Pam Baker: UK roundball ties bind the generations

April 14, 2014 

  • At issue: University of Kentucky men's basketball post-season run.

My earliest memories of University of Kentucky basketball are the sounds of a 1946 Philco radio (the kind with tubes) on a screened-in back porch with my dad during the early- to mid-1960s.

My dad, Hurley Mullins, was the first UK basketball fan I knew, making him legendary, if only to our family. I don't know how he came to love UK basketball. Perhaps it was the NCAA National Championship wins in 1948 and 1949.

My dad yelled, cheered and, yes, even armchair-coached during intense games when Cotton Nash, Larry Conley, Pat Riley and Louie Dampier were the iconic names in UK basketball. Adolph Rupp was coach; Caywood Ledford, the undisputed voice. The volume was cranked up so loud no distraction could compete.

Leaning close to that old Philco, dad would hold an ear to the speaker when poor reception interfered, catching such Ledford phrases as "puts it up and in," "got it" and "he shot that one from Paducah."

When the radio lost its reception at critical moments, dad would give it a hard smack, which almost never worked on the 17-year-old radio.

Apart from dad's hard work to provide for our family, UK basketball games were his passion. He derived pleasure from players he would never actually see play, but who, nevertheless, held us spellbound through Ledford's commentary.

I learned basketball etiquette from my dad around age 10. It was appropriate and encouraged to cheer, (the louder and more animated the better) but otherwise inappropriate (and met with swift correction) to interrupt with unrelated conversation. (There were no games that weren't "big games.")

Conversation was allowed briefly during a timeout, so long as game strategy remained the focus. An ice-cold 16-ounce glass bottle of cola was the beverage of choice, and shared with children who didn't breach game etiquette.

If a UK player missed a key shot at a critical moment, dad would throw his cap on the floor in exasperation. There were a few times, when UK trailed by a substantial margin, that I even saw him turn off the radio, protesting, "If they're not going to play, I'm not going to listen."

He almost always turned the radio back on to hear the final moments and score.

Losses were met by moments of silence when the outcome was just too painful to speak about, and always followed by an undetermined period of mourning. I realize that sounds overly dramatic, but a mood settled over our home, as if a death had occurred, for a day or two after a loss.

For my dad's competitive spirit, there were no options but a UK victory.

Even when games began to be televised, dad turned down the volume, preferring Ledford's commentary to the TV commentators whom he believed to be inferior and biased in favor of the opposing team.

Nobody, but nobody got to talk trash about University of Kentucky basketball. Furthermore, there was no second-choice team if UK couldn't claim the victory. It is fitting that I, his only daughter, born the year of one of UK's eight national championships, would become a first-generation college graduate from the University of Kentucky.

In the late 1990s, the final years of his life, my two children would make him an even prouder grandfather when they also became UK alumni.

A man who was born in 1912 and completed fourth grade, taught me to love UK in the 1960s, then taught that same love to my son and daughter in the 1980s. And so the legacy left by that UK basketball fan continues in our family, now five UK graduates strong and counting.

My dad's love of all things UK basketball spanned his lifetime. From the Hospice care unit in 1998, wearing his UK cap, the fan who was never able to attend a game in Memorial Coliseum or Rupp Arena, watched a televised UK basketball game just days before his death.

I share this story as a tribute to my dad's loyalty and devotion to UK. If he could only see from that great heavenly vantage point, perhaps he, Rupp and Ledford would all be smiling as the legacy continues with my granddaughter, now age 7.

She has been yelling "Go Cats" since she was barely able to speak. Game etiquette, however, is still a work in progress.

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