John Clay

Forty years later, memories of the day Kentucky basketball won its fifth title

Some 10,000 fans packed Blue Grass Field to greet the returning Kentucky Wildcats when they brought home a fifth NCAA championship trophy on March 28, 1978, after defeating Duke 94-88.
Some 10,000 fans packed Blue Grass Field to greet the returning Kentucky Wildcats when they brought home a fifth NCAA championship trophy on March 28, 1978, after defeating Duke 94-88. File photo

On the morning of March 27, 1978, I left the house in the dark, saying goodbye to my father who was, as he was most mornings, sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast before another day of work on the farm.

This wasn’t just any day, however, not for a freshman student at the University of Kentucky. This was a day of anticipation, as for that Monday night the UK basketball team would play the Duke Blue Devils in the finals of the NCAA Tournament in St. Louis.

Along with my friend, Steve, we commuted from Winchester to Lexington my first year at UK. We alternated driving responsibilities. We scheduled early classes. I don’t remember much about my studies that Monday, except that we were much more focused on what would happen that night.

We lived a charmed sports life in 1977-78, my first year in college. Fran Curci’s football team went 10-1. Joe B. Hall’s basketball team was No. 2 in the preseason AP poll. We didn’t cheer as much that season as we analyzed and scrutinized. March was what mattered. Were the Cats good enough to win the national championship, the school’s first national title in 20 years? That’s how we judged each game.

First, you had to get tickets, however. Student tickets. This meant student-ticket distribution Sunday mornings at Memorial Coliseum. You lined up outside. You were ushered inside to sit on the bleachers until dispersal. Some passed the time studying. Some played pick-up basketball on the Coliseum court. Shirts vs. skins. It was a different time.

Finally, after UK went 25-2 in the regular season, unbeaten in Rupp Arena, it was March. There was no SEC Tournament in those days. It was straight to the NCAA Tournament where the Cats rallied to beat Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the Mideast Region finals — Kyle Macy went 10 of 11 from the foul line — then dispatched Eddie Sutton and Arkansas in the Final Four to earn the spot opposite Duke.

Having finished Monday classes, Steve and I returned to his house in Winchester. I continued to the farm, had dinner with my family where we discussed the coming game that night, then went right back to Winchester to watch on television with a group of friends.

We cheered as Jack Givens scored 41 points. (An aspiring nerd/sportswriter, I kept stats in a notebook.) We hugged as James Lee placed the punctuation mark on the 94-88 victory with a dunk at the buzzer. We burst out the door and ran around that neighborhood screaming at the top of our lungs.

Next, we piled in cars and headed to Lexington to the airport. Big Blue Nation was of one mind that night. The place was packed. I remember two things: The sound of shattering glass from the display case that collapsed under the weight of fans sitting on top; and the sight of Hall and the team, having finally arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, waving from a balcony to the fans below.

The day after the game, a female student, oblivious to basketball and sports in general, was looking out her room at Keeneland Hall puzzled by the large crowd on campus when she happened to notice her mother with a friend from back home in Bracken County. “What are you doing here?,” called out the student from her open window. “I’m here for the championship celebration,” replied her mother. You know, next door, at Memorial Coliseum.

(Five years later, to my eternal luck and good fortune, that student became my wife.)

I don’t remember if classes were canceled that Tuesday, not that it mattered. Few students were going to class at the University of Kentucky the day after the basketball team had won the national championship.

What I do remember is arriving back home from the airport early Tuesday, walking down the sidewalk behind my house in the dark, 24 hours from the time I had left the morning before, and seeing the kitchen light on with my father at the table again, eating his breakfast before another day of work.

In my mind, 40 years later, I can still see that as clear as day.

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