth for a decade with unquestioned class, his mere presence as an African-American head coach a statement of the state's (and the South's) social progress. He delivered 263 wins.

Calipari, the first-year UK coach, says it was on his second day on the job when he began plotting. The goal: Get Kentucky to the 12 wins it needed to reach 2,000 before North Carolina could get to the 16 it required.

In his 12th game as top Cat, Cal delivered with maximum efficiency.

And, of course, there was Adolph Rupp. All the irascible Baron did for the cause of UK2K was produce 876 of the wins.

"A lot of the credit goes not only to the victories that Coach Rupp achieved but the foundation he laid for Kentucky basketball," says his successor, Joe B. Hall. "He made it easier for me ... and the coaches that followed me all benefitted from the aura that surrounds Kentucky basketball. Coach Rupp built that."

The journey to 2K has featured moments around which generations of Kentuckians have spaced their lives.

Win No. 771 (1957) came when a Kentucky guard, Vernon Hatton, hit a halfcourt shot as overtime expired to force Temple into a second OT. UK went on to win in three overtimes and, to this day, Hatton's heave might be the most famous shot in Kentucky history.

Win No. 1,039 (1970) was memorable in a far more significant way. When Kentucky beat Northwestern, its starting center was Tom Payne — the first African-American ever to wear the Kentucky basketball uniform.

It takes players to win games, of course, and the road to 2,000 was paved by 47 Wildcats who earned All-America honors, from Basil Hayden in 1921 to Jodie Meeks in 2009.

Yet UK2K is not just about the great players who have worn Wildcats blue.

"From 1903, every player who ever played for Kentucky has a part in this," says ex-UK guard and second-generation Wildcat Cameron Mills. "This is about the players winning the games 11-10 in the 1920s. It's about the Fabulous Five and all the great players in the 1940s and '50s. It's about my dad (Terry) and the teams in the 1960s. It's about my era (the late 1990s), and it's about the guys now. That's what makes this so cool. It's everybody's."

Amid all the winning, the road to 2,000 has featured heartbreak. The Runts fell short. In a national title-game duel of dynasties, the 1975 Cats couldn't beat UCLA. That dag-blasted Laettner hit that shot.

There's been heartache, too. Point-shaving. A year of NCAA suspension. Allegations of $50 handshakes. That infamous Emery Air Freight package.

Still, in so many ways, Kentucky basketball and its trek to 2,000 wins have been the glue that (for most) has united our often-splintered state.

"The fans are the ones I've heard talking about this," Kentucky forward Darius Miller says of UK2K. "They're the ones who told me about it, really. (Two-thousand wins) means a lot to them."

So what a thrill ride UK2K has been.

In Win No. 1,139 (1975), Kentucky defeated an unbeaten Indiana with a Final Four berth at stake. Win No. 1,580 (1994) saw the Wildcats victorious in a game in which they trailed by 31 points — in the second half.

Win No. 1,979 (2009) featured a Kentucky player, Meeks, scoring more points (54) in one game than a UK Wildcat ever had.

And Win No. 2000 (2009) started with fabulous freshmen DeMarcus Cousins (18 points, 13 rebounds) and John Wall (16 points, seven assists) producing wows throughout Rupp Arena.

It ended with a blizzard of blue and white confetti and Adolph Rupp Jr. — Herky — taking the microphone in the arena named for his dad

"My father would be so proud," Rupp said.

UK2K being a milestone and not a finish line, Kentucky goes for Win No. 2,001 Wednesday against Long Beach State.

North Carolina and Kansas be warned: The race to 3,000 is on.

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