For the first time in a life that has included maybe 100 visits to the Rupp Arena media zone, I plopped down in the Rupp Arena seats on Friday night, Nov. 3, in search of what you might call “Peak Cat.” Peak Cat is an enduring marvel. Peak Cat would be any utterance or action that demonstrates the rarefied demand, detail, devotion and torment with which Kentucky basketball fans witness Kentucky Wildcats basketball.
An exhibition game makes an excellent canvas for Peak Cat because exhibition games actually don’t count, but Peak Cat does not dwell in trivialities such as don’t count.
In this commonwealth of 4 million coaches, it always freaking counts, okay?
I have studied enough Peak Cat in my life to consider myself a second-rate connoisseur of Peak Cat, for by working in Kentucky from 1991 till 2000, I have known and loved some advanced practitioners of Peak Cat.
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▪ If an elderly woman tells you she loathes Kentucky’s last guy off the bench because his entry into games causes Kentucky’s late-game leads to shrink from, say, 30 to 25, that’s Peak Cat.
▪ If Kentucky goes up, say, 16-2, in a home game, then gives up a second-chance basket, and a fan in a low row snarls angrily, “Oh, come on, Cats!” that’s Peak Cat.
▪ Peak Cat got a famous turn in February 1998, during a national championship season, when a Kentucky fan on a pregame radio show, asked his opinion of a 21-3 team, said, “I haven’t given up on them yet.”
▪ A more recent Peak Cat appeared on Oct. 27, during Kentucky’s 103-61 exhibition win over Thomas More, when Ben Roberts of Kentucky.com overheard a fan, nine minutes into the preseason, with Kentucky ahead 23-17, say, “They need to get it together.”
Indeed, early on in the Nov. 3 exhibition, with Kentucky up 15-6 on visiting Centre College of Danville, Ky., a fan down the row (NN, Section 23, behind a basket, opposite the students), casually said, “Well, they’re playing like dirt.”
That was pretty decent Peak Cat.
• • •
Peak Cat, of course, had a turbulent offseason, one that will conclude Friday night with the Wildcats’ first official game, at home against Utah Valley. The vivid history of Kentucky basketball churns with abundant strands, including a long litany of laments about officiating - much like in other towns, but with greater knowledge. You might have sat up nights listening to either the rational (they could have ejected Christian Laettner for stomping on Aminu Timberlake in the famous East Region final of the 1992 NCAA tournament) or the irrational (the referees cost Kentucky the 1995 Southeast Region final). Those times occurred, of course, before social media.
In early October, the Omaha-based official John Higgins filed a federal lawsuit against Kentucky Sports Radio, alleging it stirred up Kentucky fans to protest, via telephone threats and false online reviews of his roofing business, Higgins’s officiating of the South Region final between Kentucky and North Carolina on March 26.
North Carolina won that battle of kingdoms, 75-73. Kentucky led, 64-59, with five minutes left, before giving up 12 consecutive points. Kentucky also got called for 19 fouls to North Carolina’s 18, but also for two each on four Kentucky starters in the first half, so that Kentucky Coach John Calipari began his postgame remarks with, “You know, it’s amazing that we were in that game when they practically fouled out my team. Amazing that we had a chance.”
Eight days later, Higgins took the floor to work the NCAA championship game attended by a bodyguard.
Cameron Mills, a Lexington-raised former Kentucky basketball walk-on who hit a key shot in the 1998 South Region final against Duke and, as a present-day radio host, seemed an ideal voice to hear.
“I was sad,” he said of the fan reaction. “I was sad that we reacted that way. And let me clarify this thing: We didn’t react that way. There was a group of fans. ... At some point we’ve got to understand that as much as we dislike officials, and I’m right at the top, I dislike officials, because they judge people, that’s what they do, but he did not cost us that game. If we had hit three more shots, we would have won no matter what. I mean, we never think about that.”
He also said: “And I’ve got people who I love who feel in many ways the same way I do about a lot of things, who still get upset about that (officiating that day). I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ I mean, let’s go back to the beginning of that game and look at the mistakes that were made by our team, before we blame an official for the mistakes he made.”
He also said: “But the thing I keep going back to is, it wasn’t even a majority of fans. If you take 3 million, 4 million coaches across this state, this was, I don’t know how many people called, I think maybe 3,000 calls? And 50 or so [alleged] death threats? ... And I have to remind myself of that because we want to take those moments that stick out, those behaviors that stick out, and we want to label a group of people as the same thing ...
“And that’s not fair. That’s not how it is.”
Over breakfast or lunch, Kentuckians who did not call Higgins might point to The Kentucky Basketball Statistics Project, Jon Scott’s website of extraordinary effort. Among its volumes of digits, it shows Kentucky’s record in games officiated by more than 400 referees, even such matters as its 1-4 record in games officiated by Orville Littick in pre-Twitter 1916-17. The record in the presence of Higgins, who also worked the 2017 Final Four: 3-5, including 3-4 in NCAA tournament games.
A limited record such as that, similar to Kentucky’s 6-7 mark with the respected Ed Hightower (1989-2010), often derives from the harder opponents of late March or early April, which Higgins and others often work as a reward for good work. That differs from those referees whose broader-season views of Kentucky reflect more its overall record, such as John Clougherty (108-41 from 1982 to 2005), or Don Rutledge (105-32 from 1978 to 2000), or Joe Lindsay (60-12 from 1998 to 2017).
With the other two officials from the North Carolina game, as Scott details it, Kentucky’s record stands at 4-3 and 3-2, respectively.
• • •
And so here comes another November, another season, another trail, another amassing of hopes, another chance at the torment that makes this base of fans so endearing, exasperating and vivid. They begin with the exhibitions, which often give those who lack season tickets a chance to see the Wildcats. Little girls have faces painted. The evening with Centre began with the traditional trumpet of horse racing’s call to post, and the public-address reminder of the “home of the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball.”
You might best describe the Centre game by relating that, when it ended, some Centre players emerged to have photos taken with family members with the Rupp Arena floor as a backdrop. Nonetheless, Kentucky’s 106-63 triumph did invite analysis. The rebounding woes — seriously — from the previous exhibition win, 92-67 over Morehead State, did undergo some healing, as was noted in the postgame, courtside radio interview with a coach, for which a batch of fans always remain seated for listening, and for which they got assistant Tony Barbee, whom they applauded, because they don’t need any media guide to pinpoint the assistants.
Having attended the game, I fielded from some Kentucky fans an earnest question about Calipari’s latest batch of freshmen, ranked No. 5 nationally this preseason:
“How’d they look?”
Answer: I couldn’t really tell.
During the game, soon after the “dirt” comment, I texted my friend Brian Weinberg, who teaches creative writing at the University of Louisville, and who grew up in Lexington and wrote a book in 1996 about life as a Kentucky fan. I wondered how much of Kentucky fandom is torment, and he replied, “98 percent torment.” He surmised, “Tonight, most fans are fretting” about “our lack of depth” and “potential injury.”
Eventually, they would stream out into the Friday night downtown and toward another season subjecting themselves to their adored, indispensable torment. But back during the second half, with Kentucky leading 68-38 in an exhibition, a Centre player fielded a pass near the baseline beyond the three-point line, then drilled the shot to change the meaningless, meaningful score to 68-41.
“Wide open!” snarled a peeved Kentucky fan.
It wasn’t Peak Cat, but it wasn’t bad.