By LARRY VAUGHT
Long before she left for the Bahamas to watch Kentucky play this week, April Peal already had made tentative plans to attend the Final Four in Minneapolis.
“I make plans for the Final Four every year just in case,” said Peal, an emergency room doctor in Franklin, Tenn. “There is no getting off last minute so I plan ahead. There is no way I’m going to be stuck at work in Tennessee if my Cats are playing in the Final Four. I think this team is going to be fun to watch and tough as nails. I think this team is gonna be really good come March.”
Peal has watched UK’s open practice in the Bahamas as well as two games — both wins. Even though he’s not been among the top scorers, Peal likes freshman Ashton Hagans.
“I love his play on the court. He goes, goes, goes,” she said. “We spent a bit of timing chatting with him a couple days ago and he has a great personality and is hilarious.
“They all seem like really great guys. Everyone of the players has been great with fans. They all will gladly stop and take a picture anytime. But what’s really great, is not only do they take a picture, but they will say hi and ask how are you and such. Most of the time in the past, a player rarely said a word and would just take the picture.
“To me, that says a lot that they try to speak to fans as well. It says that they really do appreciate the fans and are not taking pictures just because they have been told they have to.”
Peal says even Calipari has been extra accessible while signing autographs, taking pictures and chatting with fans.
“What makes the trip worthwhile to me is that my two favorite things are combined, Kentucky basketball and the beach. What more could I ask for? Plus it’s always great to spend a week of vacation with my mom and close friends and it’s even better when that time involves basketball,” Pearl said.
She was also in the Bahamas four years ago before the 2014-15 team started the season 38-0. She says that trip was actually more enjoyable for her than this one because there were fewer fans in 2014.
“Before we were in a small gym and we were able to sit court side no problem. One could even stand on the court during warmups and take pictures,” she said. “Fans could arrive anytime at the gym — an hour before or 3 hours before — to watch the team go through shootaround and warmups.”
This year the games were moved to an Atlantis Resort convention center ballroom and tickets were $100 per game — with fans required to buy all four and also stay on Atlantis property. The exhibition games were billed as “open seating” and UK fans have lined up three hours before game time for the first two games.
“Fans are sitting in the hallway floor in hopes of getting a court side seat. But all the side court front rows seats and a lot of the second and third row seats are ‘reserved.’ The first trip was a smaller crowd, thus more intimate and more interaction with the team. Everyone here had the same opportunity to see and meet the team.”
Peal enjoyed a welcoming party with the team and coaches four years ago. This time the welcome was reserved for those attending John Calipari’s Fantasy Camp in the Bahamas.
“After speaking with other people while sitting in line for three hours, the consensus seems to be that the 14-15 trip was for the average to get to know the team and have fun. This year the average fan had been forgotten and the trip is focused on the large donors and profit making,” Peal said.