Mark Story

A Hoosier up front for Madness?

Upward of 20,000 are expected to again fill Rupp Arena on Friday night for the exuberant and peculiar Kentucky basketball ritual known as Big Blue Madness.

Yet the fan slated to hold the best seat in the house, right there among the ink-stained wretches and the blow-dried TV crowd on press row, is a woman who lives among the Hurryin' Hoosiers just south of Indianapolis.

What in the name of Wildcat Wally Clark is going on?

It was June 19 when Greenwood, Indiana's Melissa Stenberg got an e-mail message from the marketing department of the University of Kentucky Athletics Association.

Congratulations, you've been chosen to come to Big Blue Madness ...

"They said I'd won a drawing of people who voted in a poll on UK's Web site and would get to sit on press row," Stenberg recalled. "I'd forgotten I'd even played in (the drawing). I was shocked. I honestly can't even remember voting."

Lest the Kingdom of the Blue think that a coveted seat up close and personal to Patrick, Jodie and Billy G. has gone to a Hoosier poseur, rest easy.

Stenberg, 52, might live in a land of Crimson and Crean, but the Berea native's heart still beats Wildcat Blue.

She figures she did vote in that UK Athletics fan fantasy poll — would you rather sit on press row for Big Blue Madness or in the Commonwealth Stadium press box for an SEC football game? — because that's the kind of thing she's wont to do.

Her late father, Nelson Gay, was a professor of animal sciences in the UK Department of Agriculture.

In that role, he was able to purchase season tickets to Kentucky basketball.

Before he died, he put in his will that the coveted, albeit upper arena, seats he had in Rupp Arena would go to Melissa.

Which explains why a mother of two from a town in central Indiana can look rather bleary-eyed on days following those ESPN-mandated 9 p.m. tip-offs in Rupp.

"Those 9 o'clock games are killers," Stenberg says. "We get home at like 2:30, 3 in the morning. I'm not going to lie: Sometimes, I sit those out. But if it's Florida, Tennessee, I'm there."

A 1974 graduate of Tates Creek — Stenberg's mom, Jeanne, still lives in Lexington — Melissa met her husband, Larry, while attending UK.

One of the highlights of their courtship was attending the 1975 NCAA Tournament Mideast Region finals in Dayton, Ohio.

That was the game when Joe B. Hall and company upset an undefeated, top-ranked IU to go to the Final Four.

Since Larry's career took them to Indiana, Melissa has proudly carried the colors of her native state university behind the lines of the enemy.

Once, a new neighbor with a strong Hoosier pedigree came over to the Stenberg house to introduce himself.

Pat Fischer made a point of saying that the Stenbergs probably knew his father, Don.

Any Indiana basketball fan would instantly recognize the name Don Fischer — the veteran radio play-by-play voice of IU sports.

"We had no idea who Don Fischer was," Melissa says.

When Pat Fischer looked in the Stenberg garage — "covered with UK posters," Melissa says — he understood.

In a way, Indiana University has gotten a touch of karmic payback on Melissa.

Her daughter, Jessica, is working toward a nursing degree from Indiana. Her son, Justin, already has a business degree from IU.

"It hurts me to see my son's diploma say Indiana," Melissa says.

Do her kids, dare we ask, root for IU in hoops?

"No. No. No," Melissa says. "As parents, we did one thing right."

You might wonder why someone who regularly gets to see the Wildcats play real games in Rupp would drive from out of state to watch a trumped-up practice.

Even if they will get to sit on the front row.

"Are you kidding? After all those years upstairs (in Rupp), I can't wait to be close enough to the floor to hear the sneakers squeak," Stenberg says. "A chance to see the new players up close. It's gonna be great."

Who would have guessed a fan from Indiana could be so worthy of the best seat at Big Blue Madness?