Big Blue Madness this year could be likened to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Kentucky celebrated Basketball Past, Basketball Present and Basketball Future.
Players representing UK’s first three national championship teams (1948, 1949 and 1951) took a bow at center court during Friday night’s festivities. Future championships, perhaps as soon as next spring, were understood if not boldly proclaimed.
As has been customary since he became UK coach in 2009, John Calipari served as ringmaster.
Calipari began his semi-annual State of the (Big Blue) Nation speech by reflecting on his upcoming 10th season as Kentucky coach.
With a photo taken from his 2009 introductory news conference, Calipari said, “I’ll admit. I was a little nervous because I knew the responsibility I was undertaking ... and lead the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball. This stage. This court. This is the greatest of them all.
“It’s heavy stuff. I knew that in 2009 just as I know now. This is the greatest job in the country.”
Calipari acknowledged that he once considered age 60 a time to retire. He turns 60 in February.
“But when I look at this team ... it makes me want to keep going,” he said. “I wake up every day excited to coach my team. I may look one age, but I can tell you that these guys make me feel like I’m 30 again.
“They’re driven and wired to earn their opportunity. And they all have a burning desire to win and be the best team in the country.”
The customary scrimmage, which did not begin until 8:54 p.m., after a three-point contest and a dunk contest.
Many more three-point shots were missed than made, and it wasn’t like defense was the reason. Perhaps telling, Calipari halted the scrimmage with more than a minute still on the clock. “I’ve seen enough,” he told the crowd.
Of course, Madness is made for hyperbole. So it was no surprise when earlier in the evening Calipari made a historic claim.
“I’ve had special teams here at Kentucky, some of the best that have ever played this great game,” he told the crowd.
This might have come as a surprise to, say, the UCLA dynasty teams led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or Bill Walton.
But the inference seemed to be that the current Cats can be measured by such a scale.
Several prospects for future Kentucky success heard Calipari’s speech. UK’s three early commitments from the class of 2019 attended Madness: Dontaie Allen, Tyrese Maxey and Kahlil Whitney. Also in Rupp Arena was Vernon Carey, the No. 1 player in the Rivals.com rankings in the class of 2019.
Three five-star prospects in the class of 2020 attended: RJ Hampton, Jaemyn Brakefield and Jalen Johnson. So did the No. 1 player in the class of 2021, Terrence Clarke.
Reggie Hanson was one of the former UK players who walked on the “blue carpet” set up outside Rupp Arena. A bleacher full of fans faced the blue carpet. Reporters stood between the fans and celebrities hawking interviews.
“You’re like at the Emmys or something,” Hanson said. “That’s what makes it the best program. I don’t say in the country. I say in the world.”
Jack Givens, one of the heroes of UK’s 1978 national championship team, saw Big Blue Madness as a defining characteristic of the program.
“From the outside, you’ll think we’re crazy,” he said. “But this is just Kentucky basketball. We got the extra mile here. Where else could you go and have fans sitting in stands (and) blue carpet interviews? That’s Kentucky basketball.”
Former Coach Joe B. Hall began Kentucky’s Madness in 1982. He remembered it as an activity designed to build student enthusiasm for the team. The coaches put signs in dorms.
The entertainment at this embryonic stage was to scatter 100 $1 bills on the court. Students sitting where a star had been placed below the chair got to come down and gather as much money as they could in designated time frame.
“It was a hoot,” Hall said. “But that was the promotion.”
Kenny Walker was a freshman at that first Madness. He credited that Madness as the place he gained the nickname “Sky” Walker.
“I was nervous as heck,” he said. “I could jump. But I was jumping extra high that night.”
Of course, Madness has evolved dramatically. “They say it’s a practice,” Walker said. “But it’s a pep rally.”