UK Men's Basketball

UK fans prove Rupp Arena visionaries correct: If you build it, they will come

Celebrating 40 years: Rupp Arena, an ‘icon’

Rupp Arena celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Even as the arena works to re-invent itself for the modern sports age, take a look back at a remarkable run. Documentary footage from "Game Changer: The Lexington Center Story" courtesy Arthur
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Rupp Arena celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Even as the arena works to re-invent itself for the modern sports age, take a look back at a remarkable run. Documentary footage from "Game Changer: The Lexington Center Story" courtesy Arthur

For the 19th time in the last 22 years, Kentucky led the nation in average home attendance, it was announced last week. Since Rupp Arena opened in 1976, UK has ranked first or second every year.

By now, Rupp Arena seems synonymous with big crowds. But this would have surprised the late Otis Singletary.

As UK president in the mid-1970s, he resisted the idea of abandoning Memorial Coliseum and moving to a proposed downtown arena that would more than double the seating capacity for home games.

“He thought Memorial Coliseum was big enough,” Jim Host recalled last week. “And he said there wasn’t any way we’d ever fill it.

“He made those statements very clearly.”

Host, the executive director of the proposed new arena, led Lexington’s effort to persuade UK and Singletary to support the idea.

Why did Singletary doubt the feasibility of a new arena? “He wasn’t sure basketball would be successful after Coach (Adolph) Rupp left,” Host said. “I really think he wasn’t certain of the future.

“And Dr. Singletary, when you really get down to it, was a football guy.”

Singletary, who had called Texas home, could not fully appreciate Kentucky’s interest in basketball, Host said.

Of course, Rupp’s successor, Joe B. Hall, not only kept Kentucky competitive nationally, but arguably enhanced an already glittering program’s profile.

Host described this initial meeting with Singletary as “very, very contentious.”

A second meeting, in which city officials guaranteed revenue equaling what UK got at Memorial Coliseum, brought Singletary on board. (UK came to believe merely matching the Memorial Coliseum revenue was a bad deal, and re-negotiated its share of proceeds.)

Rupp Arena’s history of big crowds — an average in excess of the official capacity of 23,000 in seven of John Calipari’s eight seasons as coach — raises a question: How big is too big?

Host, who is no fan of domes, said Rupp Arena is in a Goldilocks zone: Not too big, not too small. The same is true of the Yum Center in Louisville.

“We had enough space in Louisville to make that one bigger,” Host said. “(U of L Director of Athletics) Tom Jurich made the decision that around 22,000 would be about right. And it is.”

Syracuse

Kentucky led the nation with an average attendance of 23,461. Syracuse was second at 21,181. Playing in the Carrier Dome (capacity of 35,012), Syracuse has been first or second in attendance every year except one since at least 2003-04. The Orange ranked third (behind UK and North Carolina) in 2007-08.

Because the building is so big, fans do not feel an urgency to buy season tickets, said Mike Waters, who covers the team for the Syracuse Post-Standard. Attendance dips for non-conference games.

“Another thing that can impact SU’s attendance is whether games are on weekends or weeknights,” Waters wrote in an email. “This is a blue-collar town. The fans will really turn out for a big weekend game. But even a big-name opponent won’t top 30,000 on a weeknight.”

Attendance exceeded 30,000 for a weeknight game against Duke this past season. That marked the first 30,000-plus crowd for a weeknight game in more than 25 years.

Attendance figures

The NCAA has no standard for attendance figures. Each school chooses its own way of announcing attendance. UK counts tickets sold, plus an estimate of everyone in the building (media, band, cheerleaders, players, coaches, referees).

According to the turnstile count compiled by the Lexington Center Corp., UK averaged a home attendance of 19,453. That includes the 26,787 counted for the game against Kansas (ESPN’s “College GameDay” that morning was included in the count, LCC CEO Bill Owen said).

Kentucky had four other crowds of 20,000-plus according to the turnstile count: 21,605 for UCLA; 21,455 for South Carolina; 21,053 for Auburn, and 20,698 for Arkansas.

Other attendance notes include:

▪ The Big Ten has led the nation in average attendance every season since at least 2003-04. The Big Ten averaged 12,235 last season. The SEC ranked third with an average of 11,080 per home game.

▪  The SEC average attendance was higher in nine of the most recent 13 seasons.

▪ South Carolina attendance has increased by about 51 percent in Frank Martin’s five seasons as coach. The Gamecocks averaged 8,868 in the season before he arrived (2011-12) and 13,395 this past season.

