UK Men's Basketball

Best Kentucky team ever? In new film, 1996 Cats stake a bigger claim

The 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats rolled the NCAA championship while scoring 80 points or more in 28 of 34 games.
The 1995-96 Kentucky Wildcats rolled the NCAA championship while scoring 80 points or more in 28 of 34 games. University of Kentucky Athletics

If your holiday vibe runs toward a Big Blue Christmas, you are in luck.

On Christmas Day at 5 p.m., Lexington’s WKYT-TV will debut the documentary film “The Team.” The brainchild of former Kentucky guard Cameron Mills and produced with WKYT producer Dick Gabriel and filmmaker Jason Epperson, it tells the story of the University of Kentucky’s 1995-96 NCAA championship team.

I can’t speak to the Fabulous Five and other UK squads before the early 1970s, but the 1995-96 Cats (34-2) — coached by Rick Pitino and led by senior guard Tony Delk and sophomore forward Antoine Walker — are the best Wildcats team of my first-hand memory.

With a roster almost two-deep with future NBA players (nine), the ’95-96 Cats were the masterpiece of Pitino’s frenetic playing style, crushing even good teams with withering full-court fury. The ’96 Cats hung 86 points on LSU in the first half, for heaven’s sake.

Mills — a Kentucky hoops hero for his stellar play in the 1997 NCAA tournament and his three clutch three-pointers in the ’98 tourney — was a little-used sophomore backup in 1996. “I played 16 minutes the entire season,” he says, correctly. “I had the best seat in the house to watch a great, great team.”

When Pitino organized a 20-year reunion of his 1996 championship team last August in Miami, Mills felt a spark of inspiration: Why not use that time to produce a film that could capture the story of a team for the ages?

“I had an idea. So I thought ‘Who do I know that has the expertise to do this?’” Mills said. “Then I thought ‘Can I get permission?’”

Pitino signed off on Mills coming to the reunion with film crew in tow. Mills then turned to Gabriel, who has worked on various long-form projects in his career at WKYT, and Epperson, who had been a principal in making the UK fan documentary “Sixth Man: Bluesanity.”

When 14 of the 15 members (all but forward Jason Lathrem) of the ’95-96 Cats came to the reunion, the documentary was in business.

Mills said one of the best segments in the film is a scene in which swingman Derek Anderson and forwards Walter McCarty and Ron Mercer were just sitting together in a room talking.

Gabriel said the film will answer for Kentucky fans once and for all what happened in the 1996 SEC Tournament Championship Game when Pitino benched the emotionally volatile Walker in what became an upset loss to Mississippi State.

Many UK backers might also be surprised, Gabriel said, at how much a team that sent so many players to the NBA valued a player who did not go on to play pro basketball.

“Everybody, even Pitino, talked about how Anthony Epps was the perfect point guard for that team,” Gabriel said.

In 2012, after UK won its most recent national title, I wrote a column saying I thought the ’96 Cats — a deeper, more experienced team — would have bested John Calipari’s 2011-12 Wildcats. In response, I got several head-scratching replies saying that opinion was “anti-Kentucky.”

It made me think that some Cats fans are reluctant to fully acknowledge how good Pitino’s best Kentucky team was because the coach’s career arc subsequently led him, well, astray.

“I don’t feel like the fans are under-appreciative (of the 1996 Cats),” Mills said. “I do think if you watch the documentary, you will get an understanding for how most of us who were on that team love our school — and love that Coach Cal is our coach — but also still love Coach Pitino. I know a lot of Kentucky fans don’t feel this way, but when Louisville’s not playing Kentucky, I want Coach Pitino to win.”

In working on the documentary, Gabriel said he was struck by the sincere belief among the ’95-96 Cats that they deserve to be remembered as more than the best modern Kentucky Wildcats team.

“To a man, they really believe they were the best team in the modern era of college basketball,” Gabriel said.

‘The Team’

The Christmas Day television schedule for the documentary film “The Team,” which tells the story of the 1996 NCAA champion Kentucky Wildcats (all times are Eastern unless otherwise indicated):

Lexington: WKYT-TV, 5 p.m. (repeats on WKYT-DT2 CW at 10 p.m.)

Louisville: WBKI-TV, 5 p.m.

Hazard: WYMT-TV, 5 p.m.

Bowling Green: WBKO-TV, 5 p.m. (CST)

Huntington, W.Va.: WQCW-TV, 7 p.m.

Evansville, Ind.: WEHT-TV, 10:30 p.m. (CST)