Why UK Basketball Fans Are Serious About the Cats


The Making Of A Wildcat Fan For Life

I was born about 7 months after Adolph Rupp claimed the first of four basketball national championships for the University of Kentucky . Before I was 3, Coach Rupp had claimed his second and third championships. Kentuckians from the Big Sandy to the Mississippi Rivers shared the great pride that Coach Rupp delivered at a time when life in Kentucky was hard for many. Employment opportunities in the mountains were limited at best as the Eastern Kentucky coal economy declined in the early 1950s, and dad moved our family from Eastern Kentucky to Michigan to find work. However, the Kentucky pride that Rupp provided never left him, and my earliest childhood memories include a clear understanding that dad wanted my future to include the University of Kentucky .

Kentucky basketball was special to dad, as it was for most Kentuckians of that era. On game nights, he would retire to his bedroom where he would work the tuning dial on his nightstand radio and listen to Cawood describe the Wildcat games on WHAS between the competing static and Cuban stations. I was aware of basketball while growing up in the Detroit area, but I understood that basketball was only a winter diversion between Michigan football and Detroit Tiger baseball seasons, and Red Wing hockey diverted a significant amount of the winter attention from basketball.

I would not discover why Kentucky basketball was so special for several more years.

In 1962, dad moved our family back to Eastern Kentucky when new work opportunities appeared for him, and I began my freshman year of high school in Kentucky.  Before long, I discovered that basketball was King in Kentucky , and the former mainstays, baseball and football, simply filled the time between basketball seasons. High school basketball games were ritual events that captured the attention of entire communities. Social calendars included those regularly scheduled Tuesday and Friday night high school games and everyone dreamed of their team playing in the Sweet Sixteen.

Kentucky Wildcat basketball remained in the background during my freshman and sophomore years, even though I was well aware of the stir that Kentucky games always created when Cotton Nash and company enjoyed a rare televised game.

On January 2, 1965 , I attended my very first UK basketball game. I saw Kentucky defeat Dartmouth College 107-67 at Memorial Coliseum. I had certainly gained a heightened awareness of Kentucky basketball as a result of this experience, but I was not “hooked,” yet. The 1965 Wildcat team finished 15-10, a “poor” overall season outcome that overshadowed my first eyewitness experience because my high school team supplied greater hope for post-season success.

In March 1965, UCLA won its second straight NCAA Championship by defeating a favored Michigan team, led by Cazzie Russell. My years in Michigan created a natural interest in that game for me. As I began my senior year of high school the following fall, it was clear that Michigan would open the 1965-66 season as the consensus team to beat on the strength of the great Cazzie Russell and its other returning players. One of my cousins began college at Bowling Green State University . Bowling Green had a fine basketball heritage, having sent two of its recent players to the NBA, Howard Komives and Nate Thurman. The University of Michigan opened their 1965-66 season in Ann Arbor against Bowling Green , and my cousin got two tickets, and invited me to join him.

Wow!!!. I was going to see Cazzie Russell's Michigan Wolverines open their season, and they did not disappoint. That late November experience elevated my interest in college basketball to a new level, and as soon as I returned to my Kentucky home, I transferred that newfound interest to the UK games.

Kentucky defeated Hardin Simmons by 28 points on December 1. Kentucky then won at Virginia [26 pt win] and at Illinois [18 pt win]. Northwestern was the next victim, by 11 points in Lexington . As Claude Sullivan's voice brought these games to life, I recognized that this Kentucky team was creating quite a stir. They were a rag-tag group of runts left over from the team that had lost 10 times in 25 tries the year before. Kentucky 's tallest starter was only 6 ft 5 inches, and they had a 6 ft 3 inch forward jumping center, yet they were handling each of their opponents with apparent ease.

The winning continued, over Air Force by 20 and Indiana by 35 points in the UKIT, propelling Kentucky to #10 in the wire service polls. A perfect 6-0 start, and I was captivated. My Kentucky Pride began to swell and my infatuation with Michigan , Cazzie Russell, and the trip to Ann Arbor rapidly faded.

