For Cats' fans, coaches and players, the celebration of championships 'never ends'

Whether the 1940s or 1998, fans, players and coaches relive the championships like they were yesterday

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comApril 2, 2011 

Jack Givens, Joe Hall, Jeff Sheppard and Vernon Hatton can all attest to it: Kentucky fans never stop celebrating NCAA championships.

"The thing about Kentucky is that the celebration never ends," said Sheppard, who was named the 1998 tournament's Most Outstanding Player following Kentucky's win over Utah.

"They still celebrate the '98 championship, the '96 championship ... the ones in the 1940s and '50s and the '70s. Hopefully we will have another one this year," said Sheppard.

Saturday's game against the University of Connecticut will be the first time UK has made it to the Final Four since 1998.

Givens, named the 1978 tournament's Most Outstanding Player, said fans approach him just about wherever he goes to talk about Kentucky's win that night over Duke.

"They recite moments during the game and things that were happening in their lives when we won the national championship. They talk about it like it was just yesterday," he said.

Take Dave Ashley. He was a member of the UK Pep Band in 1996 when the Wildcats beat Syracuse to win the NCAA tournament. Ashley remembers sitting with the band in the Meadowlands in New Jersey and watching Tony Delk shoot three-pointers. Ashley specifically remembers the seventh one.

"We were in the corner, watching him shoot from the side and waiting for it to go in the basket. We just knew when he hit that it was essentially over," Ashley recalled.

Memories are fresh for players and coaches, too. Sheppard remembers throngs of fans waiting at the hotel in San Antonio, thousands of people waiting at the airport in Lexington, people lining the route from the airport to High Street and thousands more waiting inside Rupp Arena.

While the players were seeing unparalleled expressions of adoration outside the team bus, Coach Tubby Smith was inside delivering a message, Sheppard said.

"He told us to make sure we were in class the next day. Even though we had won the championship, we had a responsibility in the classroom," Sheppard said Friday. "That was his last message. Enjoy this, but you better be in class in the morning. That was just a testimony to his character and integrity and what the student athlete is required to do at Kentucky."

Vernon Hatton, a member of the famous Fiddlin' Five who won the 1958 NCAA championship, recalled an incident that brought him down to earth in the moments after the final buzzer sounded in the game against Seattle, which was held in Louisville.

"Everybody ... was hollering and screaming and hugging," said Hatton. Kentucky's Gov. A.B. Happy Chandler was congratulating the players.

"The cheerleaders mobbed me ... hugging and kissing ... and I heard this little voice say, 'Vernon come on out of there ... Get away from all of those girls."

Hatton said it was his wife, Suzanne, whom he had married just months before.

"I said, 'Honey, for gosh sake's, I just won the NCAA championship,'" said Hatton.

Former Coach Joe B. Hall remembered that after the 1978 win over Duke in St. Louis, the team headed for a private plane at the airport.

"We were anxious to get back to Lexington. That's all we could think about. Let's get home. Our party, all in buses, went out to the airport to board the airplane," Hall said.

But airport officials would not tell them where the plane was parked, he said.

"We couldn't find the airplane. The bus just sat there in front of the gates to the airport. It seemed like hours. So I got out of the bus and walked through the private gate and walked the tarmac of the airport and found our plane."

The team was two hours late getting back to Blue Grass Airport.

"The airport was a madhouse. People were jammed in ... and they had been waiting," Hall said.

He and the players were led into the airport through a private entrance and assembled on a balcony overlooking the thousands of fans in the lobby.

"There was a great look on everyone's face of complete joy. It was an unbelievable welcome home," Hall said. "I'll never forget it."

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3409.

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