UK basketball notebook: Matt Roark camps out to experience UK's Big Blue Madness

Herald-Leader Staff WriterSeptember 22, 2012 

From big man on campus to one of hundreds of anonymous fans participating in Kentucky basketball's annual Occupy Memorial Coliseum campout.

That's the improbable journey completed by Matt Roark this weekend.

Last fall, he became a UK football folk hero by leading the Cats to a 10-7 victory over Tennessee. Not only did Kentucky end a 26-game losing streak in the series, Roark played the starring role as a wide receiver who moved to quarterback when injuries sidelined starter Maxwell Smith and backup Morgan Newton.

That glory seemed far removed last week as Roark shared a four-tent setup with 14 friends. Wearing a gray hoodie, Roark emerged from the nylon landscape Friday night to answer a few questions about then and now.

"I slept one night in the tent," he said. "Last night I didn't sleep. I was just up all night talking to all these fans."

Roark became something of a celebrity in the area near his tent. He set up just to the right of the Coliseum's front doors.

"Everybody's got a million questions for me," he said. "I don't blow off anyone's question because I know it means something to them and I can see how they feel about the team."

Question One must be why? Why did Roark camp out for Big Blue Madness tickets?

One of his roommates, Jeremy Jones, had the idea.

"He didn't want to do it," Jones said. "I told him, it's an experience you should experience at least once."

Roark had a sense of what he'd missed. UK athletes go to academic tutoring sessions in the Coliseum. For those sessions, Roark passed the tents this time of year. He saw people playing cornhole or passing a football. They celebrated the return of college basketball.

"It was just fun," he said. "I wanted to be a part of it for once. Test it out."

Though football provided unforgettable thrills and experiences, it also took away time that could be spent being a fun-seeking college student.

"I kind of felt deprived of a lot of stuff we didn't get to do in college because of football," said Roark, who also expressed gratitude for what football brought to his life. He returned to Lexington after being cut by the New England Patriots in July. He continues to work out in hopes an NFL team will show interest.

Before UK's football game against Western Kentucky last weekend, Roark participated in tailgating for the first time. "Pretty cool experience," he said of the traditional college football pre-game communion rite.

Roark and friends arrived at the Coliseum at 5 a.m. Wednesday. Or two hours before fans raced to get prime camping spots.

"I didn't really hear them say 'Go' because I wasn't paying attention," Roark said in downplaying the idea that his speed enabled him to get a good spot for his tent. "Two guys took off running and I just got right up behind them. All three of us leaped this (chain) fence simultaneously."

Roark spread out his tent, then lay down on his stomach to claim the spot.

In response to a reporter's question, Roark acknowledged that UK football players can see how fans put their basketball brethren on a higher pedestal.

"You obviously see someone being treated better than you," he said. "Then naturally the (instinct) is to be jealous. I don't look at it like that. I don't really care.

"I'm not the kind of person that likes attention."

Roark blended in with the campers as best he could. Still, he signed autographs and posed for pictures.

He plans to attend Big Blue Madness in Rupp Arena, where he'll be harboring a fanlike desire.

"I want to see a dunk contest," Roark said.

To which, Jones added, "Put that in the paper. We want to see a dunk contest."

Adolescent Blue

Austin Miller proves there should be a growth chart placed outside Memorial Coliseum during the campout for Big Blue Madness tickets.

His parents, Jeff and Elizabeth Miller, first took Miller to the campout when he was 3 months old. Hence the nickname Baby Blue.

They've camped out every year since.

Miller is now 13. So make that Adolescent Blue. His favorite player? Alex Poythress. "He seems like a cool guy," Miller said.

Kentucky Effect

To all the recent criticism of Billy Gillispie's coaching approach, Tom Penders added a novel thought: What does it say about a coach who does not succeed at Kentucky?

"If you can screw up the Kentucky job, you have to stay up all hours of the night and try very hard," Penders said.

Then perhaps realizing what he was saying, Penders added, "Not cutting down Cal (John Calipari). He's a helluva coach."

Just a glance at the building jobs Calipari did at UMass (UMass?) and Memphis should dissuade anyone from thinking his success here is merely a reflection of UK basketball.

Back to Kentucky?

For the past 11 seasons, former UK player Oliver Simmons has been a high school coach in the Orlando area. He said he'd like to continue his coaching career in Kentucky.

It surely pains those who recall Simmons' departure from UK. With reporters allowed to watch from a practice sideline, then-UK Coach Rick Pitino ordered Simmons to run several extra sprints.

When asked if he was pushed into transferring, Simmons said, "I wouldn't say pushed. As a 19-year-old, I felt unwanted."

Simmons sounded wistful as he sat in Rupp Arena before the charity games and recalled his time as a UK player.

