Before the occasion of Rupp Arena’s 40th anniversary, I hadn’t stopped to realize that it has been pretty much my second home.
Maybe Rupp is 2-A and Commonwealth Stadium is 2-B. Nope, Rupp Arena is the clear winner. There are more University of Kentucky basketball home games than football home games, after all. And let’s not forget the postseason tournaments. Or the high school tournaments. Or the concerts. Or the kids’ events.
Truth be told, my Rupp visits began well before my sportswriting career. I was not in attendance on Nov. 27, 1976, when Kentucky played Wisconsin in its first regular-season game at its new downtown home. I was there for the dedication, however. A friend had somehow secured tickets for the Dec. 11, 1976, game against Kansas. We sat upstairs, not too high, in a corner, where we got a good look at the 23,000-seat edifice and the Cats’ easy 90-63 win over the Jayhawks.
By the next season, I was a UK student and had begun the ritual of trekking to Memorial Coliseum on Sunday mornings — camping out Saturday night for the big games — for the student ticket distribution. There we waited on the bleachers, acting as if we were doing homework, some playing shirts vs. skins on the coliseum floor, until finally the time arrived when we received those coveted tickets — only with a student ID, of course.
A position on the sports staff of the student newspaper, the Kentucky Kernel, moved me closer to the floor but with different responsibilities. No more cheering. Plenty of reporting and writing. Both hands-on and on-site training.
Rupp isn’t just for basketball, of course. I’ve seen Bruce Springsteen (four times), U2, the Rolling Stones, The Who, Fleetwood Mac, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Billy Joel, the Police, Diana Ross and James Taylor (just last April), just to name a few, all at Rupp.
As a dad, we took my young boys, now grown, to see Sesame Street Live and the Harlem Globetrotters at Rupp. I saw my first professional hockey game when the Kentucky Thoroughblades hit the ice at Rupp in 1996. I saw Serena and Venus Williams play an exhibition tennis match.
Think Rupp, however, and you think basketball. And not just Kentucky basketball. I saw Dick Vitale coach Detroit in the 1977 NCAA Tournament at Rupp.
When it was built, with its blasé brown facade and its head-scratching orange seats — really, orange — there were those who thought UK would have a hard time filling a 23,000-seat basketball arena. Yeah, right. Rupp became part of a pilgrimage for Kentucky basketball fans near and far. Even today, 40 years later, I hear stories of members of the Big Blue Nation who finally made it to Rupp Arena and what seeing that first game meant.
I’ve been fortunate enough to experience more than a few memorable moments and games there, but if you press me on the subject, a couple stand out. One involved Kentucky. One did not.
Obviously, the latter is the 1985 Final Four, the only time college basketball’s premiere event was played at Rupp. I was fortunate enough to be on press row the night of April 1, when Villanova played a near-perfect game, shooting a ridiculous 78.6 percent from the floor, to upset heavily favored Georgetown for the national championship.
I’ll never forget my colleague Jerry Tipton’s lead the next morning in the Lexington Herald-Leader: “Snowball 1, Hell 0.”
The other game I remember was not historic or even, as it turned out, particularly important. It was the night of Dec. 9, 1978, when No. 5 Kansas played No. 10 Kentucky at Rupp Arena. Neither team would live up to its early-season ranking. Weakened by graduation from its 1978 national title team, UK ended up in the NIT. Kansas, which finished 18-11, didn’t even make postseason play.
That December night, however, Kentucky engineered one of the most improbable comebacks in its storied history. Down six points with less than 30 seconds to go in overtime, UK miraculously rallied. A Dwight Anderson steal led to a Kyle Macy basket that tied the game with three seconds left. Kansas then tried to call a timeout it didn’t have and was called for a technical foul. Macy made the subsequent free throw for a 67-66 Kentucky win.
I was in the student section that night and can still remember the joy of the victory and the disbelief of how it had occurred. If memory serves, plenty of fans had already headed for the exits before the comeback, not that they would admit it now. The official box score put the attendance at 23,472. Over the years, there have been 230,472 who said they were there that night.
Which, of course, is what Rupp Arena has been all about all this time. The memories. Forty years of them.