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Legendary Ky. basketball program still going strong

basketball unites kentuckians from all walks of life

Contributing writerSeptember 22, 2012 

Tell someone you're from Kentucky and they might ask you about the Kentucky Derby, bourbon or basketball. But within the borders of our commonwealth, from Pikeville to Paducah as Coach John Calipari likes to say, the single-greatest common denominator is the Kentucky Wildcats.

Walk down Main Street in any city in this state and it's highly likely that you could strike up a conversation about the Cats, especially in the wake of the program's eighth national college basketball championship, which the Cats won in April in New Orleans.

This passion dates back to the post-World War II era, when Kentucky's members of the Greatest Generation savored a glorious 10-year run for the Big Blue. From 1948-58, UK brought home four NCAA basketball titles and played in three New Year's Day bowl games in football, including an upset of No. 1-ranked Oklahoma in the 1951 Sugar Bowl (a feat that led that Kentucky team to be declared national champion many years later).

The football success waned after coach Paul "Bear" Bryant left town, but Adolph Rupp kept the roundball Cats rolling, leading to Rupp retiring in 1972 as the sport's all-time winningest coach.

The torch was passed to coach Joe B. Hall in 1973, and five other men have followed in what many will tell you is college basketball's most pressure-packed atmosphere. Five different coaches have won national championships with this program, attesting to the demands as well as the support of the Wildcat fan base.

It's something Calipari observed from afar as he rose through the coaching ranks, and once he was given the chance to drive that bus, he quickly got it up to top speed. Calipari's more than 1,000,000 followers on Twitter speak to the mutual love affair between the coach and the Big Blue Nation.

The program has had some episodes where it ran afoul of NCAA rules, and it was slow to integrate, but Kentucky basketball has always returned to prominence, spawning tremendous pride and loyalty through a state that lacks a professional sports franchise to embrace.

That passion is why every October, thousands of UK fans — many of whom would never get a ticket to an actual game — brave all kinds of weather to camp out for tickets to Big Blue Madness, the team's first official practice of the season.

Kentucky is college basketball's all-time winningest program, and in Calipari's first year, the program became the first to surpass the 2,000-win mark. This summer, Anthony Davis was part of the gold medal-winning U.S. Olympic basketball team in London.

Back in 1948, Team USA won gold in London with a staff that included Rupp and a team that featured five of his players, the two-time championship-winning group known as "The Fabulous Five."

Sixty-four years later, Kentucky basketball is still going strong.

Contact Tom Leach at Tomleachky.com

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