This journey didn’t begin with a 6:45 alarm clock in Cincinnati on Saturday March, 7. This journey began when an 18-year old kid half-heartedly packed his bags and jumped in his parent’s GMC Envoy to make the nine hour trek from York, Pa., to Lexington, Ky.
Going to college that far from home can be nerve wracking, but what did I know? We pulled into the designated parking spot for the Blanding I dormitory and my experience at the University of Kentucky began. Starting the first day, I knew no one besides exchanging some pleasantries over the phone with my assigned roommate and Facebook chat with a couple guys to play basketball.
That’s when it hit me. This journey would coincide with one thing in Kentucky. The men’s basketball team and Rupp Arena.
See, I learned on November 13, 2005 that it didn’t matter if you were a Yankee, southern hillbilly, black, white, male or female. If you wore blue and white, you were family. A family of hundreds of thousands of people, where 23,500 of the family members meet about 20 times a year at the house – Rupp Arena.
The journey of the 2014-15 Kentucky basketball team began years ago when head coach John Calipari started recruiting the now-dominant Karl-Anthony Towns and began to form a class that would cement his legacy in college basketball lore.
Now, it was time. With a 30-0 record heading into Saturday, the Wildcats had a chance to make history by moving to 31-0 and finish the regular season undefeated. Something only three other teams can say they’ve done since 1991.
This is the story of the journey of a Kentucky fan watching history.
Thanks to a Christmas gift that included a ticket to the Kentucky vs. Florida Game, I’d be in Rupp Arena to see it first-hand.
“It’s the paint, for sure.”
After checking into our hotel and catching a cab to the newly renovated area by Rupp Arena, there was plenty of time to enjoy a cold drink and food before the game tipped. After unsuccessfully trying to get into Pies and Pints because Kentucky fans flooded the restaurant three hours before game time, we set our sights on Yesterday’s, a bar and grill inside the Lexington Convention Center, where Rupp Arena sits.
The moment we sat in our seats in a lightly-dimmed corner of the restaurant, something stuck out. It was a painted face, overalls, bright earrings and pins that said ‘Beat Florida.’ I knew these were fellow brothers and sisters that I had to speak with.
Walking over to a group of five people, the man with a painted face talking as if he was holding court, I was greeted with a ‘Go Big Blue’ chant and jokes about buying them a beer to talk.
What I learned within the first five seconds of hearing this group of people talk was simple. It doesn’t matter your age, once you commit to Rupp Arena, you’re in for life. They were season ticket holders who just happened to meet this year by coming to Yesterday’s before every game. You would have thought they were best friends from high school the way they spat out information about each other.
“Are there more nerves for this game knowing what’s at stake?” A simple question I asked, not about the team but about the group of five fans. Before I could even finish asking the question George Camic calmly put his Miller Lite bottle on the table and looked me in the eyes through his painted face “Hell no, we’re going 40-0.” An answer that was a statement of a veteran season ticket holder. “They’ll go 40-0 because of the painted face,” he finished through laughter across the table.
That wasn’t the feeling of the entire bar, though. While waiting to order a drink a couple ordered two tequila shots and while giving a cheers proclaimed “We need to continue our tradition plus this isn’t fun until Kentucky wins.”
After exchanging pleasantries with the group of friends and seeing Pat Roeder receive her lucky fourth blinking blue earring, I proceeded to head back to my seat. Passing a group of four women who looked like they belonged more at a neighborhood meeting than at Rupp Arena, one loudly stating, “I hope we beat them by 28. Last year all we heard was Shockers this, Shockers that.”
Yep. It was basketball season in Kentucky. But, before we headed into the game, there was a woman next to us talking about a homemade shirt she wanted to make saying, “You want your team to win? Don’t play Kentucky.” She then proceeded to lift her sweatshirt up like she was in New Orleans screaming “Cats Gone Wild!” to show off the shirt she was proud of.
Section 212 Row HH Seat 7
Walking into Rupp Arena is an experience all in itself. The pep band was in the entry way to the Arena proudly playing the fight song, ‘On! On! U of K.’ Fans huddled around them, phones in the air taking videos to proudly play for other family members.
Finally getting inside we were greeted by our usher, Tom, who took a picture of us before pointing us up to the seats. The section was already filled 30 minutes before the game started, in front of us a little girl stood on the bleachers, cotton candy in hand, yelling at Willie Cauley-Stein. “You have to teach them early,” her dad proudly said to the person sitting next to him.
As the game went on, there was no sense of nervousness from the crowd. Instead, we were constantly on our feet, clapping on big possessions, celebrating each block by Karl-Anthony Towns and steal by Aaron Harrison. High fives were passed around by strangers who didn’t exchange names but knew there was a common enemy in Florida.
The Wildcats finished Florida off 67-50 to move to 31-0 on the season. Immediately, there was chanting in the crowd and people talking about the special moment. Newspapers went on sale immediately outside Rupp Arena with ‘UNDEFEATED’ as the headline.
At the same time, these are fans of Kentucky basketball. We understand there’s more than 31 wins at stake. It’s championship or bust, something that is often said but is true in Lexington. That’s why the shirts said ‘Not Done Yet’ to the delight of the crowd inside Rupp Arena.
Because it’s home
After the game ended and the trek down from row HH was completed, we made our way to Cheapside’s Bar and Grill for a post-game drink and dinner. We were seated next to a mother and daughter, in town to visit the campus as the daughter is a senior in high school and debating attending UK, Ohio State or South Florida. The mom asked me why I decided to come to Kentucky. I knew the answer.
“Because it’s home.” I said as a smile grew on my face.
The journey was finally complete.