Rick Pitino, the pope and a Japanese bath house sounds like the setup for a good joke. But in this case, all three are part of the entertaining history of Kentucky basketball on foreign trips.
So is a marriage at the Vatican and a severe earthquake.
To say the least, Kentucky’s previous foreign trips have been eventful. With UK going to the Bahamas early next month, here are some highlights of times when the Big Blue Nation went international.
For a week in August of 1995, Kentucky basketball went to Italy. Then-UK Coach Rick Pitino was ejected during the team’s only loss in five games: 123-115 at Montecatini.
“Yelling at an Italian ref that was talking in Italian, and (Pitino) was sitting there screaming at him in English,” said Jeff Sheppard, a guard on UK’s team.
Of the language barrier, Sheppard said of Pitino, “He speaks New York Italian, not real Italian.”
The confusion extended into the stands where people in UK’s traveling party sat.
“We did understand the international get-out-of-here signal,” said Marta McMackin, the longtime administrative assistant for UK basketball coaches.
Fast forward to 2001. Sheppard is playing for an Italian professional team in his last basketball season. One of his new teammates, Mario Boni, recognizes Sheppard.
“Did you play for Kentucky one summer and you guys came over here?” Sheppard recalled Boni asking.
It turned out Boni had played a central role for Montecatini in the game that saw Pitino ejected.
“He was this legendary player in Italy,” Sheppard said of Boni. “Every time we touched him, the Italian refs called a foul. Coach just went crazy.”
The memory led Boni and Sheppard to laughter. “He was, like, those were all my buddies,” Sheppard recalled Boni saying. “‘I knew all those refs.’”
I do (again)
The trip to Italy included an audience with Pope John Paul II.
“When he walked out on that stage, there was just kind of an aura around him,” Marta McMackin said. “It took your breath.”
The trip also saw Ralph Hacker, the radio play-by-play announcer for UK basketball, re-marry his former wife, Marilyn, at the Vatican.
“He was calling her Marilyn Hacker Hacker on that trip,” recalled Chuck Culpepper, who went to Italy as columnist for the Herald-Leader.
A trip to Japan and Hong Kong in early summer of 1986 included an invitation to visit a Japanese bath house (known as a sento). If memory serves, Director of Athletics Cliff Hagan organized this adventure within the adventure. How many times would this opportunity present itself? I accepted with my little mind visions of a geisha walking on my back.
Alas, a gnarly old man worked on my “muscles.”
But first there was a shower, then dips into pools of cool and warm water. Then putting on a robe and being escorted to a recliner to watch a Japanese baseball game on television, sip adult beverages and relax with other members of the UK travel party that went to the sento.
After the massage, we returned to the hotel. I poured myself into bed and slipped off to a blissful night’s sleep.
Former Herald-Leader columnist Chuck Culpepper recalled a game in Venice during the 1995 tour of Italy.
Someone opened up a door behind one of the baskets, which gave the game an open-air feel. Fans in the stands got a view of one of the city’s famous canals.
“You could see the gondolas going by,” Culpepper said. “I remember one gondolier craning his neck to kind of look at the basketball as he steered the boat. And I was wondering if there would be a crash.”
A visit to Verona during the 1995 tour of Italy produced a wherefore-art-thou-Kentucky moment.
William Shakespeare made Verona the setting for Romeo and Juliet. During a tour of Verona, the guide noted an outdoor amphitheater once seated 24,000.
“I love this story,” Chuck Culpepper said. “One of the fans behind me said, ‘About the size of Rupp.’”
The 2010 trip to Windsor, Canada, hardly qualified as foreign travel. Windsor is across the Detroit River from Detroit.
“My room faced downtown Detroit, which I could see,” said Tim Asher, the video coordinator for UK basketball. “So we were literally — what would you call that? — a couple miles from the United States.”
Although just across the border, the return trip through customs was not routine. Customs agents stopped the bus carrying Asher and other non-playing support people. (The team flew home.) Dogs searched the bus’s underbelly and seating section.
The dogs did not find any contraband, Asher said with a laugh.
The 2010 trip to Canada gave Jarrod Polson and his UK teammates a eureka moment.
“We went out for warm-ups that first game and the bleachers were full of Kentucky fans,” Polson said. “And I think at that moment we were all, like, the BBN, this is what the people have been talking about. ... I knew that more because I grew up in Kentucky. But for the rest of the guys, they were, like, this is unbelievable because the stands were packed, and we were in Windsor, Canada.”
A moment later, Polson added another reason for his surprise. UK was playing the University of Windsor. “We were technically the away team,” he said.
During the 1986 tour of Japan, one dinner came with a side of shock. When the menu read fish, it meant fish. That included head and dead eyes that seemed to be saying, how could you?
“Eddie Sutton had this thing which was really cool,” said Kenny Walker, who played on the trip even though 1985-86 was his last season. “He always made players try something they never tried before.”
James Blackmon and the late Ed Davender were the pickiest eaters on the team.
“They just got up and left,” Walker said with a laugh. “They didn’t even try. I remember, Coach Sutton said, ‘C’mon guys. You’ve got to try it.’ Man, I felt so sorry for them.”
Ultimately, Sutton relented and the players ordered something else to eat.
Antoine Walker’s tolerance for Italian cooking reached its limit sometime during the 1995 tour.
“He desperately wanted a Whopper,” Chuck Culpepper said. “So he found a Burger King. He was very excited.”
Another gastric adventure came during a lavish farewell dinner. Among the delights was grappa, an attention-getting Italian brandy that can be 70 to 120 proof.
“We took a swallow and I said, ‘Oh my God,’” Culpepper said.
Culpepper remembered Mark Coomes, who reported on the trip for the Courier-Journal, adding, “I’m going to take this home and use it to clean the drains.”
UK’s exhausting six-game, 10-day trip to the Bahamas four years ago got off to a telling start. When the team arrived at Nassau’s 2,500-seat Kendal G.L. Isaacs National Gymnasium, a player demonstrated his shooter’s eye. Tim Asher believed it was Devin Booker who said the baskets were not at the right height.
John Calipari had the baskets measured and adjusted. The rims were a few inches shy of 10 feet above the floor.
During the 1982 trip to Japan, UK’s black players fascinated Japanese children.
“They would literally come over and rub to see if the color would come off,” Derrick Hord said. “That was an interesting experience in itself.
“At first, it was a little bit unsettling. But we knew they didn’t mean anything.”
Recalling this experience, Hord said, “It’s nothing negative. I guess they hadn’t been exposed to African-Americans.”
UK’s arrival in Tokyo for a seven-game tour in 1978 was more than a little unsettling. What became known as the Miyagi earthquake struck on June 12, 1978. UK’s first game was the next day. It was a major quake that measured 7.7 on the Richter scale.
With the elevators shut off, UK players were stuck on an upper floor of a high-rise hotel. Jack Givens recalled the walls creaking and the building swaying.
“Eerie, eerie sound and feeling to be in that,” he said.
Kyle Macy added in a text message, “I thought someone was shaking my bed. Looked out the window and the locals were running outside and bowing on the ground.
“(Jay) Shidler slept through the whole thing!!!”
To Steve Clevenger. He turns 72 on Sunday (today). ... To Mike Flynn. He turns 65 on Tuesday. ... To Donald Williams. He turns 30 on Tuesday. ... To Hamidou Diallo. He turns 20 on Tuesday. ... To North Carolina Coach Roy Williams. He turns 68 on Wednesday.