Julius Randle's Texas-sized cheering section for the Final Four
FAIRVIEW, Texas -- Inside a sprawling estate late Friday, relatives of Kentucky's men's basketball team clinked ribs, not champagne glasses, in celebration. This was Texas, after all. They piled plates high with brisket and chicken wings and turkey legs, with corn and green beans and gumbo allegedly made from scratch. Dessert took up its own table: enough cupcakes for a bake sale, strawberry shortcake off to the side.
Among this group, even the most fervent believers doubted the viability of such festivities as recently as a month ago. Especially after the Wildcats, their latest crop of NBA-bound freshmen hailed as perhaps the single-best class ever recruited, closed the regular season with three losses in four games.
Coach John Calipari said this week that Kentucky arrived at the Final Four, opposite Wisconsin in Saturday's national semifinals, "through an absolute minefield and happened to not step on a mine." He added, "I don't even know what to call what we just went through."
The assembled could sympathize. They lived it. They fielded phone calls from frustrated players. They consoled them, urged them to get better. They watched Kentucky's ranking plummet. They heard all the jokes from coworkers and friends.
That group included Annie Page, grandmother of Julius Randle, the Wildcats' star forward. Page lives a five-hour drive away, in Newton, Texas, and in Randle's early years, she visited often. "That boy just wore me out," she says. All Randle ever wanted to do was play basketball, and he would wake up early in the morning, knock on his grandmother's door and summon her outside. "Granny! Time to play!" he would say, and she would be out there, minutes later, on the court.
As she aged, she visited less often, and by the time her grandson led Kentucky to this season's Final Four with averages of 15.1 points and 10.7 rebounds, she had yet to see him play in person. As the Wildcats' season perched on the edge of collapse, she feared that she would not. Not in college, anyway. Now, she says, a bowl of strawberry shortcake in her lap, "They might have to tie me down tomorrow. That's how excited I am. Then, who knows, I may fall asleep."
Carolyn Kyles -- Page's daughter, Randle's mother -- walked the backyard, her smile permanent, her hand extended. Parents gathered around the pool. Children shot baskets on the lit half court. No one ventured into the sand volleyball pit.
Kyles became something a celebrity herself this tournament. Especially after word leaked that she left the Kentucky's Elite 8 contest against Michigan before it ended last Sunday, in order to catch a flight back to Dallas so she could resume her work in accounting the next day. This did not exactly cast her boss in the best light, even though Kyles says now he gladly would have given her the time off.
When she went back into the office Monday, she heard his voice. "Carolyn." She knew the tone. "Do you know how many death threat emails I'm getting from some of our coworkers?" she recalled him saying. Meanwhile, an ex-boss shot her another note after he saw her on TV. Had all these media appearances led to any dates, he wondered? No, she replied, but the spotlight had boosted her Twitter following.
The recent star turn masked a turbulent past few months. Kyles says that when Kentucky struggled, she often locked herself in the bathroom at her office and cried until she could regain her composure. At the lowest points, she says this happened daily, for weeks on end. She sent Randle a Bible verse each morning. She wanted to be strong for him, to at least project strength. "But then I'm seriously boo-hooing every day at work," she says. "I'm crying and crying and crying, and I'm thinking, when we signed up for this, there wasn't supposed to be so much pain."
As she talked, the party continued. One guest wore a Kentucky t-shirt that read "We Invented Swagger." Everyone gathered around and held hands and prayed. Few mentioned the game against Wisconsin. It was simply too close, too important. No one touched the salads on the side table, either. Everyone talked about -- and fought over -- the ribs.
Jeff Webster sat out back, near the pool. His pool, to be specific. He played basketball at Oklahoma and 11 games with the Washington Bullets in the NBA in the 1995-96 season. Randle joined his AAU team in fifth grade, and they bonded, and now Randle is like a big brother to Webster's two children. To Webster, he is like a son.
When Kentucky toppled the Wolverines last weekend, Kyles called Webster and suggested that maybe, perhaps, if he didn't mind, they could host a gathering for the relatives after the season they all endured. Sure, he said. No problem. He asked for the guest list. It came back with 51 names.
Webster began the grilling process on Thursday afternoon. He picked back up on Friday morning and worked until Friday night. The recipes he used had been passed down from generations, and no, he did not want to share the family secrets. Mostly, he talked about Randle and this team.
They spoke almost daily throughout the season. Webster says he could tell the expectations had burdened Randle as he adapted to the college game. "Them being so young and they're supposed to take over the world, and somebody forgot to tell them that it wasn't going to be easy," Webster says. "I went to maybe 10 games. They just never looked comfortable."
Webster saw Kentucky gel at the latest possible moment. Here was an NCAA Tournament draw best described as brutal, fairly described as unfair, and yet the Wildcats, felled this season by Arkansas (twice) and South Carolina, knocked off Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan in succession. Now Webster is two wins from correctly predicting the national championship game in his bracket. He had Kentucky against Florida, a team that beat the Wildcats in each of their three meetings this season. "Getting here is over for me," Webster says. "We want storybook. We want to win it here, in Texas."
The party continued. The relatives went back for seconds. And thirds. And fourths.
"You have the greatest backyard in the world," one of them told Webster.
"The police called," another added. "They said I have to confiscate the corn."
Someone lit a bonfire out by the pool. Families posed for photographs. Still more baskets were shot. In 24 hours, they would be inside AT&T Stadium, 45 miles away, the season extended longer than they expected, extended as long as they had hoped for back in the beginning.
Page looked over at her daughter as they headed for the exit. "Want a plate?" she asked.
"See, she still thinks I'm 12," Kyles said. "I'm a mom. I have a son. And he's playing in the Final Four."