▪ Perhaps surprisingly, Missouri had the largest increase in attendance last season. Average attendance increased by 3,635 in a season Missouri’s record was 8-24 (2-16 in the SEC). UCLA, with Lonzo Ball the featured attraction, had the second-largest attendance increase: 3,109.

Football for Dom?

Herald-Leader staffer Chris Leach covered the recent news conferences conducted by former UK players in conjunction with summer camps.

Leach provided material he couldn’t work into his stories. This included Dominique Hawkins assessing the possibility of playing professional football.

“Basically, I’m just like laying out all my opportunities,” Hawkins said. “I haven’t decided on what I really want to do yet. But I definitely want to continue with basketball, so far. Just waiting for what’s going to be the best for my future.”

NFL teams called his mother to ask about Hawkins’ interest in football, he said.

“I don’t have any idea how they’re getting her number . . . ,” he said. “I have an agent for basketball, but I guess they don’t get his contact (information).”

Sacha improved?

Dominique Hawkins vouched for a new, improved Sacha Killeya-Jones.

“Because I feel like he was going against Bam (Adebayo) every day,” Hawkins said. “And Bam’s definitely going to push Sacha to play at a high level. And if you don’t come and play against Bam, you’re just going to get dunked on and thrown around.

“So I definitely saw Sacha pick it up at the end of the season.”

Killeya-Jones did not get in a game after Jan. 21.

Future tense

Malik Monk said he had not watched Kentucky’s loss to North Carolina in the Elite Eight.

“I’m not watching that ever again,” he said. “It popped up on Twitter the other day, and I ain’t gotten back on Twitter.”

Bam Adebayo spoke of looking forward rather than mulling the loss.

“I feel like it just didn’t work out for us,” he said. “But you know we moved on. I probably will never watch the clip either.”

The winner is . . .

There’s a “winner” in the tryouts UK held this month for possible public address announcers.

Steven Hume will be the public address announcer for soccer.

Hume, 35, is from Taylorsville. In an email message, he said he was “born into UK sports like most people from here. . . .

“I was a good athlete and love sports, but I always knew glory in playing sports peaked in high school. So, now, I use my voice to pump up kids that are better than me, and maybe I can add that motivation they need to perform at the next level.”

‘Symbolic’

Rapper Ice Cube, one of the co-founders of the new Big3 basketball league, used the word “symbolic” in assessing the games in Rupp Arena last Sunday. He used the same word when talking about two other sites used by the traveling three-on-three league.

“We started off the season in Brooklyn,” he said. “It was extremely symbolic for us. . . . Just as symbolic for us to get to places like Rupp Arena.”

This weekend the Big3 plays in the Staples Center in Los Angeles, which is Ice Cube’s hometown.

“It’s symbolic for me because this is where I’ve seen the Lakers win championships,” Ice Cube said, “and when I envisioned the Big3, I envisioned it to be in places like the Staples Center.”

The announced attendance for the Big3 in Rupp Arena was 8,281.

Ice Cube called Lexington “a huge basketball hot bed” that could help the new league establish itself.

“For us to succeed long term we need true basketball fans to see what we have to offer,” Ice Cube said. “We believe that that basketball community will spread the word about the Big3. That our basketball is intense and it’s legit.”

Feeling good

When asked what it was like to launch a new league, Ice Cube likened starting the Big3 to preparing a Thanksgiving dinner.

“It’s probably like, I see my wife and my mother cook a brilliant Thanksgiving meal, and watching us eat it makes them feel good,” he said. “And that’s how I feel, I feel like I created something and I’m watching the fans eat it up and they feel good about it and I feel good.”

Happy birthday

To Sacha Killeya-Jones. He turned 19 on Thursday. . . . To Jason Parker. He turned 37 on Thursday. . . . To assistant coach Tony Barbee. He turned 46 on Thursday. . . . To assistant coach John Robic. He turned 54 on Thursday. . . . To incoming freshman Kevin Knox. He turned 18 on Friday. . . . To Antoine Walker. He turned 41 on Saturday. . . . To Jim LeMaster. He turned 71 on Saturday. . . . To Gerald Fitch. He turned 35 on Saturday. . . . To DeMarcus Cousins. He turns 27 on Sunday (today). . . . To Earvin “Magic” Johnson. He turns 58 on Monday. . . . To Terry Mills. He turns 69 on Tuesday. . . . To Ryan Hogan. He turns 39 on Tuesday. . . . To James Young. He turns 22 on Wednesday.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

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