The retroactive championship ring ceremony conducted for Kentucky's 1996 NCAA men's basketball champs by UK last Wednesday night during the Wildcats game with Mississippi State was well done.
On the Rupp Arena video boards, there were taped interviews with some team members, Nazr Mohammed, Allen Edwards and, memorably, Mark Pope, unable to attend to the ring ceremony. During the presentation itself, former Kentucky point guard Anthony Epps bent down to kiss the Rupp midcourt circle. All that was missing was an Antoine Walker shoulder shimmy.
As much fun as the trip down memory lane with the best UK team of my lifetime was, many were confused over why the '96 Cats were being awarded title rings by Kentucky 17 years after they cut down the nets.
Turns out, in modern times — like with the 2012 team that claimed Kentucky's eighth NCAA crown — the players who play on national champs usually get two championship rings. One comes from the NCAA. Another is usually presented by the winning school. The 2012-13 NCAA Division I manual sets a cap of $415 per individual on what can be spent by a school on national championship rings.
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When Tubby Smith's 1998 UK team claimed Kentucky's seventh national title, "we got two rings," said Cameron Mills, a key senior reserve on that club. Conversely, after Rick Pitino's 1996 Cats won it all "we only got one ring. We didn't get a school ring," Mills said. "And I don't know why that was. Nobody does. But that's what they awarded to us Wednesday night, the school ring."
The ex-post-facto '96 ring ceremony made me curious about what the other players who hung national title banners for UK in the past received to commemorate their championships. Last week, I spoke to at least one member of the first seven Kentucky NCAA championship teams.
Based solely on their memories, this is what they recall getting for winning it all.
1948 and '49
Wallace "Wah Wah" Jones and classmate Ralph Beard played in the finals of a national tournament all four seasons they were at UK. Beard and Jones were on teams that won the NIT in 1946, finished second in the same event in '47, then claimed Adolph Rupp's first two NCAA crowns in 1948 and '49.
They did not get rings. "It's been a long time, but I think we got watches for winning those tournaments," the 87-year-old Jones said Friday.
UK won so many tournaments during his basketball career, Jones said he finally asked if he could have "a woman's watch" instead of a man's. He then gave it to his wife, Edna. "I had so many of those watches by the end, I got one for her, too," Jones said.
When Bill Spivey, Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Co. led Rupp to his third NCAA title, "we got a plaque," Ramsey said. "I thought we would get watches, that's what we got when we won the Sugar Bowl (basketball tournament in 1950). But what I remember getting was a plaque. It said 'NCAA Tournament champions.'"
Ramsey laughed, sadly, when asked if the 1951 NCAA champs would like for UK to honor them the way it did the 1996 team last week. "So many of our guys are gone now," Ramsey said. "It seems like half the team is dead."
Members of the team known as The Fiddlin' Five, which gave Rupp his fourth and final NCAA title, have divergent memories of what they received for winning. Some remember getting a watch; others recalled being given a medallion. They, too, did not get rings.
In 2008, for the 50-year anniversary of their national title, many members of the '58 champs went into their own pockets and bought their own "NCAA championship rings."
"All of us, over the years got tired of being asked to see our rings and not having one," said Vernon Hatton, a star guard on the 1958 team.
If UK now wanted to bestow "school rings" on the '58 team "that would be a nice thing," Hatton said, "but I'm not going to make a big stink about it."
By the time Rick Robey, Jack Givens and crew led Joe B. Hall's Cats to Kentucky's fifth NCAA crown, the championship ring had come into being.
"What we got was a lot like a class ring, nothing really ornate," Robey said Friday. "But it had individual inscriptions for each player. I know mine and Jack (Givens') had 'All-American' written on them."
The '78 Cats got one, not two, championship rings.
"The NCAA gave the rings," Hall said. "It was a crown (setting) with a fake diamond in the middle. It was nice. Had an inscription on each side, with your name on the inside."
After the 1996 team was honored Wednesday night, Robey said he got an email from one of the 1978 team managers asking, "When do we get our rings from UK?"
1996 and '98
In 1998, Mills said he and every other player who made the national semifinals were measured for a ring by the NCAA in the week before the Final Four. About two weeks after Tubby Smith's Comeback Cats won it all, Mills said they got those championship rings.
Later the same year, the ex-UK guard said he remembers being given the second championship ring — the one provided by UK — when the team was on the way to visit President Clinton in the White House. "Tubby made sure we got the second ring," Mills says of 1998. "It was a little more 'decorated' than the first one."
Why didn't the '96 Cats get that second championship ring, too?
Brooks Downing, the publicist for the Kentucky men's hoops program in the late 1990s, said he conferred with former longtime UK athletics administrator Larry Ivy on that very topic last week.
"We just don't remember there being any talk of giving the players a second ring at that time," Downing said.
Pitino did order extra rings "to be given to some of his friends, some of the big financial contributors to the program, people like that," Downing says. "And those rings probably were a little more lavish than the ones the NCAA provided. But I don't remember there being any talk at all at that time about providing those rings to the players."
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