John Clay

Louisville crowd happy and Blue

John Clay
John Clay

LOUISVILLE — There were 1,200 strong, packed into a ballroom of the Kentucky International Convention Center, many decked out in blue, spirits high.

"I see a lot more smiling faces than two years ago when you all were in quite a bit of pain," UK President Lee Todd told the annual gathering of UK alumni.

Nothing to do with hometown Louisville, mind you. Rick Pitino's Cardinals are a pre-season top-five team, a national championship contender, and a continuing thorn in his former employer's pride.

It's just that, judging by the mid-week turnout, Big Blue Nation thinks the coach it has now can reshape the race, take it back where it wants to go.

A year ago, Billy Gillispie was the new coach on the block, trying to feel his way through the darkness of a new job. Now, he's a looser, goosier — though still nervous and hand-wringing — Billy G., taking a few roast-like jabs at the guests sharing the head table, cracking a few jokes, casting himself in a self-deprecating light.

If you showed up Wednesday looking for hard-core hoops news, there wasn't much to be had. Gillispie's second Kentucky team has practiced five days, for heaven's sake.

With the possible exception of Matt Pilgrim's go-round with a major case of cramps, most everyone is healthy and doing well. Michael Porter is "much improved," said the coach. Josh Harrellson is "going to surprise a ton of people," offered Gillispie. Jared Carter got "more defensive rebounds (Tuesday) in practice than he got all of last year," the coach reported.

That was about all there was of that, so let's move on to someone who wasn't there.

They replayed the video tribute to Bill Keightley, Mr. Wildcat, who passed away last April. That caused Dr. Todd to relay a story.

About 4 p.m. the day of Big Blue Madness, the UK president received a call from the office of his men's basketball coach. Gillispie wanted to know if the president wanted to coach one of the teams that night.

"Let's see, we called Dr. Todd at 4 o'clock to coach a game that started at 10 o'clock. Yeah, he was our first choice," cracked Gillispie.

Anyway, Todd said he was back in the locker room with the team, which was jumping around, getting ready to go burst onto the floor for the first time. Then, on one of the TVs inside the locker room, they noticed that same Keightley tribute video as it was being shown to the Rupp Arena crowd.

A hush fell over the locker room as the players gathered around the television and watched. When it was over, said Todd, "they all applauded."

Then when it was his turn at the podium Wednesday, Gillispie started to talk about the late equipment manager, his friend, but he couldn't. As he has done before, the coach got choked up.

He had to stop for a moment.

"That's a good way to get started, isn't it," said Gillispie once he was composed, by way of an apology.

Actually, it is a good way to get this season started, to remember the man who had been so much a part of the program, a program with the kind of winning and success that makes 1,200 people brave the downtown traffic on a weekday to hear a basketball coach talk for 30 minutes about a team that hasn't even completed a full week of practice yet.

Oh yeah, in the downtown of its biggest rival.

"It's what makes this a special place to coach," said Gillispie.

That's what they came to hear.