Vaught’s Note: Owensboro native Nick Nicholas was an editor at the Cats Pause from 1984-1991. He currently lives in Pelham, NY and is Director of Sports Development at Nicholas & Lence Communications in New York City that includes heading up the public relations efforts for the NYRR Millrose Games at The Armory New Balance Track & Field Center in Washington Heights.
By NICK NICHOLAS
If I’ve learned anything these past few weeks, it’s to value the memories. Lord knows we’ve had time to collect our thoughts and reminisce.
A month ago, our family of five traveled to Lexington to see Kentucky play Florida – the first time my wife and our three children ever stepped into Rupp Arena to soak up the tradition. Every day, especially now, I’m thankful they were able to embrace that opportunity … an opportunity to witness the remarkable basketball palace where I used to cover games in the 1980s and 1990s and the program I’ve followed since a 10-year-old boy way back when.
Although now a transplanted Kentuckian living 700 miles away in Pelham, NY and three decades removed from working at The Cats’ Pause, I continue to follow the tradition thanks to social media, SEC Network, iHeartRadio and Sirius XM Radio.
Coach John Calipari has been a major supporter of keeping former UK coach Joe B. Hall in the forefront and inviting former UK players back to Lexington. Those efforts deserve to be greatly applauded. On his first day on the job, Coach Calipari embraced the program’s tradition when he recognized the family of the late Bill Keightley, the beloved equipment manager under Adolph Rupp and every UK coach after.
“One and done” is a part of the new tradition associated with college basketball. This column is not to criticize that one- or two-year revolving door for many Wildcat players, but to understand there may be a way to resonate with those UK fans who yearn for the good old days and believe an opportunity exists for the UK program to do more.
You see, for a while I’ve had these two ideas bouncing like a basketball in my head.
Presently, our way of life is to socialize at least six feet from anyone not belonging to our “family unit.” That doesn’t prevent us to have face-to-face interaction through a laptop, albeit from home.
Longtime friend and former Cats’ Pause columnist Larry Vaught gave me the opportunity to reveal these ideas … and I thank him.
Idea 1: Reboot the University of Kentucky Invitational (UKIT).
The UKIT was a fun, annual two-games-in-two-days affair the weekend before Christmas. Because students were on winter break, fans throughout the Commonwealth who didn’t have season tickets had a chance to not only enjoy four games of basketball but help add to Lexington’s tourism during the holidays.
The tournament started in 1953 with Duke, La Salle and UCLA (wouldn’t that be nice today). Kentucky enjoyed 27 UKIT titles, 64 wins and only 10 defeats. Ironically, the last time Kentucky played in its own tournament in 1989, the Rick Pitino-coached squad lost in the championship to SW Louisiana, 116-113 in overtime.
You should never end something with a loss.
I remember the championship hardware being a monster-sized trophy. I trust it’s in safe keeping somewhere in Memorial Coliseum. Wouldn’t it be fun to dust it off and have a college team hoist it again – the Saturday night, a week or so before each Christmas – at Rupp Arena?
Play up the first reboot big, too. Maybe include Matthew Mitchell’s program to host its own holiday invitational the week after.
Bring back three coaches with UK ties. Iona (Rick Pitino – but that’s likely too soon) could play Brigham Young (Mark Pope) in the opener and High Point (Tubby Smith) versus Kentucky in the Friday nightcap. The consolation and championship game would be Saturday night.
Moving forward, inviting non-conference programs like UK used to play in the UKIT could be attractive, i.e.., Purdue, Syracuse, Ohio State, St. John’s, West Virginia to name several. Each year invite an instate school to the UKIT party.
Not sure about key logistics, both financial guarantees and television rights. But for tradition’s sake, it’s worth considering.
Idea 2: Return to Kentucky Exposition Center: Freedom Hall.
I remember as a 11-year-old on a December night in 1971 going with my dad, riding in a Winnebago from Owensboro with a bunch of his friends to Louisville’s Freedom Hall to watch Adolph Rupp’s Kentucky team take on Indiana and its first-year head coach Bobby Knight. Half of our party donned red, but as a 11-year-old I had no say in who we shouldn’t bring along.
The place was tremendously loud, a superb atmosphere, and if I wasn’t hooked on college basketball prior to that night I sure was afterward. Indiana won 90-89 in double overtime, an opening-tip-to-last-second thriller as Hoosier center Steve Downing scored like a million points (he actually tallied 47 points, grabbed 25 rebounds while playing all 50 minutes) against the likes of UK standouts Jim Andrews and Tom Parker.
Like the UKIT trophy, Freedom Hall could be dusted off and even decorated with the UK hardwood court.
Freedom Hall may be considered a dinosaur in today’s basketball facility world, but it’s the state’s operated dinosaur and it should be preserved as a basketball showcase. It’s a wonderful place to watch a home team play. I’m sure many Louisville Cardinal, ABA Kentucky Colonel and, for once a year in late December, Kentucky Wildcat fans can attest. The sight lines were good – even from the end zone far from the court – and the deafening roars inspiring for the home team and intimidating to the visitors.
Don’t forget, it was good enough to host six Final Fours and many KHSAA Sweet 16s.
Some of those memorable roars echoing from Freedom Hall, both in person and listening on the radio at home, include: a Kentucky come-from-behind 90-78 win over North Carolina during the 1974-75 Final Four season, two days after being blown out at Indiana; the improbable victory by a young, undermanned Kentucky team led by superfast freshman guard Dwight Anderson over heavily-favored Notre Dame during the 1978-79 season; the many showdowns with border-rival Indiana; and every now and then mighty Kansas came to Freedom Hall.
Toward the end of the UK/Freedom Hall era, Indiana continued to play Kentucky every other year in Louisville and eventually the two teams split the attendance in half. Other visitors to play Kentucky at Freedom Hall included Purdue, VMI, Georgia, Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, Morehead State, Ole Miss, Marshall, Alabama, Georgia Tech, Tulane, Iona, Chattanooga, Alabama-Birmingham and Appalachian State.
Calipari’s National Championship 2011-12 season at UK included a 73-51 victory over Arkansas Little Rock, the last time the Wildcats called Freedom Hall their home away from home for a regular season game.
Perhaps there is a greater reason to return to Freedom Hall: the thousands of UK alumni and supporters who reside in the greater Louisville area. This could be Kentucky’s home away from home. It would give the program a valued identity in central Kentucky.
Unlike the University of Kentucky, in-state rival U of L cannot claim a second such venue anywhere in the Bluegrass.
So … you may agree both of these ideas could make a difference.
You may like only one.
You may think both are crazy and unrealistic.
I’m just thankful to be able to bounce them your way. Stay safe, everyone.