A death in the UK family

The Big Blue Nation lost a name from its collective past this week and I lost a friend. Only the oldest Wildcat fans would remember the name of Jim Dinwiddie – he was a reserve guard for Coach Rupp from 1968-71. Even those who remember him wearing the blue and white would likely say he wasn’t a great ball player and his career stats back that up – 3.8 ppg and 2.5 rpg in 72 games played. Jim had a two-game tear during his senior season where he hung a career high of 17 on Vandy and followed that up with a 13-point effort against Auburn. In a different time, Jim may have had a bigger impact on the court but he played with some greats - Issel, Casey, Steele and others.

Jim’s impact on my life began a few years after he graduated and returned to Leitchfield to begin his law practice. I was a young boy when he and my father struck up a friendship. I was always fascinated with the tall lanky guy who always smiled. I had known Jim for a few years before I learned that he played basketball for Kentucky and a few years more before I appreciated what that meant to people. I just knew him as a kind man who always spoke and always spoke positively.

My first trip to Rupp Arena came through a gift from Jim. I had been to see a couple of those great UK-Notre Dame matchups in Freedom Hall but I had never seen a game in Rupp until Jim called in December of 1981 to offer my dad his tickets to the UKIT.

By the time I was 12 and, while excited to visit Lexington, I wasn’t full blown Blue. If I listed my favorite things at that time in my life, my Converse shoes, my 10-speed, Big League Chew and the BB gun I had at my grandparents’ house would have topped the list. UK basketball might have been in there somewhere but it is difficult for someone that age to grasp the width and breadth of the whole thing.

That first trip to Rupp turned the concept of UK basketball into reality for me. I still remember the conversation that Cawood and I had when he signed my prgram and I remember the words my father spoke when he introduced me to Gov. Happy Chandler. The game itself is insignificant in the history of Kentucky basketball – just one of the 2000+ wins. But my signed program from that obscure contest became a treasured possession that I would proudly show my friends for years after. The time I spent with my father that day is one of the best two or three memories of my entire childhood.

Over the years, I have thanked Jim a hundred times for the tickets that provided these memories but I never told him why I was so thankful. He might have even considered it odd that I continued to express my gratitude well into my adult years. If he did think it strange, he never let on. Instead be would just smile and tell me I was welcome.

Jim eventually gave up his season seats and later in his life had mixed feelings about Big Blue Nation. As a Christian, he felt that some people spent too much of their passion rooting for a sports team when they should have been devoting that energy to God. Jokingly, I would ask him if God was guiding those elbows he would throw when we played pickup games on the court behind the First Baptist Church.

When they put the new floor in Memorial Coliseum a few years ago, I was lucky enough to end up with a few pieces. I built a shadow box for my father and placed one piece in the center, surrounded by pictures from the great teams that played in that historic building. I knew Jim must have spilled a lot of sweat on that old floor and so I planned to make one for him as well. But before I could get it started, life got in the way and I put it on the back burner.

A few months ago, I saw Jim when I was out eating lunch. We talked for a few minutes and I suddenly remembered what I had planned to do. So I told him that I had something special that I wanted him to have and that I would bring it by sometime soon.

I was planning on writing this all down for him in a letter to accompany the gift. I had thought that I would explain to him what that trip to Rupp Arena did for me. I was planning on telling him that his generosity provided a man with the some great childhood memories. I was planning to tell him that his gift of two tickets to an insignificant basketball game provided a spark that allowed my father and I to share common ground during the years when we didn’t agree on anything else in the world. I was planning on telling him that, when times got better between my father and I, having those memories gave us something to talk about until other words came easier. I was planning on telling him that, even though we sometimes take it too far, having something that you can share with others during a bad time is never a bad thing.

I never had the chance to tell him of the impact he had on my life because Jim, the man who was always smiling and never without a kind word (or a sharp elbow if you tried to belly up with him in a pickup game), took his own life.

If you spent any time with Jim later in his life, you most likely walked away from him with a self-help book in your hand or a list of bible passages that he selected to try to help you find your path. His own path apparently eluded him and his importance to others must have been lost to him as well.

If I had been able to follow through with my gift to Jim, I don’t believe it would have made any difference in any of the choices he made or how he viewed his life. But I sure would like to have had the opportunity to give it, and tell him the story that goes along with it.

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