ASHLAND — Housewife Amanda Clay said she had been "scoping" the Kroger parking lot here since 5 a.m. "Checking to see if anybody was already lined up or camping out," she said.
Clay, who wore a white long-sleeved Kentucky shirt, strands of blue and white beads, a UK scarf that dangled past her waist and a cap that read No. 1, could not wait past 7:15. It was then she became the first person to set up her chairs along the roped-off rectangle that covered two double rows across and 15 parking spaces deep. It was more than an hour before another UK fan arrived, she said.
When asked why she went to such trouble to attend a joint appearance by Kentucky Coach John Calipari and the 2012 national championship trophy scheduled for noon Thursday, Clay's eyes tightened and her voice took on an incredulous tone.
"Big Blue Nation, baby!" she said.
That apparently explained the crowd — estimated at 500 by Kroger manager Wendy Jenkins — gathered along the rope line two or three deep in most places. Old. Young. Male. Female. The fans, mostly dressed in blue, came to see Calipari and the trophy. For almost an hour on a sun-splashed patch of gray asphalt, the fans could once more feel connected to UK basketball.
"It's not just words to him," Rick Presley of Russell said of how Calipari frequently mentions the fans. "He proves that when he came (to Ashland). He realizes this place (Kentucky) is unique. Because of that, he takes the time to do things like this. It means a lot."
Calipari, who walked off the bus at 11:50 a.m. and departed at 12:43 p.m., saluted the fans in his five-minute talk.
"I don't know if this could be done at any other university," he said. "I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate you, and how we understand (his emphasis) what this program means to you."
If there had been an award for fan who traveled the farthest to be here, it could have gone to Mark Hahs. He lives in Sanderson, Fla. By coincidence, he and his wife were vacationing in Ashland, where he grew up.
"Best part of the vacation," he said with a smile.
Hahs and his wife had a good enough time in the parking lot to think about attending one of the tour stops Friday. They might see Calipari and the trophy in Elizabethtown, his wife's hometown, on their way back to Florida, Hahs said.
Dressed in a dark blazer, gray slacks and an open-collared white shirt, Calipari first spoke without benefit of a microphone. He noted a feeling of humbleness before he turned to face another section of fans and became impossible to hear. The fade to silence led one fan to tell another, "Humble about something."
A moment later, a fan could be heard calling out, "Can we do a microphone?"
As if on cue, UK video man Tim Asher rushed a cordless microphone to Calipari. "He's keeping his job," the UK coach quipped.
After noting player sacrifice, Calipari hinted of the expected mass exodus to this year's NBA Draft. He said that Kyle Wiltjer had recently told him, "I'm going to miss these guys. They are the best people I've been around."
Calipari instructed the crowd that he would work the rope line, posing for photographs with his wife, Ellen, as assistant coach Orlando Antigua held aloft the championship trophy.
"You can put your hands on us," the UK coach told fans before playfully adding. "But my wife is here."
Fans on the tour could order photos on the Web site http://chetwhite.zenfolio.com.
While the Caliparis slowly moved along the inside edge of the rectangle, other fans took turns posing in front of the blue bus that brought the UK party here. Several posed while pointing to the white lettering near the driver's side window that read, "Kentucky basketball 2012 national championship."
One such fan was Bob Burchett, 82, who needed his cane to get into position so his wife, Glenna, could take his picture. He said he remembered the first of UK's now eight national championships. He was 18 and about to join the Navy when the Fabulous Five won the 1948 NCAA Tournament.
"It thrills me every time Bobby Knight has to read in the paper Kentucky won another one," Burchett said in reference to the Hall of Fame coach with a well-chronicled dislike of UK basketball.
Barbara Caudill, 77, stood in the crowd with one of her five great-grandchildren. When someone asked about children missing school to be here, she said, "It's an educational trip."
When Calipari and company boarded the bus again for the ride to an afternoon appearance in Pikeville, Clay stood in the open bed of a pickup truck to take more photographs.
"Pretty awesome," she said after climbing down. "It's great that he doesn't see the difference in anybody."
Summing up the blue-tinted bliss, Clay said, "It's just all overwhelming great."