The excitement of Big Blue Madness at Rupp Arena
Big Blue Madness 2017 was a family affair.
In a gesture that evoked memories of his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame two years earlier, Kentucky Coach John Calipari sought to make the latest Madness celebration about sharing something special.
Calipari invited former UK players in attendance to join the current Cats on the court for what he called a “family photo.” A video played on the overhead scoreboard as maybe 50 players descended from the Rupp Arena seats. The video showed player after player saying a simple declarative sentence: “Welcome to the family.”
John Wall. Dan Issel. Kenny Walker. Tony Delk. Ron Mercer. Derek Willis. Rex Chapman. Louie Dampier. Dwane Casey. Enes Kanter, who added “Go Big Blue. I love you all.” Nerlens Noel. Tyler Ulis. Devin Booker.
As the players grasped hands and smiled broadly, the student band played “On, On U of K.”
The scene was similar to what happened in Springfield, Mass., in 2015. On the night Calipari reached the sport’s pinnacle, he asked his former players in attendance to come on the stage and share his Hall of Fame induction.
Hip-hop entertainer Drake, an honorary coach in the informal scrimmage that concluded Madness, cemented his citizenship in the Big Blue Nation.
“I’m a Wildcat through and through, and there’s only one Big Blue,” Drake said to cheers. He then asked permission to return to Rupp Arena at a later date to “do a free show for the students.”
Before Drake and the many former UK players took the floor, Calipari delivered his customary once-every-two-years State of the Program address.
In previous years, the UK coach spoke of the program being the “gold standard.” In 2015, he likened being a Wildcat to playing Carnegie Hall. UK players “chase their genius,” he said that year.
This year’s address included Calipari saluting Kentucky off the court as well as on. With UK not for everyone, players must embrace competition and the grind of a season.
Players must also embrace “education and a curious mind,” which form “a cornerstone of the program,” he said.
Kentucky being Kentucky, winning games and championships remain a constant.
“We’re chasing that other team to have the most national championships ever,” Calipari said in reference to UCLA’s 11 titles, which, of course, are three more than UK has won.
Players and other VIPs arrived on a Blue carpet outside the High Street entrance of Rupp Arena. Among the fans seated in a six-row seat of metal bleachers facing the carpet was Devin Smith of Monticello.
Smith, 21, stood out not because he wore a blue shirt, but because it was a blue Duke shirt.
When asked what reaction the shirt had generated, Smith said he got “hit with a bag” while wearing it during the campout for Madness tickets.
In a way, UK women’s coach Matthew Mitchell explained why a Duke shirt produced only smiles.
“Tonight’s all about having fun,” Mitchell said of the Madness vibe.
The fun extended to the introduction of those arriving on the Blue carpet. When what was described as a “party bus” pulled up to the curb, a fan quipped, “Is Rick Pitino on that bus?”
The VIPs mentioned several purposes for Madness.
Maybe most practically, Madness is a well-established recruiting tool.
During the Blue carpet portion of Madness, prospects lined up near the fans. This caused cheers – C-A-T-S, Cats-Cats-Cats – and prompted a middle-aged fan seeking autographs to throw a ball and pen to the players.
Five-star seniors Bol Bol, Darius Garland and Zion Williams posted for photographs, signed autographs and chatted with fans as they waited perhaps 20 minutes for this season’s players to arrive.
Other recruits in attendance included No. 1-ranked junior James Wiseman, fellow five-star juniors Keion Brooks, D.J. Jeffries and Tyrese Maxey, plus highly touted sophomores Jaemyn Brakefield and Jalen Johnson.
Adair County freshman Zion Harmon, who is considered one of the nation’s best players in his class, also attended.
Immanuel Quickley, who committed to Kentucky earlier this year, was scheduled to visit this weekend. But his AAU team director told the Herald-Leader on Friday morning that Quickley would be unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict involving his high school team.
Jack “Goose” Givens, the hero of UK’s 1978 national championship victory over Duke, suggested Madness had an educational purpose.
“Awesome opportunity to figure out what Kentucky basketball is all about (and) what the Big Blue Nation is all about,” he said. “There’s no way it could happen anywhere else in the country.”
Rex Chapman, UK’s “king” in the mid-1980s, said this Kentucky team would be among 10 legitimate contenders to win the national championship.
Cameron Mills, who followed Chapman to UK about 10 years later, was more cautious. “We’ve got five months to be better than we are now,” he said. That led Brent Carney, who conducted television interviews, to label Mills’ comment “coach-speak.”
Carney did not challenge a similar assessment from the Blue carpet by Calipari.
Voicing surprise by the excitement for a team composed of freshmen and/or untested players, Calipari said of fan enthusiasm, “I guess they’re excited to see what the team can be.”
This prompted Carney to ask Calipari to appraise Kentucky’s team in mid-October.
“We stink,” the UK coach said. “We’re not very good.”
Of course, the hope and expectation is that will change between Big Blue Madness and March Madness.
In bidding farewell to UK fans as Madness ended, Calipari sounded a more optimistic note.
“We’re going to have some fun this year,” he said.
7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 20 in Rupp Arena (SEC)