NEWARK, N.J. -- When the Prudential Center nets had been cut down and the final echoes of My Old Kentucky Home had faded, a sea of Kentucky fans drifted into the night, buoyed by relief that after 12 empty seasons, their beloved Wildcats had finally ended their Final Four drought.
In the locker room the young men who had just made Kentucky's 76-69 victory over North Carolina possible were merry, happy and bright, but it was an old man -- the oldest in the room, to be precise -- who may have been the happiest of all. Bob Wiggins, 83, stood in the hallway of the cramped room with a Kentucky hat on his head and a broad smile on his face. Wiggins, who lives in Falmouth, Ky. (population 2,058), has been such a fixture in the stands at Wildcats games since the 1940s that one of John Calipari's first acts as Kentucky coach was to grant Wiggins a sort of platinum status, complete with an open invitation to practice, school-supplied tickets to NCAA tournament games and behind-the-scenes access like the kind Wiggins was enjoying at that very moment.
Wiggins had watched his 'Cats 1,505 times in person, including for four national championship game victories, but he already knew where this win ranked on his all-time list. "It's right at the top," Wiggins said, beaming. "As old as I am, we have to win. I don't have many left."
He has at least one more game left this season. The Wildcats survived a Tar Heels rally on Sunday to advance to their first Final Four since 1998, earning a date with Connecticut in the national semifinals on Saturday in Houston, where Wiggins will once again be in attendance. "It's a way of life for us," Wiggins said. "And we've been suffering for a long time."
Such talk may seem extreme to those who don't follow the sport. But to know the unsurpassed passion of college basketball, to live and die with every game as Wiggins has, is to know exactly what he means. No fan base has more diehards than Kentucky's, a passion bred from 13 previous Final Four trips and seven national championships, the second most in NCAA history.
Three of those fanatics are Wildcats themselves. Darius Miller, a junior from Maysville, Jon Hood, a sophomore from Madisonville, and Jarrod Polson, a freshman from Nicholasville, are the only three native Kentuckians on the roster. For that trio, Sunday's win had special meaning, as it conjured up their own memories of rooting the Wildcats on to a Final Four.
Miller's favorite player was Tony Delk, a sharpshooting guard who was named the Most Outstanding Player for leading Kentucky to the 1996 national championship. Miller was six when the Wildcats cut down the nets that night at the Meadowlands, only a short drive from where he and his teammates celebrated on Sunday. Hood was around the same age two years later when Kentucky won its most recent title, and can still recall his swings of emotion watching the Comeback 'Cats claw their way out of a 17-point hole against Duke in the South Regional final to earn that year's trip to the Final Four. And Polson rooted hard for Ron Mercer, another star of those mid-90s teams that were an overtime loss to Arizona in the 1997 title game away from winning three straight championships. Polson attended Midnight Madness in Rupp Arena as a kid, dreaming that one day he might don the blue and white himself.
Asked what he imagined was going on back home on Sunday night, Polson shook his head and smiled. "I don't know, man," he said. "But I guess it's crazy."
"Crazy" has arguably been the word most often associated with Kentucky fans through the years. To an outsider like Stacey Poole, a freshman guard from Jacksonville, Florida, it can all seem a little ... "Weird," said Poole. "The fans know everything about you: where you're from, where you went to high school, who your family is, what you like most in life. It comes with the territory and they're true blue."
"Everybody thinks they bother you, talk your head off and they do that," said Hood. "But they're respectable."
Kentucky fans are so consumed with their 'Cats that when Calipari was hired in the spring of 2009 to replace the overmatched Billy Gillispie, who had committed the sin of taking Kentucky to the NIT, thousands not only watched a live video stream of a door at Memphis' athletic offices to see if their savior was about to walk out of it, but joined a Facebook group proudly proclaiming "I Watched The Door For Hours!"
Calipari eventually did walk out that door and into the maelstrom of Kentucky hoops, and it took only two years for him to get the Wildcats back to what their fans have long considered their birthright. The drought was supposed to end last year, but the No. 1 seed led by All-Americas and future top-five NBA draft picks John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins lost its Elite 8 matchup with West Virginia. When this year's team dropped one heartbreaker after another -- four road losses by two points and a fifth by four points -- much of Big Blue Nation turned its hopes to the 2011-12 team, which would supplement this year's roster with another top-rated recruiting class. "I heard a lot about last year's team and next year's team, but I always believed in this year's team," said freshman forward Terrence Jones. "I knew we'd be all right."
They were, romping to the SEC tournament title, surviving two close games in the opening rounds of the NCAA tournament and then ousting No. 1 overall seed Ohio State in a Sweet 16 thriller before topping the Tar Heels. But for this year's team to truly become legendary, it must still do two things: hang an eighth title banner in Rupp and earn a nickname. Monikers are almost as much a part of Kentucky lore as championships, from the Fabulous Five back-to-back winners in 1948 and '49, to the Fiddlin' Five champions of 1958, to the star-laden Untouchables, who rolled to the '96 title with a 32-2 record. Even nontitle teams are immortalized: Rupp's Runts finished as runners-up in 1966 and the Unforgettables restored Kentucky's pride and winning ways by reaching the Elite 8 in 1992, three years after the program had been awash in scandal and placed on probation.
Ask Florida native Poole if he knows any of the aforementioned squads and his face goes blank. "Nope," he said. "Never heard of them." Kentucky native Hood has heard of some and can even name a couple of the Unforgettables: "Wasn't that [John] Pelphrey, and those guys?"
Hood was asked what this team's nickname should be. Taking a cue from a certain rap mogul who had just visited the team in the locker room to offer congratulations, Hood said, "I don't know. Maybe Forever Young."
Older Kentucky fans like Wiggins may be more attuned to My Old Kentucky Home, and to be certain they were weeping no more on Sunday evening, but the young 'Cats are more of a Jay-Z bunch. A team that has danced in style, danced for a while and is, improbably, still dancing, all the way to Houston.