On the side of a barn in Eighty-Eight, Kentucky, hangs a backboard and a rim that looks like it has been through a war. There's rust in one of the lower corners, the red outline of the box over the hoop is faded out, the white paint is bleached by the sun, and there is an old Kentucky Wildcats bumper sticker right above the basket, peeling and flaking at the edges. There are probably a thousand of these or more scattered all over Kentucky.
We all played on them as kids. And if it wasn't a barn, it was a court at a park, or an old high school gym that should have been torn down decades before. Even though everyone starts differently, oh man is it fun. Then, when Christmas rolls around, you beg for that first jersey. And it has to be white. Your mama wanted you to get the blue one, but no, it has to be home white. Blue piping and lettering across the front in your favorite player's number. And you wear it until it no longer fits.
"They cost a fortune," your Dad said, so you don't expect another for a long time. So every two or three days, or as often as your mama would wash it, you wore it. And when it got a loose thread, she had to fix it. You wore it under your shirts, you wore it over t-shirts, you wore it by itself on weekends when the weather was warm enough, and sometimes even when it wasn't. When you got your first job and could earn a little money, you got another. It was a rite of growing up. Your first jersey, or your first hunting or fishing trip.
Then, out of the blue, someone had some tickets to a UK game and could not go. You begged your Dad to take you. No, it didn't matter that it was a hundred miles to Lexington and the game was on a Tuesday night. Yes, you would get up in plenty of time for school, and you would have all your homework done before you left. No matter what was asked of you, it would be done.
In those days, tickets were cheap by today's standards. The two of you could go to a game for $20. Of course, you didn't allow for the other $100 that Dad was going to have to spend on gas, food, and that hat you just had to have when you got there. You only knew that $20 was not much for the chance to see them live and in person. Your only experience so far was to hear them on the radio, and maybe you caught the occasional TV game. Your Dad points out that when he was growing up, there was only radio. "We didn't have TV in my day" was his favorite line. And you just had to make a joke about indoor plumbing and electricity after he said it.
So you loaded up and headed to Lexington with the bologna sandwiches, Mountain Dew, and chips mom put in the bag she sent with you. You got there early, because Dad picked you up at school and told your principal you had an "appointment." You got a good parking space and walked over to the entrance and stood there in awe of the "Rupp Arena" sign. Dad played it cool so you wouldn't know that he was just as excited as you were. Every so often he told you to calm down as you pointed at everything when you went in the door.
The line wasn't too bad with it being early, and as you went through the turnstile and the attendant tore your ticket in half and handed it back to you, you could not help but notice as he grinned from under his UK hat. After you walked through you had to have that $1 program. Also, there was that $7 pennant. And then, there he was -- the guy who had the hats.
They were pretty basic by today's standards, one kind was blue with white trim, one was white with blue trim. They had a simple KENTUCKY across the front, but they were beautiful. And they were adjustable! You could move those little plastic tabs over to your exact size. Your eyes got huge, your heart beat faster, and you wanted one more than anything. And you got one too. Even as your Dad mumbled something about you breaking him under his breath.
Then as you walked through the concrete tunnel, you saw the world open up in front of you. The lights were white and glaring on that court. The small blue circle in the middle repeated that "Rupp Arena" sign from out front. You asked the usher about your seats as you started up the steps, and then much to your surprise, he pointed you the other way, and you realized that you were in the lower arena. You had seen it on the ticket, but you didn't know what that meant. Then you walk down about twelve rows and there you are.
The arena is still pretty empty and no one is around you, and you see them down on the far end. Macy, Givens, Robey. They are all shooting around the basket. Givens is shooting from way out, Robey catching the occasional rebound when he misses, which is not often. Macy just keeps shooting and drawing nothing but net. It's like he never misses. then as quickly as they appeared, they're gone.
Then you are hungry again. The bologna has worn off, and besides, that Mountain Dew has kicked in and you have to do something about that, and soon. So, it's a trip back up the aisle, and back out on the concourse. They have hot dogs, popcorn, and sodas of course, in the UK collector cups! "Oh, Dad, we gotta get those." So, it's another few bucks, and then back to your seats and the crowd is pouring in. Next thing you know, the cheerleaders hit the floor, and then the song begins to play. You have heard it a hundred times, but there is something about hearing it live that makes it so much better.
Then comes the tip. UK controls and for the next hour and a half, you are up, then down, clapping, yelling, and loving each and every second of it. The Cats turn in another successful game and it almost hurts to see the clock wind down to 00:00. Reluctantly, your souvenirs of the night are gathered up, and you both head back out into the cold night air. You are staying close and making sure you don't get separated as you were told to do.
Then after the five-minute walk back to the car, you load up and start home. You spend the next half-hour discussing every point and every shot. Why this player was sitting on the bench and why this one was not. Slowly you find yourself succumbing to sleep and the next thing you know, the motor stops and you find yourself back home. Midnight on a school night!
You wake and make your way inside, being quiet so you don't wake the whole house. As you scurry upstairs to bed with everything you brought home, including the cups with the sticky soda still in them, it sinks in that you spent your evening at Rupp Arena. You saw the Cats play in person. The next month will be spent telling all your friends what you saw, heard, and experienced on your trip to the home of the Wildcats.
There are literally thousands of kids who can tell that same story. Maybe even hundreds of thousands. Now the players are different. The game may have changed. The times have long ago moved on, yet somewhere out there is a ten-year-old boy or girl, who next week, will load up with Mom and Dad and head out to their first game.
Every time we turn the TV on and see that huge UK logo on the floor, there is a wide-eyed kid sitting on the edge of their seat, watching intently as their Cats win another. They may be texting, or sending a picture to Facebook, or Snapchatting with all their friends to brag now, but the story is the same. I am here and you are not.
I have walked into Rupp Arena more times than I can remember since the early 70's. More recently, I have been allowed to walk in places I only had dreamed about when I sat in the stands and applauded and cheered. One might think that it took some of the magic away to see what is behind the scenes, inside the tunnels, and under the bleachers. However, I can tell you it does not. If anything it added to it. The first time I walked into the press room at Rupp, I had that same wide-eyed look as a child walking through the front.
Every year, a new crop of players put on that white jersey with the blue lettering. Now, we get only a year or two with most of them -- all to short a time to turn them into heroes. Now we are grown men and women who take 18 year-old kids, raise them up high on a pedestal, and embrace them with open arms as they join the Big Blue family.
It's the same way now as it was then. The only difference is that now, we are closer to them than ever. We know more, we experience more, and we get even more attached because these kids carry a heavier burden. They have to grow up faster than their predecessors, but they are still Wildcats. They are still Kentucky, and so are we. Whether it's a wide-eyed child, or a wide-eyed adult, the story is the same, and the language just changes with the times. The dream is always going to be the dream. Nothing changes that.