On Saturday afternoon, an era in University of Kentucky men’s basketball history ends.
When the No. 6 Kentucky Wildcats (25-5, 14-3) play host to the Florida Gators (17-13, 9-8 SEC), it will be the final UK game ever played in a 23,500-seat Rupp Arena.
Next season, a renovation that will install chair-back seats in place of bleachers along both sides (but not in the end zones) in Rupp’s upper deck will reduce capacity to some 20,500.
The upgrade in comfort for (most of) those who sit in Rupp’s upper arena is overdue. Yet with some 3,000 fewer fans, the “Rupp roar” that the biggest games have produced since the venue opened in 1976-77 will, presumably, not be the same.
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To commemorate the passing of an era, I have asked some Kentucky basketball stakeholders to answer this question:
What is the loudest UK crowd you’ve ever heard at Rupp Arena?
JOE B. HALL, former Kentucky coach (1972-85).
The game: Kentucky’s 67-66 overtime victory over Kansas from Dec. 9, 1978. The Wildcats, down 66-60 with 31 seconds left in OT, won via a miraculous rally led by Dwight Anderson and Kyle Macy.
The Rupp roar: “When Kyle Macy hit the shot that tied that game, that was the loudest I ever heard (the Rupp crowd),” says Hall. “I always felt like that was the game where we fully initiated Rupp Arena as the replacement for Memorial Coliseum.”
DERON FELDHAUS, ex-Kentucky forward (1987-92).
The game: UK’s 99-88 victory over Tennessee on March 7, 1992.
The Rupp roar: “We were pressing and I was guarding Allan Houston on an out-of-bounds play,” Feldhaus says. “Knowing the way we played then, I’m sure we were on a run. Rupp (Arena) was so loud, I noticed it on the court. I was like ‘Woah.’”
DICK GABRIEL, WLAP-AM 630 radio sports talk host.
The Rupp roar: “That game when Florida came in ranked No. 1 and (UK) just ran them out of the gym, just beat the daylights out of them,” Gabriel says. “That crowd started loud and stayed loud.
“Villanova, it was a CBS game, and there was so much electricity, you could rub your fingers together and almost feel it. That was the first time I can ever remember my ears hurting from the noise.”
TOM LEACH, UK radio play-by-play announcer.
The games: Multiple
The Rupp roar: “I don’t have a definite one,” Leach says. “Going back to before I was the announcer, the 1990 win over LSU (100-95 on Feb. 15, 1990) in (Rick) Pitino’s first year (as Kentucky coach) was one that people still talk about (the crowd).
“The game when Tayshaun Prince hit the five three-(pointers) in a row against North Carolina (Dec. 8, 2001), when that fifth three went in, the noise just exploded.
“And, in (John Calipari’s) first year, Kentucky beat North Carolina (68-66, Dec. 5, 2009), and there was a play where John Wall drove and dunked, and Rupp got really, really loud.”
CAMERON MILLS, ex-Kentucky guard (1994-98).
The game: UK’s 72-66 loss to South Carolina on March 2, 1997.
The Rupp roar: “It was sort of a back-and-forth game, and South Carolina was up a little bit,” Mills said. “Then Anthony (Epps) hit a three and I hit a three, and that was the loudest I ever heard it.”
ALAN CUTLER, retired WLEX-TV sports anchor.
The game: Kentucky 100, LSU 95, Feb. 15, 1990. UK, with only eight scholarship players and none taller than 6-foot-7, somehow beat an LSU roster stacked with Shaquille O’Neal, Stanley Roberts and the-then Chris Jackson.
The Rupp roar: “It was so loud, whoever I was sitting next to, we couldn’t hear each other trying to talk to each other,” Cutler says. “We were screaming at each other and, finally, just started laughing. We both knew, in that instant, it was something that just doesn’t happen.”
BILL OWEN, Lexington Center president and CEO.
The game: Kentucky’s 92-70 victory over Jerry Tarkanian and UNLV on March 4, 1978.
The Rupp roar: “There was a play where Jack Givens drove in and did a two-handed dunk,” Owen recalls. “He wasn’t a player who dunked a lot, so when he did (dunk) and did so emphatically, the crowd erupted.”
KENNY WALKER, ex-Kentucky forward (1982-86).
The Rupp roar: “The first game, with Houston, I played in. It was the Twin Towers (Sam Bowie and Melvin Turpin) against Hakeem Olajuwon. That game, the crowd started loud and it never fell off,” Walker says.
“The other game was when Tayshaun (Prince) made all those threes against North Carolina.”
LARRY VAUGHT, longtime Kentucky sportswriter.
The game: Kentucky’s 1984 win over Houston on Super Bowl Sunday.
The Rupp roar: “That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard Rupp, the whole atmosphere, the whole game, right from the start,” Vaught says.
Moving forward, I asked Owen if a Rupp Arena that seats 20,500 can ever again be as loud as the 23,500-seat Rupp has been.
“I guess that just depends on how loud people want to scream,” the Rupp Arena executive said. “You know what they say, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight; it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”