With a marketing touch that John "Succeed and Proceed" Calipari would appreciate, David Kessler recently offered the Herald-Leader what he called "the greatest UK story never told."
No one — from sports editor Mathew Graf on down — could resist that come-on.
So Kessler, who lives in Jeffersonville (near Mount Sterling), came to Lexington to tell his tale.
Here's the gist of the story: Twenty years ago, almost to the day, Kessler lived every Kentucky fan's dream. He spent quality time with UK players behind the public relations curtain. He traversed the chasm between fan and friend.
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"Every minute was just indelible," he said. "I guess that's the word I'm looking for."
The setting for his indelible memory was Italy. Kessler was stationed at Aviano Air Force Base when — what a coincidence! — the UK team traveled to Italy in August 1995.
Kessler, now 42, grew up in Bath County and early on became a UK fan. As a child, he watched games with his grandmother, Mary Grace Swartz. In 1993, he joined the Air Force (following the military service example of his grandfather, John Wood Swartz, who had been in the Navy).
With the Kentucky team in Italy, Kessler and three Air Force buddies decided to drive more than 200 miles to Florence to see the Cats. They missed the exhibition game (Kessler's sister, Mary Robinson, sent him a schedule but forgot to factor in the time change). But Kessler and his buddies still got a thrill.
"We're in a Volkswagen van going down the street and I see Rick Pitino," Kessler said with amazement still in his voice.
Kessler and his friends went to the team hotel.
"I wanted to see Tony Delk," he said. "That was my man."
Kessler and his friends found Delk. They chatted at length. Kessler won over several UK players because he spoke Italian and knew the lay of the land.
"I took Tony Delk to see the statue of David," Kessler recalled. Kessler took notice of the keen interest Delk had in learning about Michelangelo and all things Italian.
After returning to Aviano, Kessler and his friends decided to make the much shorter trip to Venice a few days later to spend more time with the Cats. In Venice, Kessler took several UK players to a discotheque.
As they paid admittance fees, the UK players were asked to identify themselves.
"I'm Michael Jordan," Antoine Walker said. That caused a stir.
Other UK players followed his lead, each claiming to be an NBA star.
"They got to me," said Kessler, who stands an unimposing 6 feet.
Thinking fast, he said, "I'm the coach."
That also caused a buzz as Kessler saw patrons point at him repeatedly the rest of the night and say "grande capo," which roughly translates to big boss.
"I was Rick Pitino for one night," Kessler said.
Kessler spoke to Pitino on the trip and found the then-UK coach charming.
"Almost surreal," he said of speaking with Pitino. "He really respected what we were doing (as members of the military). He really gave me a lot of respect. He said, 'The reason we do this is because of what you're doing.'"
Kessler proudly showed the Herald-Leader a photo of him and Pitino taken in Italy. "I still like Rick," he said. "There's no animosity. When Louisville won the 2013 NCAA Tournament, I was cheering for him."
During his time in Italy with the Kentucky team, Kessler met iconic radio play-by-play man Cawood Ledford. Ledford must have made quite an impression. Kessler named his 4-year-old son Cade Wood.
"It's kind of a play on words, if you say it real fast," Kessler said.
Of the UK players he got acquainted with, Kessler said, "Antoine was the joker. (Walter) McCarty was always singing. And Delk the silent one, taking it all in. (Anthony) Epps was very outgoing, especially after he found out I was from Kentucky."
One other observation: "You could definitely tell Pitino was in charge. Seemed everyone was hanging on his every word."
After his up-close-and-personal time with the Big Blue, Kessler returned to his Air Force duties as a combat engineer who helped build runways. During Kentucky's national championship season of 1995-96, he could watch only three games on the Armed Forces Network: the NCAA Tournament victory over Tim Duncan and Wake Forest, the national championship victory over Syracuse, and "the most awful game I ever watched." That was UK's loss to Dontae Jones and Mississippi State in the 1996 SEC Tournament finals. Earlier that day, Kessler had a block "K" tattooed on his right shoulder.
"The greatest UK story never told" is a misnomer. Kessler has told this story a handful of times.
"There are only four people who have ever heard the story," he said. "I hold it. It's mine. My gem."
