College or high school, hoops reign supreme
By Mark Story | firstname.lastname@example.org
They can argue all they want in North Carolina, Indiana and Kansas. In Kentucky, we know there is no other state where basketball matters more than here.
After all, does any other place attract 23,000 fans for a hoops practice?
To understand the commonwealth's love affair with with putting an orange ball through a round hoop, you have to know two things about Kentucky history.
In the early part of the 20th century, before school consolidation changed life in our state forever, almost every small town had its own high school.
Most of those schools were too tiny to field a football team.
"In those small communities, basketball (games) served as the gathering place for people, the enjoyment for people," says Joe B. Hall, the former University of Kentucky head basketball coach. "I think that's why basketball became so important."
Meanwhile, if you look at most rankings of states' educational or economic success, Kentucky tends to be closer to 50th than first. Basketball became a visible forum in which our state could excel.
"I think that explains the popularity of University of Kentucky basketball," says Hall, who, in 1978, coached UK to the fifth of its seven NCAA titles. "Basketball was something we could be good at, rally around and take pride in."
In the first decade of the 21st century, passion for basketball still burns white hot in the commonwealth. Without ever leaving the greater Lexington area, a visitor can sample some of the prime parts of our state's hoops mania.
Last season, with a charismatic new coach in John Calipari and a lavishly praised recruiting class featuring John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, UK led college basketball in home attendance (24,111 a game) for the 14th time in the past 15 years. In a normal year, roughly 30 to 40 Kentucky basketball season tickets will change hands. Those interested must submit their names each season on a postcard (with name, address and daytime phone number) to the UK ticket office. In October, UK conducts a blind draw to see who gets tickets. Call the UK ticket office, 1-800-928-2287 or (859) 257-1818, for information. If you just want to see one game, in most years the UK student body does not always use its allotment of seats to the non-marquee home games. You can inquire about UK sports tickets online and at the UK ticket office (1-800-928-2287 or (859) 257-1818) the next morning.
If you can't make a regular-season UK game, you can still experience Big Blue Madness.
The free public "practice," usually on the Friday in October when the NCAA allows formal basketball practicing to begin, has filled Rupp Arena (23,000 plus) in recent years.
■ Women's basketball at UK has often been in the shadow of the men's program. But in recent years, Kentucky has put more resources into its women's program. The women play most of their home games in historic Memorial Coliseum (the house that Rupp built) on the UK campus (buy tickets online or call 1-800-928-2287 or (859) 257-1818).
High school basketball
■ In Lexington, the other basketball event to plan your year around is the Kentucky boys' high school state tournament, popularly known as the Sweet Sixteen (get a taste in the video above).
In Kentucky, one-class basketball reigns, so schools of all sizes compete in the same postseason tournament for one of 16 spots in the tourney in Rupp Arena.
"It is a great show," says Hall. "I love it."
Other basketball opportunities in the Lexington area:
■ Eastern Kentucky University has long considered itself a football school. But the Richmond school's men's basketball program has made two NCAA Tournament appearances in the past four years. (Call (859) 622-2122 to reach the ticket manager.)
■ Georgetown College has one of the best small-college programs in the country. The Tigers finished 35-1 a year ago and have made 11 trips to the NAIA final four. Coach Happy Osborne's team won the 1998 NAIA national championship. (Call (502) 863-7017 to reach the ticket manager.)
■ Lexington's Transylvania University plays in the non-scholarship NCAA Division III. In 2008-09, the menís program (tickets at the door) went 21-6 and advanced to the NCAA D-III tournament for the third time in four years. (Call (859) 281-3648 to reach the sports hotline.)
Hoops and horses are not the only spectator sports available in the Lexington area.
University of Kentucky football: Coming off four straight winning seasons under Rich Brooks, the Wildcats will have a new head man in 2010 in Joker Phillips.
Eastern Kentucky University football: The two-time national champions in what used to be Division 1-AA are coming off a rare losing season (5-6) in 2009.
Cincinnati Bengals training camp in Georgetown: Since 1997, the NFL team has trained annually at Georgetown College's Toyota Stadium.
UK baseball: The team has made the NCAA Tournament twice in the past five years.
Lexington Legends baseball: Since 2001, Lexington has had a Houston Astros affiliate playing minor-league baseball in the Class A South Atlantic League. The team plays in Applebee's Park.