The Real Last Great Game: Rupp Arena Re-visited
As I drove across the newly re-opened Sherman Minton Bridge this morning on my way to work, I thought about my perfect Saturday afternoon. Yesterday afternoon with my wife, I made my second trip to Rupp arena. It was my first full game there. My first trip, now two years past, was cut short by work obligations. I had stayed late at the Indiana factory where I work to make sure an important machine would run. I was the system expert and unfortunately I was needed. I missed a good deal of the game.
The first half of the game was an analogy of the trip as a whole. The tickets my wife had acquired, like UK’s early lead, sparkled with hope of an easy victory. I would find out shortly after getting those tickets that this would be my weekend to work. The visitors stormed back to take the lead! Though I never doubted I would find some way to make it to the game or that the Cats would find a way to win, the news that came earlier this week, that I would be off all day Saturday, drove any doubt of the outcome away like the Darius Miller dunk had.
Rupp Arena for a lifelong Wildcat fan is like the Vatican for a Catholic. Never making it to Rome does not mean you cannot be a good Catholic. It is a place your soul visits frequently even if your body cannot. I have watched many games on TV for as long as I can remember. My parents would let me nap on school nights so that I could get up and watch tape delay broadcasts after the nightly news. It was a privilege I was allowed provided my grades were taken care of. For you younger fans, tape delay was the closest my childhood came to TiVo. Even VCRs were not around in those days. To watch a game, you had 3 Options: Go to the game, watch it on a network broadcast if it were one of the few games televised (no ESPN or ESPN3), or watch the late night tape delay.
I watched the 1992 UK vs. Duke Game in Florida where I was stationed while in the Air Force. Everyone who knew me knew I was a UK fan. My buddy from New York, a big Georgetown fan, called me during and after the game screaming with excitement. We knew then we had watched history and we talked about it as such. My little brother also called or maybe I called him or maybe I called my dad and he picked up the phone too. My brother would later become a UL grad, but he was a Wildcat fan. He still is. UK games always served to bring the family together. They still do.
I remember that game quite differently than history now tells it. It was not the “last” great game for me at all. It was closer to the first great game of a new era. I remember UK being huge underdogs and this game signaling to the world a re-emergence of the greatest college basketball program in history. It was this game that left no doubt that Big Blue was back.
Years later, I watched the 94-96 teams while living in small Ohio town. I started a tradition then of wearing my UK gear to work after a rare loss to show support. I watched the 96 Championship alone from my apartment but it wasn’t long before the phone was ringing.
Later that year, I moved back to Louisville and I was able to watch the 98 season with my little brother. We were drinking beer together watching the Comeback Cats playing Duke on TV. UK was down a bunch. At one point in the second half we had toasted, “Oh well, they had a good run”….Next thing we know, Duke calls their last time out. “Wait, we could win this…We are going to win this”. “Last great game”? Please!
All this history brings me to the history that was made Saturday afternoon, UK vs Miss. In the game, UK wins as Terrence Jones gets a double-double and Kyle Wiltjer has perhaps his best game so far as a Cat. With binoculars, I can see the future (possibly). Nerlens Noel is sitting way across the court mostly tapping away at his smart phone. I also caught a play that Coach Cal drew up during a TO. Later the team would execute it. All the while, I was living firmly in the present.
Next to me sat my wife, who was there mostly because it was important to me. She had gotten the tickets from a co-worker. She had never really been a college basketball fan. She never entered into the UK/UL debate that is rampant everywhere you turn in our part of the Commonwealth. Surely she never dreamed of this as a child. Still, there she was.
My wife has managed to find a UK obsession that melds very well with another interest of hers, shopping. She likes to shop for items to decorate the Admirals Quarter. Admirals Quarters is the name we gave our newly built barroom. It is attached to the back of our house and it overlooks the pool. It is the site where we watched many games last March and where we watched UK beat UL this New Years with my brother and his wife (a UL fan). My wife also likes shopping for clothes. My favorite shirt of hers is the one that says “Party Like A Wildcat”. So, after the game we walked across the street and bought some banners to string across the bar, another “cute” shirt and a bracelet to go with the earrings we had purchased at Rupp. I also got a much-needed UK car magnet. “The small one”, my wife instructed, “so it will fit on the Mini”.
Later, we ate some healthy food at Alfalfas Restaurant, a bohemian place down Main that served local farm fresh foods and herbal tea. Then we drove back home listening to You Tube game interviews on her iphone. When we got home we watched a movie. I wanted to watch the DVR of the game but thought she probably had enough sports by now.
Sunday morning arrived and I was glad the bridge to work was now open. I had an easy ride along Dixie Highway and I had time to reflect. I reflected on the drive down I64 East in the little Brown Mini Cooper that now has a new UK magnet on the back. I reflected on the Wildcat’s 50th home victory. I thought about the shopping, the walk around Lexington, the curry chicken marsala, and the falafels. I reflected on the many games that had been played at Rupp Arena. Then I took a moment, as I re-united with my favorite bridge, to reflect on the biggest score in my life. She was sitting next to me on the bleachers on that Saturday afternoon. We were in the rafters making history watching the real Last Great Game. At least until next Saturday.