"I was looking for playing time," he said. "I still regret the decision (to transfer). This was a dream for me."

Simmons lived in Lexington from ages 5 through 9.

Stay in Rupp

The debate about whether to reinvent Rupp Arena, as Lexington Mayor Jim Gray phrases it, or build a new arena, as UK is believed to prefer (although the school is careful never to say so) occupied minds last year. But not much has been said on the issue lately.

So — surprise — Oliver Simmons volunteered an opinion: UK should continue to play in Rupp Arena.

"I don't care how fancy a new arena might be," he said. "This place has so much history."

Back to school?

Antoine Walker remains interested in joining the coaching profession.

But that means he'll have to return to school to complete classwork for a degree. Of course, Walker left for the NBA after his sophomore year.

At age 36, he finds a return to the classroom daunting.

"It'll be tough," Walker said. "Real tough."

Then he added, "It's something I'll definitely have to think about."

Arm fake lives

Erik Daniels, one of the most entertaining and crafty UK players in the last 30 years, attended the charity game with his 5-year-old son, Erik Jr.

UK did not invite him to play in the alumni game. Daniels graciously noted that UK's many former stars meant limited invitations.

The good news is that Daniels continues to put the old-school arm fake to good use. It is still tricking defenders, said Daniels, who has played the last three seasons in Italy.

DNP

Injury, or concern about a possible injury, caused two former UK players to attend but not play in the charity game last weekend.

Josh Harrellson said the NBA team he hoped to join had asked him not to play. The team was concerned about the risk of injury.

"That's a good sign," said Harrellson, who signed with the Heat days later. "Maybe they see me as a valuable asset."

Terrence Jones said he did not play in the charity game because of a rib injury.

Charity vs. discount

Fan Brenda Wright, who grew up in Prestonsburg and now lives in Bardstown, volunteered that she paid $100 for a ticket to the charity game last weekend.

She didn't mind that John Calipari discounted ticket prices in an effort to boost attendance.

"That's fine with me," she said. "I'm all about charity and helping your neighbor."

Pride factor

Although the games served as a fund-raiser for charity, the former UK players did not check their egos at the door.

The first game saw the players make several attempts to dunk. When asked if dunking represented a matter of pride to the players, Wayne Turner's face took on a knowing look as he nodded.

Tony Delk, who looked fit enough to play in a real game, said the former UK players prepared for the charity event.

"Don't let them fool you," he said. "A lot of guys got in shape. They don't want to come back and embarrass themselves."

No big blues

Martin County deputy sheriffs Justin Cline and Wes Horn — who in their off time perform in a group called Possum Gravy — enlivened the campout for Big Blue Madness tickets with their music.

When asked if they wrote songs, perhaps, something like the John Calipari Blues, Horn noted, "John Calipari doesn't have the blues."

Lodge leftovers

Leftovers from last week's ceremony involving a sculpture outside the new Wildcat Coal Lodge:

■ The sculptor who made the Joe B. Hall statue is a native of Michigan. J Brett Grill grew up in Grand Rapids, the hometown of one of his previous sculpting subjects: former president Gerald R. Ford.

Grill earned a bachelor's degree in sculpture from the University of Michigan and a master's degree in painting from the New York Academy of Art.

Grill, 33, is an assistant professor and director of graduate studies at the University of Missouri.

■ UK spokesman Jay Blanton noted that the old lodge is probably fated for the wrecking ball. As part of a deal UK is negotiating with private developer EdR, the old lodge would be demolished, Blanton wrote in an email. Another residence hall would be built on that site.

'Little things'

After top 25 prospect Robert Hubbs III committed to Tennessee last week, his father complimented the recruiting job done by UT Coach Cuonzo Martin.

"It was the little things (Martin) did," Robert Hubbs II told The Knoxville News-Sentinel. "He sent my wife and my mother a handwritten Mother's Day card. The little things you do catch the eyes of a lot of people and it really caught my son's eyes."

Hubbs picked Tennessee over Duke, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Auburn, his father told the News-Sentinel.

"I asked him, 'What about Kentucky? You haven't visited yet,'" Hubbs Sr. said. "He said, 'Dad, I love Tennessee.'"

The elder Hubbs said that Martin emphasized how UT would depend on his son for scoring.

"I commend Coach Martin for the job he did recruiting my son. Out of all the coaches he's done by far the best job. He's been honest with us and he showed true concern. He's followed him in and out. I'm not saying other coaches didn't say the right thing, but Martin did the most homework."

Happy birthday

To Matt Heissenbuttel. He turns 31 on Monday. ... To Rodrick Rhodes. He turns 39 on Monday. ... To Jared Carter. He turned 26 on Thursday. ... To Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He turns 19 on Wednesday. ... To Cuonzo Martin. The Tennessee coach turns 41 today.

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: jtipton@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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