"I had it in my mind to attend UK after watching the Fiddlin' Five in 1958. I told my dad, 'If I ever play college ball, I want to go to UK.'"
Former UK great, and Shelby County native Mike Casey, as told to A Sea of Blue on February 28, 2009.
Adolph Rupp's "barnyard fiddlers" who morphed into the "Carnegie Hall violinists" the man in the brown suit pined for in the early part of the 1958 season, were unknowingly impacting an eight-year old Shelby County, Kentucky kid. Fanning the flames of admiration for the Kentucky basketball program into an inferno of desire to play for the Commonwealth's flagship university.
Led by senior All-America, and Lafayette High School product, Vernon Hatton, along with Hazard High School alum, junior Johnny Cox (who would be bestowed the All-America distinction in 1959), the "Fiddlin Five" won coach Rupp his fourth and final NCAA championship. But, during the course of the season, few, if any, gave the '58 version of the Kentucky Wildcats much of a chance of becoming a team that would live forever in UK lore.
The admiration Casey and the rest of the Big Blue followers felt for the 23-6 1958 Wildcats was not founded on the 'Cats' domination of opponents. Afterall, the 'Cats began the season a pedestrian 4-3, and ended the regular season with losses in two of their final five games. Furthermore, of the six losses Rupp's squad incurred during the season, only one came to a ranked opponent (No. 8 West Virginia). Even in the team's late season victories, authoritative wins did not rule the day: The "Fiddlers" needed overtime to defeat Alabama in Montgomery, 45-43, and squeaked by Vanderbilt in Memorial Coliseum, 65-61.
Rather than dancing in the ether created by crushing opponents, the affinity fans felt for that group of 'Cats was borne out of the baller's ability to finish the season in surprisingly assertive fashion. Winning their four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 17.5 points, the 'Cats became Isaac Stern, in the nick of time.
In that way, the 1958 "Fiddlin' Five" are not dissimilar to the squad of "fiddlers" who currently don the blue and white of the Kentucky Wildcats. For the entire 1958 season is oftentimes encapsulated in a single 40 minute performance of John Calipari's modern-day musicians. The current crop of 'Cats, whether due to youth, or supreme confidence in their collective abilities, only seem to possess the killer-cat instinct when the game is on the line.
Regardless of opponent, or venue, regardless of bright lights, or ESPN nights, Calipari's initial group of 'Cats simply won't let the fans rest easy. Just as one relaxes, sinking contently back from the edge of the easy chair, Cal's 'Cats piddle, fiddle, and finally allow the over-matched foe back into the forty-minute fray unscathed. But, whether it be the wonderful (John) Wall's skill to weave his way through traffic to the rim, the supersonic speed of Eric Bledsoe and his resulting layup, or the thunderous dunks of DeMarcus Cousins, just as their "Fiddlin' Five" forefathers owned their final five games, these Wildcats own the final five minutes. Whether it be pressure-packed free throws into a disruptive crowd, or a three-pointer from the finger-tips of Darnell Dodson cheered on by the Rupp rowdies, this edition of the Kentucky Wildcats' transformation from lackadaisical, to focused felines, is worthy of admiration.
I'm sure Adolph Rupp would have much preferred his '58 group to not lose six games, the most losses ever for a Kentucky team that won a national championship. But in the end, banner number four had The Baron smiling with surprise, resolved to enjoy the ultimate victory, earned after a long, hard-fought season. Similarly, today let us not deep-think our way into paralysis, unable to enjoy the spoils of such a talent-laden team. Just know the end product, the only bean that counts, is the illuminated scoreboard telling us all of another Kentucky victory.
Is this team of 'Cats cognizant of the connection they have with one of the great Kentucky teams of the past? Probably not. But the greatness that lain-in-wait for an entire regular season for the "Fiddlin' Five," is there for the asking if the modern day 'Cats are sufficiently self-aware enough to grasp the ring. Patrick Patterson, after two years of turmoil, can end his Kentucky career in surprisingly satisfying fashion; John Wall can take his one-and-done game to the NBA sporting a glistening resume' topped off with the cherry, "NCAA Champion;" Eric Bledsoe and DeMarcus Cousins can become, along with Wall, one of only a very few select freshman starters to claim the title of "King of College Basketball."
If only they can keep alive the drive to win ... If only the "Fiddler's" continue to become "Carnegie Hall violinists" when the heat is on, and the opponent is feeling like David armed with a sling-shot ... If only these 'Cats know how special they can become ... If only they realize the Rupp stage they performing on is filled with ghosts of greatness, and resolve to achieve that which they are capable ... If only they respect the tradition of the sport, realizing what they can accomplish is otherworldly, simply spectacular beyond description ... If only they acknowledge the call.
Fiddlin' With "It"
What is "it?" Howlett's Dictionary defines "it" as: A definable quality found in supreme teams which enables them to overwhelm the opposition with their talent.
A team filled with such youth is most times over-matched by the experience of their worthy opponents, but the team John Calipari has composed this season is looking immune to previously set standards. And as they fiddle their way through their schedule, we're all front row witnesses to the rule fracturing -- It's a major no-no to turn "it" on, and turn "it" off -- For one game, when a team decides to turn "it" on, "it" won't be there for the taking. The '58 team didn't turn "it" on until very late in the year, this team, while using "it" to build semi-comfortable leads, more often than not, opts to ease up on the neck of the half-slain challenger. But, fiddlin' around, or not, the 2010 'Cats continue to be rule breakers, rule breakers who are becoming beloved. But, aah, will they inspire? Which brings us to this question ...
And what of the next Mike Casey? The next eight-year old, sitting at the feet of his father watching these 'Cats perform their magic. Will this team stimulate a longing? Will this team stir a life-long yearning for donning the blue and white in the pre-pubescent dreams of the newest generation?
The answer to those questions won't be revealed for at least a decade, but, greatness often serves as inspiration. And the highest renown on the hardwood is achieved only by winning, and winning on the world's largest stage, in front of the biggest, most refined audience. The splendor of Carnegie Hall beckons these 'Cats, if only they have the ear to answer the deafening, steady call of greatness offered to them by the gods of round-ball. The talent is evident ... but, will this team accept the challenge to be prominent, and leave the fiddles at home, as they instead strum their violins to the beat of a championship tune.
A Shout-Out ...
To my good friend and Cardinal fan, Larry Morehead at Weyerhauser in Bowling Green, KY. Don't be too hard on ol' Larry fellas, he's a good guy, rooting for the wrong team.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!