A first visit to a familiar place

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Drawn to Rupp Arena for the first time brings back many memories of watching the Kentucky Wildcats.

By Steve Doyle

The boy climbed to his seat high in Rupp Arena on Saturday, his every sense keen to the sights and sounds of this famed arena, a Mecca to which he was pilgrimaging for the first time.

He had passed its outer lobby while visiting the Hyatt Regency Hotel, reading the signs, noting the doorways, but his only peeks inside were from the narrow views of pixilated formations on a variety of television screens.

This was a boy who grew up with the Kentucky Wildcats, who kept score by radio broadcasts, listened to every interview, read every word, who knew where the players were from, what numbers they wore and how Cawood Ledford described their talents on the radio.

He knew the substitutes on Rupp’s Runts, understood the consummate team sacrifices of Mike Casey, absorbed Adolph Rupp’s flat-toned acerbics as he analyzed each game.

And now he sat above the court that bears Cawood’s name and watched as figures now familiar went through the stretch-and-shoot rituals that precede the tipoff of yet another game in careers that for some will become beloved and a few who will become storied.

The pep band blared the familiar On, On, U of K. The crowd was a sea of bright blue.

Cheers echoed as the players were introduced, though some rowdy-yet-respectful rants were reserved for those from Alabama, the day’s hated foe.

The fans in his section stood until the first of the 27 TV timeouts. They held aloft one finger each time a Wildcat attempted a free throw.

A man behind him cajoled the players for poor play, cursed the refs and in his shrill, mountain accent offered his perspective to every bounce and whistle.

Ashley Judd was the Y at the end of the K-E-N-T-U-C-K the cheerleaders  began.

Yep, this was a UK game of the thousand or so he had followed. Only this one was viewed inside Rupp Arena.

But for a while, absorbing all those sights and sounds, the boy was transported back to days in Memorial Coliseum, to the night his parents had surprised him with a trip to see his hero, Cotton Nash, play in person.

He could close his eyes and see parking their car in someone’s yard and walking through the crowd to an arena not nearly so familiar because the black-and-white images on the TVs in those days were quiet rare.

That first UK game, during the 1962-63 season, is like a grainy highlight real. The opponent was Georgia. The ‘Cats won in an otherwise disappointing season – Rupp’s worst to that time – and Nash fouled out, as he was wont to do in his All-America junior season.

As time went by, there were other games at Memorial Coliseum and even end-zone seats at Freedom Hall to watch the teams of Casey-Issel-Pratt.

There were trips to college venues in other states, sitting high in Humphrey Coliseum at Mississippi State or courtside at O’Connell Center at the University of Florida. There were NCAA Tournament games at Tuscaloosa and Tampa. There were stunning victories and impossible defeats.

Nash and Rupp were replaced by Joe B. Hall and Kevin Grevey and Goose Givens. Another hometown hero, Charles Hurt, donned the blue and white. Then came Rex and Sutton, the Skywalker, Jamal and Pitino, the Unforgettables and Tubby and titles

The games became frequent on TV, the shame became too obvious under Eddie Sutton, yet the games continued to flow through the eloquence of Cawood fighting the static across the airwaves from WHAS to ears hundreds of miles away.

There have been lots of dribbles, whistles and curses during those years. UK has won three national championships and came close to a few more.

The boy learned to appreciate and cheer for Louisville and Western and, this season, undefeated Murray, his loyalties diluted by successes and choice, his joy heartfelt when any team from Kentucky was successful.

But there was always UK, always that first love whose unbeckoned kiss had lured him into a lifelong romance with a game that is so much in the DNA of almost every Kentuckian.

He is no longer a boy, of course. His face is sprinkled with whiskers streaked with gray. His sense of loyalty is no longer so unconditional, divided by adult perspective and the cruel understanding that sprouts from observing the scripting of history.

But for a moment, there in Section 231, Row JJ on Saturday, that boy sat, squirmed, smiled, yelled occasionally and otherwise became engaged in one of the wonders of being a Kentuckian.

He was watching the Wildcats play at Rupp Arena.