UK fans set up camp, lobby for Kanter

jtipton@herald-leader.comSeptember 30, 2010 

  • Upcoming UK events

    In Rupp Arena

    Oct. 15: Big Blue Madness, 7:30 p.m.

    Oct. 26: Blue-White Game,7 p.m.

    Nov. 1: Exhibition game vs. Pikeville, 7 p.m.

Kentucky fan Jimmy Thacker added a poetic touch to the "Free Enes" sentiment coursing through the quick-forming line waiting for Saturday's ticket distribution to Big Blue Madness.

Of course, Enes is Enes Kanter, the presumed standout big man the University of Kentucky will plug into its depleted front line this coming basketball season and the subject of a well-chronicled NCAA review of his eligibility status.

One lonely "Free Enes" sign leaned against a tree behind the tents that quickly sprung up in front of Memorial Coliseum on Wednesday morning. At 9 a.m., two hours after UK officials permitted fans to start setting up, the line of tents stretched about three-quarters of the way around the building. Other signs, simply reading "Free" and "Enes" were sprinkled more visibly in the nylon jungle.

Thacker sat in a folding chair at a far corner of the line. Besides putting up a tent, he hung a blue sign on the back fence bordering the basketball courts behind Memorial Coliseum. The sign required more attention than a passing glance. It read:

"Vargas, Poole, Lamb, Jones & Knight."

"Big Blue Nation's future is bright!

"NCAA, have u seen us?

"Just one thing missing ... Free our Enes!!"

When asked why the third line questioned whether the NCAA was aware of the Kentucky team, Thacker said, "It's hard to come up with something that rhymes with Enes."

Oh, it was poetry.

"Let them know we have a great team," Thacker said of his other motive. "If we have him (Kanter), we'll be even better."

A few tents away, three friends sat behind a white bedsheet with a more direct message printed in blue letters: "Free Enes."

"That seems to be the theme surrounding the city and the state," said one of the friends, Matt Elswick, 25. "Everybody is pulling together behind this one little motto."

At the front of the line, out of sight from the poetry and bedsheet, the fans spoke of how important they viewed the NCAA declaring Kanter eligible.

"A lot will rest on whether we get Kanter," said Rick Brizendine, a native of Beaver Dam (between Owensboro and Bowling Green) in line for Madness tickets for a 25th year.

Fans waiting for Madness tickets were not overly optimistic that the NCAA will declare Kanter eligible. Stories of the Turkish team Fenerbahce Ulker paying Kanter and his family as much as $150,000 in benefits over three years, and prep school coaches seeing Kanter as a professional dampened hope.

"I wasn't worried till about a month and a half ago," said Eric Johnston, one of the fans behind the "Free Enes" bedsheet. "I think he might serve a little suspension, but not the whole year."

Perhaps, but talking to fans suggested the "Free Enes" signs signaled anxiety.

"I was more hopeful before the summer," Thacker said. "It's not looking good. I'd say 50-50."

Stacy Neff, who drove from Harlan on Tuesday to get in line and plans a round trip Thursday to get her 5-year-old son, Dalton, expressed faith in UK Coach John Calipari.

"Coach Cal is a good enough coach, if (Kanter) doesn't get to play, hopefully it won't make that much of a difference," she said.

If the NCAA considers Kanter a professional, and thus ineligible, UK will have to decide whether to exhaust the appeals process or accept that judgment and plan for an Enes-free future.

"The fans want them to fight it," UK student Jordan Burton said. "It's important to support your coach."

At the self-titled "Camp John Wall," which the sign said was "located in Jon's Hood," UK student Garrett Ising saw a clear, simple and catchy key to the Wildcats' upcoming season.

"They need to free Enes," he said.

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