As Kentucky Wildcat fans, we all have special memories. Maybe it was being at a memorable game, or perhaps it was just the time shared with family and friends as you watched games. But for many of the BBN, the truly special memories are those opportunities to meet current or former Wildcats. Such an opportunity was given to UK fans last Saturday when Bluegrass RV celebrated their grand opening by inviting several members of the 1996 Championship team to be available to meet fans and sign autographs.
This was one of the rare gatherings of multiple members of the 96 squad, and the fans braved the unpleasant rainy weather to get their chance to meet Jeff Sheppard, Wayne Turner, Derek Anderson, Jared Prickett and Cameron Mills. Adding to the excitement was getting to see The Cameron Mills Radio show, which was being broadcast live at the event. For a little over two hours, fans streamed in to get pictures, posters, basketballs, bottles of Maker’s Mark, hats, shoes, and other memorabilia autographed.
Perhaps one of the most special things I witnessed was how much love the fans showed to the players. The players also returned the love, taking time to listen to stories, take pictures and genuinely interact with those in attendance. I also enjoyed listening to the players interact with one another, recalling their own memories with their teammates. As I was taking in all the activity, I couldn’t help but reminisce about that magical 1996 season.
While all championships are special, the banner brought home by the 96 team was particularly sweet. Besides having ended an 18-year drought without a title, it also signified the return of Kentucky to the top of the college basketball world. Only a mere 7 years earlier, fans wondered whether the mighty Cats would ever return to their former glory after being slammed with NCAA sanctions. But that ridiculously talented 96 team sealed the deal and brought the hardware back to Lexington, complete with thousands of fans lining the streets of Lexington as the bus carrying the players returned to Rupp Arena.
So, it would seem to be a given that the UK Athletics Department would honor that time in Kentucky’s storied history and give the 1996 Champions a 20th anniversary celebration. Except that hasn’t happened. Even more odd, it seems that nobody knows exactly why The Untouchables weren’t honored in Rupp. When asked about the lack of a formal ceremony earlier this year, Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said:
Everybody gets magical about fives and 10s and 15s and those kinds of (numbers). We just said, ‘Let’s go ahead and celebrate these guys.’ And some of the folks already said they were going to do something privately (this year). That was fine with us, and we just felt that we had gotten them together three years ago and felt like we were OK in that area.”
Yes, UK did get the team together three years ago to present them with championship rings they had never received. And yes, the team will be reunited later this summer as they gather with Coach Rick Pitino in Miami for their own celebration. But don’t they deserve more? Don’t the fans deserve more? What possible reason could there be to not have this celebration in Rupp Arena?
I think the answer is pretty obvious: Rick Pitino.
Contrary to what Mitch Barnhart may say, you cannot convince me there is any other reason for this lack of a formal ceremony. Pitino’s last visit to Lexington was perhaps the most unpleasant the BBN has endured since Rick left UK for the Boston Celtics back in 1997. Further, Rick has done nothing to win the favor of the Kentucky faithful the past few years. Some feel that should Pitino be invited to a ceremony honoring his 96 team, the fans would be less than gracious when he was introduced. And quite frankly, Coach P has nobody to blame but himself for how UK fans feel about him now. (I wrote about this in greater detail a couple of months ago.)
But I think it’s time for one side to take the high road and do what is right for the players. Is it really so important to hate Rick Pitino that we would be okay with bypassing this 20th anniversary celebration for the team? Would it really be so difficult to put aside for one day what Pitino has done the past 19 years, and focus instead on what he did for Kentucky in 1996?
Oh, I can hear some of you already: “Pitino is a liar and a traitor for going to Louisville. No way do I want to honor him!” Others are thinking, “Pitino always thought he was bigger than our program. Why continue to feed his ego?” Still other fans have less polite opinions about Rick.
But this celebration is not just about Pitino. It’s about Derek Anderson, Tony Delk, Walter McCarty, Antoine Walker, Wayne Turner, Jeff Sheppard, Jared Prickett, Nazr Mohammed, Anthony Epps, Cameron Mills and the rest of the squad. I think these players are entitled to walk into Rupp Arena and once again hear the cheers from the Big Blue Faithful. They should get all the pomp and circumstance befitting a team that some have dubbed one of the top 5 college basketball teams of all time.
Whether or not a formal ceremony is held, Pitino will most likely always believe he was bigger than the Kentucky Basketball program. He will continue to view a large portion of our fan base as “small-minded” because we didn’t support his decision to coach at U of L. So what is the harm in honoring this team, and the 1996 version of Rick Pitino? It doesn’t mean you have to like who Rick is now, nor does it mean you agree with his personal and professional choices he’s made since leaving the Wildcats.
Taking the high road means we want to honor our team and the coach that brought us our 6th national championship. It means we have chosen to love our Wildcats more than we hate the Cardinals. Most of all, taking this road could lead to the glorious celebration the 1996 team earned 20 years ago in the Meadowlands.
Come on Mitch and BBN: let’s choose to take this road and make this celebration happen. It’s the right thing to do.
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