UK fans let Laettner know how they feel.
As I entered Rupp Arena Monday night for Jeff Sheppard's dream child, the Big Blue All-Stars vs. The Villains basketball game, I approached the "credential table" hoping that, a) my credential was there (I have a fear that one day the person sitting behind the table handing out passes will not be able to find my name), and b) that I would be able to sit on the floor, instead of the auxiliary seating where guys like me usually have to sit (there's nothing at all wrong with the auxiliary seats, they provide unobstructed viewing and are roomy, but for this event I really wanted to be able to hear the player's banter and feel the sweat). And sure enough, I was given a choice of on-the-floor press row seats, causing me to think, "OK, this could be fun."
As I made my way down press row, looking for an empty seat (as I was instructed to do), I quickly saw all of the seats were taken (this was about 30 minutes prior to tip-off). So I continued walking, until I noticed the next to last chair, next to the visitor's bench, was not taken. Happy to finally find my seat, I tossed my jacket on the seat back and put my score sheet and other papers down on the table.
I then called my brother-in-law Daniel and our friend Ben (who is an avid A Sea of Blue reader and was a high school teammate of Travis Ford at Madisonville HS), who were also attending the game, and after finding their location, made my way up to their lower arena seats where we chatted about seeing Enes Kanter play for the first time, the attendance, and whether or not Villain's "coach" Christian Laettner would need multiple bodyguards.
With the game clock ticking down, I returned to my seat ... well, actually that's not right, first, since there was no pre-game buffet (this game was put together on a tight budget), I grabbed a hot dog and coke from the concession stand, and then made my way back to my seat. About that time, just a couple of minutes prior to game time, out walked the most villainous, despised UK opponent, possibly in the history of University of Kentucky sports, Duke's Christian Laettner. The Big Blue boos were thunderous, as Laettner smiled and waved to the crowd, seemingly enjoying the moment. And sure enough, following not far behind Laettner, was one of Lexington's finest, ensuring no bodily assault took place (although it would be a brave UK backer who would choose to take on Laettner, for he's a big dude, and in great shape).
And as sure as the sun sets in the West, Laettner then took his seat ... not more than five-feet from me. All I could see when I looked at Laettner, though, was the Blue Devil jubilantly running down the court, arms in the air, after burying the shot which broke the hearts of millions of Wildcat fans, and sent the Unforgettables home with a loss.
I didn't notice until later the natty suit he was wearing, or the fact that he looked much younger than his 42-years, no, all I could see as I looked at the Duke star was him rising up over John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus, and making the biggest shot of his career, followed by my mind's eye reminding me that it was him, the evil Laettner, who should not have even been in the game after his now-famous stomp on the chest of Aminu Timberlake earlier in the contest.
As the horn sounded -- waking me from my nightmare revisited -- signaling the player introductions, I shook off the two-decades old memory, remembering that indeed there was a game to be played.
First to be introduced were the Villains. Enthusiastic blue boos swept down upon Duke's Nolan Smith, UConn's Rudy Gay, Indiana's Eric Gordon, and Michigan State's Zach Randolph (heartfelt cheering was what Butler's, and Lexington's own, Shelvin Mack, and Morehead State's Kenneth Faried heard), but the heartiest boos were reserved for North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, Florida's Corey Brewer, Louisville's Terrence Williams, and of course, once again, Duke's Christian Laettner. Who, amid the smiles of his team, once again waved to the crowd, loving the fact that he is the biggest villain of all -- As Laettner waved to the booing throng, I turned to his protector and said, "You're gonna have a lot of suspects tonight," he laughed and said, "That's no different than any other night."
Then came the heroes.
Filling majestic Rupp Arena on this night were a cavalcade of former UK stars, from Chuck Hayes (perhaps the scrappiest UK player of all-time), to Rajon Rondo and Jodie Meeks, to Josh Harrelson, to Brandon Knight, to Keith Bogans (who never, throughout the entire evening, let his infectious smile leave his face), to DeAndre Liggins (who once again played defense as if his meal money depended on it), to DeMarcus Cousins, to Nazr Mohammed, and finally Enes Kanter. And then the King, behind Richie Farmer, perhaps the most popular high school player from Kentucky to ever don the blue and white, Rex Chapman (who now looks remarkably similar Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, an observation which got some healthy chuckles from those around me).
