The year was 1978 when I witnessed my first National Championship win by the Kentucky Wildcats. Having been raised in a family of devoted Kentucky fans, my grandfather had told me all about the legendary teams that won titles in 1948, ’49, ’51 and ’58. I knew all about the Fabulous Five, and the Fiddlin’ Five. But often I wondered if I would ever get to see a championship with my own eyes.
When Jack Givens dropped 41 points on Duke to secure the ’78 banner, I finally understood why my grandfather had spoken of the other teams so often and in such glowing terms. But I didn’t really grasp why he was so emotional after that 1978 victory, so emotional that he was nearly in tears. However, having to wait nearly 20 years before I witnessed another trophy coming home to Lexington, I understood all of my grandfather’s emotions. The 1996 team was to me what the ’78 Cats were to Papa.
For my entire adult life, I had watched my Cats have great years, bad years and years that fell in between the two extremes. I saw us make several Elite Eights as well as a couple of Final Fours. I also lived through the Kentucky Shame period, and I wondered if the Kentucky Basketball I loved with all of my heart would ever get back to the top.
Then 1996 happened. After some talented UK teams fell short of the promised land, ’96 was the year it was supposed to be Kentucky cutting down the nets. Preseason #1 with a team some have called “the greatest college basketball team ever,” winning the title was the only option. And that’s exactly what they did after they steamrolled through the season with only 2 blemishes on their otherwise perfect record. The night of the Championship game, as the final seconds ticked off the clock and it was clear our 6th trophy was in hand, I remember sitting on my couch, tears streaming down my face. Joy, excitement, and yes, relief were the emotions filling me. I didn’t sleep all night, perhaps fearful if I went to sleep, I would awaken to find it was all a dream.
Now, 20 years and 2 championships later, I still have a special place in my heart for the ’96 team. When Cameron Mills announced a documentary about this team would be released on Christmas Day, I cannot begin to describe the happiness and joy that filled me. I recently spoke with Cameron to get more details on his project, and having a little “insider information,” I am even more excited than ever to see the finished product.
The idea for creating this documentary came about while the team was in the planning phase of their 20-year reunion that was held earlier this year in Miami. About a month before the reunion, Vinny Tatum had contacted members of the team asking if they would be okay with a member of the Louisville media covering their activities. The players as well as Pitino were agreeable with the idea, but for a variety of reasons, this never came to fruition. However, this spawned the idea for a documentary, so Cameron contacted Dick Gabriel and Jason Epperson to see if they would be on board to help with the project. They agreed, and the rest, as they say, is history. “The Team” was going to be reality.
Though the team members have kept in regular contact with one another since 1996, the reunion was a very special occasion since every player was in attendance. When Cameron was asked if there were any surprises as the interviews were conducted, he said it wasn’t so much being surprised at stories as it was being reminded of events he had forgotten. What stood out most was “that we still love hanging out together, just as we did 20 years ago.” They recalled practices, games, and how Pitino, while not the easiest person to deal with as a coach, was easy to love. “It’s a difficult relationship while you’re playing for Rick, but he’s the one who developed and shaped us, not just as players, but as men.”
Antoine Walker and Jeff Sheppard said similar things about their days at Kentucky. Sheppard also noted that during his brief time in the NBA, what stood out to him was how different his relationship was with his teammates than it was at UK. While the ’96 team did everything together in their college years, Sheppard said he almost never saw his NBA teammates outside of practice or games. What Coach Cal now promotes with his Cats as a brotherhood was exactly what existed between “The Untouchables.” Clearly, that philosophy can go a long way in having a successful team.
Now I realize some of you have bristled already with my reference to Pitino and how the players love him. I get that. The Rick Pitino of 2016 is vastly different to fans than the Pitino of 1996. But you have to understand, the players had a completely different relationship with him, one that you and I can never fully understand. They fought the battles together, and they climbed the highest mountain in college basketball together. Those experiences will forever join coach and players in a way that’s difficult to describe.
“It’s a strange thing,” Mills continued. “People seem to think you have to choose a side and that side has to be all-Kentucky or all-Pitino. But it’s not that simple. I want to be clear: when Kentucky plays Louisville, I cheer for Kentucky. Wednesday night, I would have preferred for the Cats to win, but I was happy for Coach Pitino (when he managed only his 2nd win against UK since Cal arrived).” Cameron also said the same feelings existed for his teammates.
“You have to understand we all have an authentic respect for Coach Cal and we are happy he is the coach at Kentucky.” So those rumors about some kind of rift existing between Cal and the ’96 team? “It’s simply not the case. We just have a different relationship with Cal than we do with Pitino. We weren’t Cal’s players, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. It’s just different. We like Cal, we respect Cal, but Rick was our coach.”
Perhaps that is the greatest message some fans need to hear as this documentary is now nearing its premiere (Christmas Day). As promotions have been posted on social media, there have been a few fans that have said they won’t watch it because it includes Pitino. I find that disappointing, and quite frankly, sad. The simple fact of the matter is, Rick Pitino was the coach at Kentucky in 1996, and he brought banner #6 back home to the University of Kentucky. That incredible team sacrificed egos and personal accolades so they could be successful.
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the ’96 team will always have a special place in my heart. I will always have great respect for Rick Pitino and what he did during his years at UK. I might not care for him much now, but I won’t let my dislike of his current position (not to mention countless comments) keep me from fully enjoying “The Team.” To write off this documentary because of Pitino would be, in my opinion, very disrespectful to a team that loved, and still loves the University of Kentucky.
So, on Christmas Day at 5:00 pm (Eastern Time), I will be parked in front of my television, tuned in to WKYT and will finally get to see the full finished product known simply as “The Team.” I will celebrate seeing Cameron’s idea become reality. I will enjoy a wonderful trip down memory lane, and I will be interested to hear all the stories they share about that magical season. And as soon as it is over, I will download my copy that I pre-ordered and I will watch it all over again, just as I watched the ’96 Championship game just hours after it had ended 20 years ago.
In short, I will not have to like Pitino in order to love “The Team.” I hope my Big Blue Nation family will feel the same.
How you can see “The Team”:
Download Version: You can pre-order a downloadable version ($9.99) NOW at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theteam/. It will be available for download at 6:00 pm ET on December 25. (Even if you see the documentary on television, you should get the download as it contains additional content, including a tribute to the legendary Mr. Wildcat, Bill Keightley, by the members of the 1996 team).
On television: (all air dates are December 25):
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