By LARRY VAUGHT
(This is a throwback from one year ago today — still a great read!)
Covering Kentucky basketball for 41 years has produced so many memorable moments from national championship seasons to spectacular individual performances to dynamic personalities.
That’s why when Cameron Mills, one of the players I thoroughly enjoyed watching play and getting to know, asked me to write about some of those memories, I thought why not. Then when I realized how hard it would be to narrow that list to 10 like Mills wanted, I understood just how special the last 41 years had been for me.
So in no particular order, here are my top memories based purely on my own emotion and perspective among the hundreds I could have picked.
— 1977-78 national championship season.
That team was expected to be special, and was. The Wildcats went 30-2 under coach Joe Hall and beat Duke 94-88 in the national title game. What made that game even more special was the 41-point performance by Jack “Goose” Givens. He was 18 of 27 from the field and no one in St. Louis that night could ever forget that performance or adjustment by Hall that got Givens free time after time in the Duke defense.
That team was beloved by UK fans starting with point guard Kyle Macy along with Givens and James Lee, a pair of Lexington players. Rick Robey and Mike Phillips gave UK the “Twin Towers” that frustrated opponents and led then LSU coach Dale Brown to accuse UK of using a “karate” defense.
Hall said the “season was without celebration” before the title game but that team — that also included Truman Claytor, Jay Shilder, Fred Cowan, Dwane Casey and others — certainly knew how to have fun off the court and perhaps is still my favorite all-time team.
— Jodie Meeks’ 54-point game at Tennessee.
This might have been the biggest highlight of the Billy Gillispie coaching era when the Cats stunned No. 24 Tennessee 90-72 in 2009. Meeks, a junior guard, had the best offensive individual performance in UK history.
He made a school-record 10 3-point goals and was a perfect 14 of 14 at the foul line. He broke the 53-point scoring mark Dan Issel set 39 years earlier. The Vols had no answer for Meeks as coach Bruce Pearl tried every defender he had.
Meeks earlier had a 46-point game against Appalachian State.
— Getting to go in LSU locker room and listen to coach Dale Brown’s final pregame speech at his final SEC tournament game in 1997.
This might not exactly fit the mold for a UK beat writer, but my job enabled me to become friends with the legendary coach who Kentucky fans once hated but now mainly love because of his respect and admiration for UK basketball.
There were so many great stories with him during his 25 years at LSU, but when he invited me into the dressing room to hear what turned out to be his final presume speech before the Tigers lost to Georgia in Memphis was something I’ll never forget. After that game, a friend, Joe Hafley, and I went back to Brown’s hotel room and sat up most of the night as he reminisced about his career.
Today I am still proud to call him a friend — as is Kentucky coach John Calipari. Brown even says Calipari reminds him a lot of himself by the way he thinks with his heart, not his head, when it comes to his players.
— Rick Pitino telling me he was going to add Bernadette Locke to his coaching staff.
The UK coach was speaking at Danville Country Club at a UK alumni gathering. Before dinner, he asked me to go into a back room with him and that’s when he said he had a great story for me and told me he was hiring a woman. I remember saying, “Thanks Rick. Now give me something I can use.”
He kept insisting he was going to do this and even gave me her phone number. Of course, he did hire her and I got to break the story about Kentucky having the first woman as a full-time staff member for a men’s basketball team at a Division I school. That was back in 1990.
She coached four years with Pitino and then became the UK women’s head coach before eventually landing in the WNBA.
— Comeback Cats.
This was a team that was impossible not to love because of the way it played and managed to win so often after falling behind — which led to the name Comeback Cats. Remember this was a team that lost in Rupp Arena to Ole Miss on Valentine’s Day and was booed by some UK fans. Coach Tubby Smith’s Cats never lost again as they won their final 13 games to finish 35-4.
Kentucky had to beat Duke in the NCAA regional final and overcome a 17-point deficit thanks in part to huge 3-point shots late by Cameron Mills and Scott Padgett. At the Final Four, UK fell behind by 10 points to Stanford but won in overtime. Against Utah in the title game, Kentucky was again down by 10 points at halftime — I remember telling then WHAS Radio sports director Tony Cruise that Tubby had Utah right where he wanted them — and came back to win for the 10th time when trailing at halftime that season.
Wayne Turner, Heshimu Evans, Allen Edwards, Nazr Mohammed and Jamal Magloire were some of the other players I remember best from that team.
I’m not sure there has ever been a Kentucky team more loved by UK fans than the 1991-92 Unforgettables that finished 29-7. Three in-state seniors — Richie Farmer, John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus — had been with the team through probation and the arrival of Rick Pitino along with fellow senior Sean Woods. The team’s star was Jamal Mashburn, who took a huge chance on Pitino and UK by coming when the program was near rock bottom.