All were introduced to rousing cheers and ovations from an excited Rupp Arena crowd.
As the game began it became clear these guys meant to have some fun. Rudy Gay was raining-down 3s as if he was playing on his own personal playground; Zach Randolph was dunking on whoever dared get in his way; and Rajon Rondo was expertly threading passes to his Big Blue teammates, while Chuck Hayes did what Chuck Hayes does: scrapping and fighting for every rebound.
Then midway through the second quarter, Laettner rose and walked directly in front of me asking us, "Does anyone have a pen and a clipboard?" With practiced precision, the three or four of us sitting in Laettner's line of fire responded with shaking heads, telling the Villain, no, we don't. The ruse worked until Laettner spotted a pen lying on the table. He snatched it up and returned to his seat -- The pen belonged to the folks doing the real-time scoring of the game. One person called out "rebound No. 50 ... put-back No. 50 ... 3-pointer No. 23," etc as the other scorer typed into her computer the results -- It was really quite impressive.
Soon enough, it was halftime, and the person Laettner had pilfered the pen from needed the utensil back, so from underneath Laettner's chair I retrieved the pen (leaving the Villain, once again, pen-less).
During halftime, Jeff Sheppard thanked the crowd for their attendance, and informed the roughly 10,000 people that Rex Chapman and Laettner would be signing t-shirts and basketballs in the concourse after the game. Also, and most importantly, Sheppard presented representatives from the V Foundation a $10,000 check.
The second half began the same way the first half did, with one small alteration -- Jodie Meeks began playing like he was in Knoxville again, nailing 3-pointers from all over the floor with the greatest of ease, sending the crowd into a frenzy (Meeks led all players with 42 points). Enes Kanter, who shook off some early and perfectly reasonable rust, responded with a couple of dunks, and Nazr Mohammed made a trifecta from Cynthiana. Yikes, these guys were ballin'!
For the Villains, Faried, aka, The Machine, snagged nearly every available rebound with startlingly aggressiveness, and Eric Gordon began feelin' it, ripping the Rupp nets with sortie after sortie.
It was a tight, back and forth affair, typical of two solid NBA teams waiting for the final five-minutes. First the All-Stars would make a run, then the Villains would take their turn. It was as entertaining an exhibition game as I've ever seen.
Then, it happened. Laettner, midway through the fourth quarter, finally noticed the absence of his pen, and once again rose and asked if anyone had a pen. Silence.
Perhaps feeling sorry for him, I decided to see if I could locate a pen for Laettner. I made my way down press row, finally running into Amy, Jeff Sheppard's right hand "man." I told her Laettner needed a pen to draw up a play, and she disappeared into the bowels of Rupp, coming back bearing a pen.
As I carried the treasure back toward the Villains bench, I relished the fact that I, a UK fan, was doing a favor for the Villain, the shot maker, the Kentucky heart-breaker.
As I approached Laettner, who was sitting on the bench, I leaned over his shoulder and whispered into his ear, "Now, don't ever say a Kentucky fan never gave you anything," and with that I presented him with the pen. He turned to me, laughed and said, "Thank you, I appreciate it."
It wasn't long after that, in a stoppage of play due to moisture on the court, that Laettner, at the urging of the fans, went onto the floor, got on his hands and knees, and wiped the sweat up off the floor. It was a gesture which caused some of the crowd to applaud the dream-killer, while others still booed the sight of Laettner returning to his seat, a huge smile on his face.
With just over a minute left in the contest (a game which went into overtime), Laettner, in a designed ejection, was given back-to-back technicals for leaving the coach's box. As the crowd roared its approval, Laettner approached the spot on the floor where he made his most famous of shots, calling for the ball one more time. Having none of it, Rex Chapman, forever the Kentucky hero, ran to Laettner, grabbing him in a playful bear hug, and sending the Dookie to the locker room 0-0 from the field.
The outcome of the game, a 152-149 Villains' victory, was inconsequential to the fun the evening was for all in attendance, and the money raised for an outstanding cause. Not only did we all see some outstanding basketball, but for the first time in the 20 years since the greatest game ever played, UK fans were able to vent their collective frustration and anger over Laettner's stomp and his ensuing shot-heard-'round-the-Commonwealth. And for that, a big thanks to Jeff Sheppard is in order.
As for me? I got the man a pen when he was in need. Sending me home with a smile on my face, and with a night I will never forget.
Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats!