More than just a number

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistDecember 23, 2009 

It's just a number.

Like seven NCAA Tournament titles is just a number.

Like 43 SEC basketball titles is just a number.

Like 13 Final Four appearances is just a number.

Like Adolph Rupp's 876 victories is just a number.

Yeah, it's just a number all right. In a game that is marked by numbers, from points to turnovers to rebounds to assists, the greatest number is the number of victories.

"If it doesn't matter who wins," The Baron of Basketball, Mr. Rupp himself, said so famously so many years ago, "then why do they have a scoreboard?"

So victories matter, and 2,000 victories matter, and the race to 2,000 victories matters, mainly because: It's best to be first.

Kentucky got there first.

Not North Carolina, with its "Carolina Way." Not Kansas, with its Allen Fieldhouse and it's "Rock Chalk Jayhawk." Not Duke, with Mike Krzyzewski, or UCLA, with its 11 national titles.

Not that there is anything wrong with those programs — great programs, all.

In fact, what heightens the accomplishment of Kentucky's 2,000 victories is just which programs the Cats had to hold off for the title.

In this case, what the numbers are about is history. Prolonged history. We're talking about success over a long period of time, which is why Kentucky's biggest challengers for the honor were the biggest names in the game, names that are intertwined.

North Carolina is second on the all-time list, followed by Kansas. (Duke is fourth, but the Blue Devils are more than 100 wins behind the Cats).

Rupp, the man responsible for making Kentucky basketball what it is today, who coached 44 percent of those 2,000 victories, played for the great Phog Allen at Kansas before migrating to Lexington.

John Calipari, the current Kentucky coach, got his first coaching job as an assistant to Ted Owens and then Larry Brown at Kansas.

Roy Williams, the North Carolina head coach, left his job as an assistant to Dean Smith at UNC to become head coach at Kansas, before returning to head the program in Chapel Hill.

And where did Dean Smith start out? He was born in Kansas and played basketball at Kansas University.

And, oh yeah, the man who invented the game, Dr. James Naismith, he coached at Kansas.

But what Naismith invented, Rupp took to the next level. He introduced the fast break, for one thing. His was racehorse basketball, a style that was exciting, built on precision and teamwork — watch some old tape of that 1948 Fabulous Five team and try to come up with a better pure passing team.

And, ultimately, Kentucky fans came to expect what Rupp first demanded — victory.

It's why they were so hard on Joe B. Hall, despite his national title and three Final Fours.

It's why they grew dissatisfied with Tubby Smith, who after winning the national title in 1998 went nine more seasons without a Final Four berth.

Are the expectations unrealistic? Of course they're unrealistic. In a poor state with various problems, is there too much emphasis put on whether the flagship university wins a recreational game? Of course there's too much emphasis.

But that's the way it is. And if that's the way it is, if victories matter — and they do — then Kentucky wanted to get to 2,000 wins first.

See, statistics are for losers, so the old saying goes, except when they point out that you're a winner.

The number 2,000 isn't just a milestone, or an accomplishment, or even a number.

It's history.

And history is what matters.

Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or jclay@herald-leader.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.

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