Last Saturday night anxious fingers tuned radio dials in Gap Tooth and Wet Rye. On a lonely mountain in eastern Kentucky, two men sharing a quart of moonshine pulled a coughing car to the edge of the road and listened in. An executive, off duty from a Louisville boardroom, settled down in front of his fireplace to rekindle memories of Groza, Spivey and Hagan. A Rabbit Hash widow turned her radio upside down and placed it in the hallway for better reception. All across the state folks were ready for some of that good ol' time religion called Kain-tuck-eee basketball.
Through war and peace, good crops and bad, this is the way it is in Kentucky, the state that gave us the hook shot, the center screen and the guard-around offense. Last week in Lexington it was a time for celebration, nostalgia and maybe a tear. The University of Kentucky began the week with a victory over Indiana, the defending national champion, and ended it with a crusher over Kansas. In the Kansas game the school dedicated the 23,000-seat Rupp Arena, the largest basketball facility in the country, and said perhaps its last goodby to Adolph Rupp, the legend in the brown suit.
Now 75 and in failing health, Rupp was present Saturday night to see Kentucky defeat Kansas, ironically the old coach's alma mater. Rupp recently spent 25 days in the hospital, and as he stood before the crowd, his strength ebbing, it was an emotional scene. Over the years Kentucky fans rarely have had cause to bury their heads in their hands, but on this dramatic night some hid their eyes.
To understand Kentucky basketball, consider the marvel of a 23,000-seat arena in a farming and horse-breeding community of 200,000 people. The arena is part of a $53 million complex called Lexington Center that includes a hotel, shopping mall and exhibition hall. Rupp Arena was sold out almost as soon as the first shovelful of earth was turned during construction. Rumor has it that there were 100,000 applications for tickets, so many that the last group had to be disbursed by lottery. When a block of 400 tickets was discovered and unexpectedly offered for sale, an eager crowd stood vigil outside the ticket office and people offered up to $100 for a place in line.
December 20, 1976
This kind of enthusiasm might be anticipated even if Kentucky were destined for its first losing season since 1927. But basketball fever is rampant, because the Wildcats are one of the best and most physical teams in the country. The key to the season seems to be how well Coach Joe Hall is able to blend his two 6'10" big men. Rick (King) Robey and Mike (Kong) Phillips, players that Kansas Coach Ted Owens said "will give you a smack just for the fun of doing it."
Phillips, in particular, is fun loving. He currently has several stitches in the corner of his left eye, a trophy from a fight in the recent 103-53 laugher over Texas Christian. A quiet, well-mannered sort off the court, Phillips was ejected from the Mississippi State game last year and picked up a couple of technical fouls at Tennessee. "I get out of control sometimes," he says softly. Robey, meanwhile, nailed Kansas Forward Herb Nobles in the eye Saturday night, a blow that left Nobles with troubled vision the rest of the evening.
This two-fisted defense, sometimes called the Steal Curtain, has caused Kentucky opponents to commit an average of 25 turnovers a game. The only problem is that officials tend to raise their arms and blow their whistles whenever they see King or Kong so much as breathe. Against Indiana on Monday night, the pair was limited to cameo appearances because of foul trouble. The series between the two schools has been filled with acrimony, and the officials were loath to let it get out of control in front of the Bloomington, Ind. partisans. Between them, King and Kong played only 33 minutes. The Wildcats won easily, however, 66-51, thanks to the long jumper ICBMs of freshman Guard Jay Shidler, a rawboned, fearless sort who is nicknamed "While Lightning" because, as Hall notes, "He's a blond out of a bottle." Shidler peroxides his hair once a month.
Indiana looked as if it needed Quinn Buckner in the backcourt during the first half as it contended with the Kentucky 1-3-1 zone defense, the same one Rupp installed back in 1963, and a defense that is copied by high school coaches throughout the state. The young but talented Hoosiers had 15 turnovers in the half and were behind 38-21. Although they fared better in the second half by moving Kent Benson to the wing and using 6'9" Scott Eells as a guard, they never really got back in the game. The defeat broke Indiana's 35-game home-court win streak and was only its third loss at Assembly Hall since 1972.
Kentucky's victory margin should have been larger. The Wildcats missed the front end of bonus free-throw situations nine times in the game, a criminal offense in Lexington. One year, after Mike Pratt missed his fourth free throw in a row, Rupp fell over backward in his chair.
That is the sort of incident that is savored throughout the state, discussed avidly along with the price of tobacco and cattle. Rupp was a caustic sort, called the Baron as much for his imperial manner as anything. His autocratic style caught on with the fans, who to this day are proud to point out that Kentucky players always say yes, sir and no, sir.
The team's appeal is such that an intrasquad game draws a standing-room-only crowd, and 5,000 fans have shown up to gawk at the players shooting around the morning of a Notre Dame game in Louisville. A fledgling private newspaper called The Cats' Pause that highlights UK sports already has subscribers from all 50 states and 13 foreign countries. Serious fans from the state's far reaches put extra food in the dogs' dishes and drive to Lexington to watch the Wildcats. V. A. Jackson, M.D., the team physician, often drove 330 miles each way from Clinton, Ky. before he moved to Lexington in 1964. The game against Kansas was the 173rd straight Kentucky game he had seen, and most days he is at team practice, reminiscing with a coterie of fans who chuckle at the Rupp stories that are passed about so much that the facts are worn smooth.
Even in his absence, Rupp may be contributing to Kentucky's victories. The vast arena named after him should do much to awe Southeastern Conference foes visiting Lexington. "It's intimidating," says Rick Robey.
Kentucky's current win streak of 14 games is the nation's longest and is immensely satisfying for Joe Hall, who took over for Rupp in 1972. After a 13-13 record in his second season, some UK adherents clamored for his removal. The team responded with a second-place finish in the 1975 NCAA tournament and a victory in last spring's NIT, although Robey missed the last half of the season with a knee injury. Having survived the gunfire, Hall now can joke about the battle. Last week he said he was disappointed that he was not hired by UCLA to replace John Wooden. "Why ruin two men's lives?" he said.
Hall speaks slowly and thickly. He has a 160-acre farm where he raises corn, tobacco and cattle, and often takes recruits frog-gigging, but he's about as much a country dolt as Jimmy Dean. When Jay Shidler put up a hopeful 25-footer against Indiana, Hall screamed from the sidelines. Shidler looked at him contritely and said, "I'm sorry." The curator of basketball's Vatican called him over and shook him as if to point out that being a UK player is never having to say I'm sorry. "I'm not colorful," says Hall, looking out behind plain glasses, "but it doesn't bother me."
As the team prepared for Kansas, which came to Lexington undefeated, Hall tried to get the players down from the penthouse and back to ground level after the Indiana win. At practice he chased freshman LaVon Williams all the way downcourt after the rookie half-stepped through a drill, and he yelled in disgust at senior Larry Johnson, "You coming to practice tomorrow? You sure aren't here today."
"Coach is hard on us sometimes, but he's not abusive," says Johnson, probably the team's most improved player and a valued member of its Steal Curtain. "There's a difference. He's constructive."
While Rupp Arena was under construction, its namesake said that all he desired was a preferred parking space and a halftime bratwurst sandwich at every game. For the meeting between Kentucky and Kansas, the two schools with the most college victories, Rupp arrived wearing a white carnation in his brown suit. At halftime ceremonies he was helped to center court and surrounded by local and state politicians. Rupp was given a number of mementos and accolades, and the band played Auld Lang Syne. One gift was the game ball from the first half when Kentucky's pestering defense forced 17 turnovers and helped produce a 48-27 lead. "You ought to leave that ball in play because the boys seem to be doing mighty well with it," mused the Baron.
Kansas was in trouble most of the night as it tried to match power with Kentucky. One big Jayhawk, Ken Koenigs, played only seven minutes in the first half before committing his fifth foul, and the team's other giant, seven-footer Paul Mokeski, was whistled to the sidelines with his fifth after only three minutes of the second half. "We stress tight defense," said Jack Givens, who was the leading scorer against Kansas with 15 points. "We don't play to hurt anyone. It's just our aggressiveness."
Givens and his buddy James Lee grew up as friends in Lexington, where they picked up the respective nicknames of "Silk" and "Steel." The muscular Lee is the team's sixth man and looks strong enough to break your arm with a dirty look. He made six of 10 shots against Kansas, including a play where he took a rebound and dribbled the length of the floor for a stuff shot, scattering bodies along the way. The final score was Kentucky 90, Kansas 63.
Rupp calls it the best team in the country; not the best in Kentucky history, of course, but a fine one still. That is good enough for the people in bluegrass country. The tobacco is in, the mares are in foal and Kentucky basketball is big again, an ol' time religion.