Kessler decided to go public because he'd like to reconnect with the only other Kentucky native stationed in Aviano in 1995. He can't remember the man's name except he went by the nickname "Red" and was in the fighter wing of the 555th (aka the "triple nickel") or the 510th ("five and dime") fighter squadron.
Kessler's indelible memory has had a long-lasting effect. The time he spent with the Cats buoyed his spirits as he recovered from a broken back. Now, he hopes, maybe, it might help someone else in crisis.
This postscript to the story began when the Air Force sent Kessler from Italy to Germany for training for a deployment to Bosnia-Herzegovina. The training and Kessler's military career abruptly ended in 1997 when he fell about 45 feet. The accident knocked out several teeth and broke his back. He could not walk for three months.
"I used the (UK) experience as motivation ... to keep me from getting depressed," Kessler said in an email message. "I thought many times about meeting the Cats just because it put a smile on my face. And that meant the world at the time."
Tax and spend
When former UK player Derek Anderson spoke at the Minority Business Expo luncheon recently, he told a story about his first NBA paycheck.
He said his gross pay was $250,000, which drew a "Wooooo" murmur from the audience.
With the help of a lawyer, Anderson set up a bank account and deposited the check. But when he looked up his balance and saw $127,000, he called his attorney.
"I wasn't upset," he said. "But I was curious. But I sounded like I was upset."
Anderson said he had one big question: "Who the hell is FICA?"
Laughter filled the Lexington Convention Center ballroom. Of course, FICA is Federal Insurance Contributions Act, a payroll tax that funds Social Security and Medicare.
Thaw in relations?
There seemed to be a thaw recently in relations between well-known adversaries. No, not the nuclear deal between Iran and the United States (plus five other leading Western nations).
The contentious relationship between former UK player DeMarcus Cousins and Sacramento Kings Coach George Karl showed signs of healing. The two made "news" by shaking hands at the Las Vegas Summer League.
"We have a lot of time to get back on the same page," Karl said according to the Sacramento Bee. "Summer talk and summer drama I've always thought is hype, and so much of it is untrue. I'm not going to get into it. But Cuz and I, we have to work together to get that together, and I think we will."
Boston fans did not react well to the Celtics drafting former Louisville guard Terry Rozier with the 16th pick of the first round.
Rozier began the process of winning over skeptics by playing well in the summer leagues.
According to New England Sports News, Rozier showed "the intensity, athleticism and 'burst' that made him a pre-draft favorite" of Coach Brad Stevens and team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge.
"I'm a confident person no matter what I'm doing," Rozier said in a report by The Associated Press. "I believe in myself more than anybody. I'm just trying to help the team and do whatever I can."
The 2014 SEC Player of the Year, Scottie Wilbekin (remember him?), apparently made a good impression this summer.
Fox Sports named Wilbekin the unexpected standout of the summer. He played for two NBA teams: the Sixers in Las Vegas and the Magic in Orlando.
"After a slow start in Orlando, Wilbekin came to Vegas looking to stand out, which he did with his three-point shooting, going 13-for-22 in a three-game stretch that saw him average 18 points per game," Fox Sports reported. "The vast majority of Wilbekin's other games were relatively missable, but his ability to not just competently run an offense, but be able to take advantage of open looks from deep will help him make his NBA debut this fall."
Wilbekin, who led Florida to the SEC's first 18-0 regular-season record in 2013-14, subsequently signed a see-if-you-can-make-the-team contract with the Sixers. Aaron Harrison signed a similarly conditional deal with Charlotte.
To two UK assistant coaches on Monday: John Robic turns 52. Tony Barbee turns 44. ... To Jason Parker. He turns 35 on Monday. ... To Gerald Fitch. He turns 33 on Wednesday. ... To Daniel Orton. He turned 25 on Thursday. ... To Mark Coury. He turned 29 on Saturday. ... To Jim LeMaster. He turns 69 on Wednesday. ... To Randy Embry. He turns 72 on Sunday. ... To Antoine Walker. He turns 39 on Wednesday. ... To James Blackmon. He turned 51 on Friday. ... To Hall of Famer Bob Cousy. He turns 87 on Sunday.