By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Sometimes a certain voice or a picture or a specific song triggers a memory from a long time ago. That happened recently when CBS and ESPN starting replaying classic NCAA games of the past. The voice that triggered the most memories for me was hearing Cawood Ledford on a voice over of highlights from the 1991-1992 Kentucky Basketball season – which was his last as the Voice of the Wildcats – and then watching portions of a replay of the 1992 Elite Eight game between Kentucky and Duke.
Not so much because of the game or “the shot,” which I won’t mention here, but because of the team itself; the Kentucky team that became known forever in UK Basketball history as “The Unforgettables”.
Dictionary.com defines unforgettable as “impossible to forget; indelibly impressed on the memory.” I think that aptly describes those players.
That team, coming off a two-year probation created by UK coach at the time Eddie Sutton due to alleged recruiting violations, comprised mostly of seniors and Kentucky natives Deron Feldhaus, John Pelphrey, Richie Farmer and adopted son Sean Woods from Indianapolis along with super sophomore Jamal Mashburn, took Kentucky Basketball back to the glory days of previous years.
Coming off a 22-6 record from the previous season, while losing Somerset native Reggie Hanson to the NBA, this nucleus of players that also included Dale Brown and Gimel Martinez, along with Travis Ford, carried Kentucky over a season long thrill ride that ended in the Elite Eight with “The Game.” A game that many still consider to be the greatest college basketball game of all time.
But those players were special for many reasons – not just because they finished No. 6 in the AP Poll with a 29-7 record or because they won the SEC regular season and tournament championships – but because they played the game with all they had, all the time, only for the name across the front of their jerseys. They never seemed to give in to the pressure of the moment or fatigue or the just plain distractions that come with playing college basketball at a place like Kentucky.
Game after game after game they played fast-paced, in your face defense, shot the three whenever they had a sliver of daylight and moved the ball all over the floor to find the open man. It didn’t matter who was at the top of the key and who was set up on the wings, if the player was open behind the three point line the ball was going up and most likely going in the basket.
Jamal Mashburn was the most athletic player and a future NBA star on a team that consisted mostly of guys that achieved success, not because they were extremely tall or athletically gifted, but because they knew how to play the game, they knew how to shoot the ball and they knew that if there was time left on the clock they still had a chance to win the game.
Just watching John Pelphrey, Deron Feldhaus, Sean Woods, Richie Farmer and Jamal Mashburn along with Dale Brown, Gimel Martinez and Travis Ford play team basketball with a constant up and down the floor pace brought back great memories of a time when Kentucky Basketball was re-energized, re-charged and wasn’t all about recruiting rankings and who was leaving early to go to the NBA. It was about playing hard, playing for your teammates and winning games – and those were all good memories.
So if you didn’t see the replay of the 1992 Elite Eight game maybe get on YouTube and pull up a video of that team playing basketball. Just from watching the highlights you get a feel for what those players were all about. In three short years they took a college basketball program that was teetering on the edge of destruction and brought it all the way back to the top. No, they didn’t win the NCAA Tournament that year but they were all winners.
After that heartbreaking loss to Duke in the Elite Eight game then-Kentucky Head Coach Rick Pitino said in his post game press conference that he told the players in the locker room that they shouldn’t let two minutes of basketball define their legacy at Kentucky. That even though they lost the game they were winners, everyone of them. And he was exactly right because sometimes there are more important things than the final score of the game.
Sometimes the players are playing for something more that a golden trophy at the end of the season. Sometimes they are playing for every coal miner and factory worker and accountant and little kid that ever shot a ball at a backyard hoop somewhere in Eastern or Western Kentucky.
That’s who these guys were playing for and it showed. It showed to the 23,000 plus fans that packed into Rupp Arena for every game and it showed to the thousands of fans across the Commonwealth that tuned in to watch and listen to them play. It showed in every game they played. And that’s why they are “The Unforgettables.”