Most Kentucky basketball fans hold a special place in their hearts for all those who once donned the blue and white of the Wildcats. Whether the player sat on the bench, farthest from the coach, or sat for a Sports Illustrated cover. UK fans admire and respect those skilled enough to call Lexington home during their college years.
But every once and a while, a player comes along who transcends the admiration and respect afforded nearly all those who romped in Rupp Arena, Memorial Coliseum, or Alumni Gym. Some players, upon departure, find themselves thrust into a fraternity of greats, who for varying reasons, find themselves atop the pedestal, worshiped as heroes. Ralph Beard, Rupp's Runts, Dan Issel, Kyle Macy, Kenny Walker, The Unforgettables, Jamal Mashburn, Tayshaun Prince, and Chuck Hayes among others ... they all denote greatness. Whether for winning championships, or making a unique, indelible mark on the Kentucky basketball program, they are universally beloved by the Wildcat faithful.
And this year, we once again find ourselves hanging a banner in our hearts, this time for Patrick Patterson.
How many recall sitting by their computer speaker, anxiously awaiting the words of an 18-year kid from West Virginia? Would it be Duke, Florida, or Kentucky? Patterson's college decision, simulcast live throughout the world of instant information, took Kentucky fans everywhere away from their day's work to listen intently as the three-time West Virginia state champion announced his choice.
Kentucky fans listened in droves because they knew the importance of Patterson to the future of the struggling Big Blue basketball program. Simply put, most felt Patterson represented UK's best chance at re-gathering the momentum the program had lacked for two years. Not unlike Jamal Mashburn before him, a Patterson commitment would announce to the high school basketball elite that it was okay to go to Kentucky again.
At 6-8 and nearly 220 pounds, Patterson had been named a Parade and McDonald's All-America, even though in his senior season he lived in the rather large, dark shadow cast by O. J. Mayo, his one-year Huntington High School teammate. But, Patterson's talent could not be ignored. Then-UK coach Tubby Smith saw it, and for over a year vigorously recruited Patterson, which is what led to the uncomfortable knot of nervousness in the stomachs of UK fans on Patterson's announcement day. For that day, UK's coach wasn't the man Tywanna Patterson, Patrick's mother, had fallen in love with, no, UK's new coach, Billy Gillispie, had arrived in Lexington only six short weeks earlier. And with the adage, recruiting is about relationships, never being more true than in this case, UK fans had to wonder if the newly hired Gillispie had the "chops" to convince the Patterson's that Lexington was still the best place for Patrick to showcase his basketball skills, and just as importantly, get an education.
But, on May 16, 2007, in front of at least a couple dozen UK fans, and a media contingent Rick Pitino would be proud of, Patterson defied UK's recent recruiting shortcomings and put on the right color blue cap. Cell phones around Kentucky immediately went to work, calling friends and family to tell them Patterson was a 'Cat.
Gillispie's meticulously planned sales pitch, coupled with Patterson's desire to stay as close to his Huntington home as possible, were the primary reasons the West Virginian gained entry into the hearts of UK fans. For the first time in at least two years, the possibilities Patterson's presence in a Kentucky uniform represented, made Big Blue fans happily anxious for the future.
The impact a player such as Patterson has on a team, any team, can't be wholly found in the statistics. Although Patterson leaves Lexington ranked No. 13 on the Wildcat career scoring list (1,564 points), No. 13 on the Wildcat career rebounding list (791 rebounds), No. 7 on the Wildcat career blocks list (152), No. 6 on the Wildcat career field goal percentage list (58.6%), No. 14 on the Wildcat career field goals list (617), and No. 18 on the Wildcat career free throws made list (306), as well as being one of only 26 'Cats to be named All-SEC three times, his contributions to the teams he graced goes well beyond the numbers.
For rather than his physical skills, Patterson's unnatural maturity and intense focus on winning not only were his strongest attributes -- those characteristics are at the core of his character -- but they allowed him to lead like a warrior, and in the end, give up leadership of his team to a younger player.
Patterson's unnatural maturity and focus on winning allowed him to battle through a stress fracture in his foot his freshman year, and come back for his sophomore campaign stronger than ever. Patterson's unnatural maturity and focus on winning allowed him to play eight games of his second season with a heavily bandaged middle finger on his shooting hand. And while his shooting percentage sagged a bit, Patterson's rebounding numbers remained static. Patterson's unnatural maturity and focus on winning allowed him to adapt ... adapt to playing alongside not one, but two wunderkinds down on the blocks during his junor year, in the form of freshmen DeMarcus Cousins and Daniel Orton. Instead of pouting about the decrease in the number of shots he took, and minutes he played, Patterson went about the business of perfecting a new weapon in his arsenal (the three-point shot), and leading, by allowing others to lead.
Yes, Patterson was a great rebounder, defender, and scorer of the ball, but the tangible leadership he displayed during his time in a Kentucky uniform will be his ...
Patterson had the heart to select Kentucky, even when Kentucky was down. Patterson had the heart to play hurt, some might say injured, when it would have been easy for him to sit. Patterson had the heart to thrive in the competition for playing time, when it would have been easy to decry his position. Patterson had the heart to come back to UK for his third and final season, even though the NBA beckoned with its million dollar contracts, and rich and famous lifestyle. Patterson had the heart to complete his degree in three years (I entered UK in 1983, and still haven't put on the cap and gown), when most don't finish in five.
Players often talk about heart, and focus, and maturity, but more times than not, it's just that ... talk.
Not so with Patrick Patterson. So when remembering Patterson, remember not only his resuscitation of a fledgling UK basketball program, and fierce nature on the court, but his enviable ability to accept, adapt, and flourish, even though not all, always went his way.
Patterson leaves Kentucky the beating heart of the Bluegrass. For by his example, he has shown us all what we are capable of.
Thanks for reading, and Go 'Cats!