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Kentucky Basketball: Tradition Is For Fans, But No Longer For Players

Many of us who have followed Kentucky basketball for many years value the traditions that surround it.  In fact, that tradition is the glue that holds the Big Blue Nation together, and provides the heartbeat of a program beloved of the vast majority of the Commonwealth.

Years ago, the tradition that binds Kentucky fans to the program used to be felt in almost equal measure by the players who came to the school to play.  The Dan Issels, the Kevin Greveys, the Pat Rileys, the Alex Grozas, the Jamal Mashburns -- none of these great Kentucky players were born and raised in the Bluegrass, but every one of them left Kentucky with a full understanding and appreciation of the tradition that is the most storied program in America.

Unfortunately for us all, tradition has become a casualty of the AAU, one-and-done culture that now pervades college basketball.  That isn't to say that the kids we have coming in and out of the program lack a sense of the history of Kentucky basketball.  Most of them, to some extent, understand the magnitude of what it means to play here.  After all, even if John Calipari recruited well at Memphis, it is nothing compared to how he has recruited at UK.  So the Kentucky brand counts for some part of his success, even if it's hard to argue that the school is the main reason these fine young players wind up in Lexington.

No UK fan would ever confess to be happy to see the true tradition of what it means to be a Wildcat mostly elude the new generation of players.  We may be loathe to admit it, but we all feel the hole that has been created by the players not fully "getting it," or fully appreciating what the letters on the front of their jerseys represent.

Now, I am not accusing our players of selfishness, or poor teamwork.  Those things cannot be present in a team that makes it all the way to the Final Four, or the Elite Eight.  And I didn't get the impression that the teams of Billy Gillispie or even Tubby Smith since 2005 got any more of the tradition and history of Kentucky than this year's team, or last years, and I am mainly referring to the one-year players.

I also wouldn't presume to apply this perception with a broad brush -- there is no doubt that some of the players in recent years have fully embraced Kentucky tradition.  Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley come immediately to mind, two guys who utterly failed to get it at first, but by the time they left, were fully invested with Kentucky tradition.

Patrick Patterson was one of the few recent players to get it from day one, along with Darius Miller and Jon Hood.  The latter two, however, grew up in Kentucky, and could hardly have ignored what it meant to attend UK.  John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins were clearly imbued with the Cult of John Calipari, but its doubtful that they were here long enough to absorb Kentucky tradition more than superficially.

But this is the way of the world today.  Players don't grow up dreaming of playing for Kentucky anymore, but rather the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers.  That stings the hearts of those of us who remember when players did dream of putting on the Blue and White, when they did dream of stepping on the floor of Rupp Arena for the first time in home whites, when they did dream of hitting the shot that beat Tennessee or Florida on the road, or winning the national championship like the other UK greats before them.

Alas, those dreams are now replaced by visions of LeBron and Kobe, Rondo and Carmello.  A part of what it means to be a Wildcat fan, the mystique of playing for Kentucky, has, to a large extent, vanished.  Less a destination now than a metaphorical half-way house en route to the NBA, it is hard not to occasionally lament what was, but no longer is.

As the old saying goes, "You can't go home again."  Whether or not we of the Big Blue Nation want to acknowledge it, the world has changed, and a significant part of what made Kentucky great, the awe of the players for the program, has gone the way of the set-shot.  It is obsolete, antebellum, and no longer exists in but a few minds and hearts that put on the Blue and White in November.

I am reminded of the chorus of a song by Montgomery Gentry, who know a little something about Kentucky tradition: "Gone like a freight train, gone like yesterday ..."

But I won't forget, and neither will you.  That will have to suffice.