The winning continued, but there was more. The manner in which these Runts won was clearly special. They defeated Texas Tech by 26, Notre Dame by 34, and Saint Louis by 10 to complete their non-conference schedule undefeated, 9-0. By the time the Cats began their journey into the SEC schedule, the wire services declared Kentucky was #2 in the nation. At this point, I realized that MY KENTUCKY basketball team was on the same level as those Wolverines who had captured my imagination just 6 weeks prior.

The Cats continued to win as they marched through the SEC. During this SEC march, only one opponent truly challenged the Cats and threatened their unbeaten status. I recall the intensity in Claude Sullivan's voice as the Cats needed critical free throws from reservist Cliff Berger to send the game into overtime, and again into double overtime before the Cats prevailed, as was clearly their right, by 4 points. The winning continued and Kentucky moved to #1 in the nation following their victory over Florida by 10 points as they moved to 18-0. Kentucky had managed to be one of only two remaining unbeaten teams in the land. Upstart Texas Western was the other unbeaten team.

Then came the seminal experience that cemented my passion for Wildcat basketball, February 26, 1966 . My dad, a Brakeman for the C&O railroad, obtained a free passenger train pass for me to travel from Ashland to Lexington and back. I arose at 4:30 am that cold Saturday morning to catch the 6 am train. The train arrived in Lexington shortly after 8 am , and I went directly to Memorial Coliseum to get into the standing room ticket line for the UK-Tennessee game. It was a cold, mid-winter day, but the anticipation of seeing the Cats in person kept all of us warm as we waited for hours. Those around me exchanged their favorite Cat stories, which I absorbed like a dry sponge. The excitement built to fever pitch when the Tennessee team bus arrived at the Coliseum and the enemy actually cut through our line near my location.

They allowed the standing room crowd to enter about 10 minutes prior to tipoff, and I hustled to secure a position at the top of the Coliseum, behind the student section, from which I would watch this epic event. I will never forget the electricity that charged the place on that afternoon. Each time a Wildcat [typically Pat Riley or Louie Dampier] would release a long shot, the Coliseum would begin to roar, in anticipation of another Wildcat basket, followed by a huge “BOOM” as the ball entered the net.

I was hooked.  I would bleed blue forevermore.

We all know how that season played out from that 23-0 start. One week to the day after that life altering experience in Lexington , the Cats would travel to Knoxville for a televised rematch with Tennessee where the Cats suffered their only regular season defeat. Ironically, Texas Western also lost its only regular season game that same day, and UK remained #1 in the wire service polls. A season ending victory would secure their 24-1 regular season record.

The Runts' 15-1 SEC record earned a trip to the NCAA tournament. Dayton , and Henry Finkel were the first post-season hurdle, and the Cats disposed of them by 7. The Mideast Regional Championship game pitted MY Cats against Michigan , yes, the very same Cazzie Russell led team that started the season as the team to beat, the same team that got me started on this journey just four months earlier. The Cats advanced to the Final Four by defeating the #9 ranked Michigan Wolverines and Cazzie by 7. In the final four, the Cats left it all on the floor in defeating #2 ranked Duke by 4, 83-79.

That set up the championship game, #1 Kentucky against little known #3 Texas Western, and we all know about that game, indeed the biggest sporting disappointment that I have ever experienced. At the time, I sensed that this defeat was huge, but I could not comprehend its full historical significance.

Listen To Coach Rupp's Post Game Comments

I hope you have enjoyed my journey down this memory lane, and thank you for allowing me to share with you how I became a Kentucky Wildcat fan for life.

Submitted by Richard Cheeks

Read Other Fans' Stories

Kentucky Basketball in the Forties and Fifties

Kentucky Basketball is in my blood

How I Became A Wildcat Fan

My 53 Year Love Affair with The Cats

Go Back

Copyright 2006
SugarHill Communications of Kentucky
All Rights Reserved