I’ll never forget Pitino telling me that when UK got off the probation he inherited from Eddie Sutton that UK could win the national title … and he almost did.
Kentucky lost in the East Region final to Duke in what many still consider the best college basketball game ever. Sean Woods hit a shot to put UK ahead with 2.1 seconds left in overtime before Christian Laettner hit the shot that broke UK hearts then and still does today.
I remember the stunned look Pitino and his players had after the game and how Duke players almost felt the same way.
But this was not a team UK lost. Duke just won. The teams combined to shoot 61 percent from the field.
It was not the way UK fans wanted the season to end, but it was a remarkable season for so many reasons.
— Little League Recognition Days.
There was a time when UK basketball players were allowed to make offseason appearances and no one benefitted more than the Danville-Boyle County Little League Recognition Days. A long list of players that included Macy, Robey, Givens, Lee, Kenny Walker, Sam Bowie, Melvin Turpin, Jim Master, Dwan Casey, Fred Cowan and many more came to Danville for a Sunday program that drew 2,000 to 3,000 Little League players and their families.
I can remember Walker being unable to resist the urge to dunk a few times for the kids or how patient all the players were signing autographs and taking pictures. I also remember not just the basketball stories, but the life stories they shared with youngsters.
It’s too bad today that young UK fans don’t get the same opportunity, but it’s also too bad the players don’t get the same chance to experience the feeling so many former Wildcats did.
— Watching Marta McMackin cry as she helped Joe Hall clean out his desk.
She was the UK administrative assistant under Hall, Smith, Eddie Sutton and Pitino. Every media member knew her and she knew almost everything about Kentucky basketball. If you had a question, she could answer.
After Joe Hall announced his retirement, I just happened to be in Memorial Colisuem as she was boxing up things in Hall’s desk for him to take home. She was alternating packing and crying. Sure, she was going to miss him. But she also understood what UK basketball meant to him and how hard walking away would be for him.
It was perhaps the most touching moment I can remember and I just stood and watched for several minutes before slowly walking away.
— DeMarcus Cousins having my back at NCAA Tournament in New Orleans.
Calipari’s first season was remarkable in so many ways with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe on the team. Kentucky went 35-3 and likely had the nation’s best team even though it lost to West Virginia in the East Region final.
However, I’ll never forget a playful incident with Cousins in New Orleans during the first round of the tourney. Teams have open locker rooms for media interviews that last 30 minutes and for a team like Kentucky, the room is normally filled with media members. I needed a Wall interview and was standing elbow to elbow with a lot of reporters when a TV camera guy kept bumping and hitting me with his camera. We eventually exchanged a few words since I would not give ground to let him get closer.
I turned around and there was Cousins watching and laughing.
“Don’t worry Mr. Vaught. I had your back. You are too old for him to use that camera on you,” Cousins laughed and said.
— Victory Tour in 2012 by Calipari with the NCAA championship trophy.
This was Calipari at his best with Kentucky fans sharing the championship moment. Not only did he take the trophy across the state, but what impressed me even more is that he made sure every fan got a picture with him and the trophy. Sure, that sometimes involved group photos, but no one left without the picture he or she wanted.
“I don’t know if this could be done at any other university,” Calipari said then. “I wanted to let you know how much we appreciate you and how we understand what this program means to you.”
And he did that by touching thousands of fans with his Victory Tour.
— Bill Keightley, Cawood Ledford and Oscar Combs.
I know this makes 11 top 10 memories, but I did save the best for life. These three men all had a great influence on my University of Kentucky sports reporting.
I’ll admit I was stunned when Combs offered a small-town guy from Danville a chance to write a weekly column for The Cats’ Pause. At that time with no internet, that was my way to introduce myself to many UK fans. Combs was a great mentor and friend who stood behind his writers. I’m proud to still count him as a friend and feel lucky to still call on him for advice as I recently did.
Ledford was already a legend when I started covering UK. Or at least he was to me. But he treated me like gold. He never failed to speak or answer questions if I had them. He shared insights, stories and much more. For reasons I’ll never understand, he treated me like a peer and I certainly was not. However, I liked the way he looked for the best in athletes, coaches and fans. I never forgot that lesson.
Keightley was unique. Obviously, UK fans and players loved him. I’ll share a secret — so did most media members. I thought I understood the passion for UK basketball when I started the Kentucky beat. But Keightley helped educate me on just how passionate UK fans are. He also helped me understand the intense pressure even back in 1976 that being a Kentucky basketball player put on youngsters. Many, many times I went to press conferences early just to stop by and see him. Those visits also often included his favorite goodies from Burke’s Bakery in Danville.
These memories could go on and on. Maybe if I wrote the same column tomorrow I might come up with a whole new list because for 41 years, just about everything about covering UK basketball has been that memorable.