BY KAYLA VANHOOSE
This is the 12th consecutive year I’ve attended the KHSAA Sweet 16. While I love basketball and am thrilled to watch the games, the experience is much, much more than going into Rupp Arena and watching high school basketball.
The experience, if done correctly, is like one big family reunion each year.
I have had several people ask what is so thrilling about spending 6 straight days inside Rupp Arena. Once I’m finished, hopefully people get it. And if only one of you get it — that’s one more person added to the family.
I have experienced the Sweet 16 as a Lexington resident, as a participating school affiliate, and as a fan who decided to spring for a room at the Hilton or Hyatt. This year I did an AirBnB on West Maxwell — walking distance. (Shout out to Ben for being the BEST host ever.) After 12 years of trial and error, staying close actually saves you money and time in the long run. Hotels outside of downtown take awhile to get back to between sessions if you need a quick nap or want to change clothes and it’s nice to be close to your belongings if you’ve forgotten something.
Parking is always tricky unless you are cool with paying $10 per day to park next to Rupp — if you are, that’s cool. If not, take it from me, stay close. Park your vehicle for the week and adventure to all the cool places downtown or utilize Uber for anything not in walking distance.
Get Tickets to the Mr. and Miss Basketball Event
For the last few years, the kick-off has been an incredible ceremony hosted by the Kentucky Lions Eye Foundation on Tuesday evening. This is where they announce this year’s Mr. and Miss Basketball. Coaches, media, and fans all across the Commonwealth get dressed in their best and will socialize in the reception hall until time to enter the Ballroom to find a seat. A 3-course meal, catered by the Lexington Center and always delicious, is served. There’s typically a special guest handing out the award, and each Region’s player of the year is given an award. The moment of joy when the winner’s name is announced — remarkable.
The First Day
Wednesday morning I wake up and pack my necessities. For you, that’s probably tickets and wallet. For me, it’s a small bag gifted to me by the KHSAA 3 years ago — my first year in this media gig — perfect size for an iPad, chargers, notebook, and pens. Pack light, they check your bags upon entering and the last thing you want to do is mess with a coat or huge purse — extra items quickly become cumbersome.
With my things in tow, I make the trek to High St and enter the Hyatt Lobby. To my right is a crowd of folks all after the same experience. A crowd of them will say hello and give hugs — after all, we haven’t seen each other since this time last year. Each year I meet new regulars, they join the family, too. After I say hello to the bartenders — the same ones that have been there for years — it’s time to head to Game 1.
I head back outside and down to the underbelly of Rupp to the Media entrance and sign my name for the first time that week. The kind ladies behind the table hand me a lanyard, credentials, hospitality passes, and then I’m on my way.
I walk out from underneath the stands. There it is: THE court. The floor of Rupp Arena, the Mecca of Basketball in Kentucky. I head down the sideline to my normal spot — same place every year — the auxiliary media section at the baseline.
Get to Know the People Around You
I am greeted with an excited smile, handshake, and hug by a man in a Blue Blazer. He’s another friend I’ve made over the years, only he’s not a spectator, he’s in the infamous Committee of 101 at Rupp — his name is Dennis. I look forward to his company and kind conversation.
Last year, I was fortunate to hang with some basketball legends like WKU greats Bobby Rascoe and Darrel Carrier, NCAA Champion Heshimu Evans, and received many warm hugs in passing from Coach Joe B. Hall. My experience isn’t because of my special seating, media credentials, last name, or anything like that. Any single person that is outgoing and friendly enough could enjoy the company of many of these people. When you meet your heroes, take a chance and say hello. That’s what I do and it has paid off more often than not.
Enjoy the Basketball No Matter What
The games start. A student section is always to my left. Sometimes I engage them, take some videos, post them to twitter. They like that… so do I.
No matter who is playing, whether its a blowout or not, the magic is still the same. We are all sitting in Rupp Arena watching kids fulfill their dreams. Making it to the Sweet 16 is the pinnacle of Kentucky High School Basketball — the excitement is something that is electric. At this level, any team is capable of beating another. You never know who isn’t ready to go home.
Eat the Ice Cream
Rupp’s soft serve (I recommend the swirl) is arguably the best ice cream of all time. Several agree — in fact, we make a run at #RuppIceCream trending on twitter each season. This is our year!
The Lexington Center
Basically anything you might need can be found downstairs in the Lexington Center, located between Rupp Arena and Hyatt’s lobbies. Ride the escalator down and you’ll see a shopping mall-esque space with a Food Court, an Old Kentucky Chocolate store, and several boutiques/shops geared toward all different walks of people… especially Kentucky fans. #BBN.
Become a Frequent Flyer at the Hyatt
After the first session, I exit Rupp and trek back to the Hyatt Lobby. There they are, my Sweet 16 family. Think of a yearly Cheers reunion. We have about 4 hours to kill before evening games and often we sit at the Hyatt restaurant the entire time — catching NCAA games, eating food, reminisce about our favorite Sweet Sixteens (mine is when Ken-jah Bosley hit that last second shot and the whole stadium went wild!!) The best part is catching up on what we’ve all done for an entire year.
Make the Hyatt your home base. All the regulars meet there year in and year out — and that’s your goal — to become a regular. Pro tip: the tables have built in outlets. Score! You can charge your phone here. Trust me, you’ll need it.
With that large break between sessions and if you’re a night owl like me, there’s all kinds of time to see Downtown Lexington. Sometimes you’ll find me at The Paddock or Tin Roof on S. Limestone catching the Cats in the NCAA tournament. Oh, and Two Keys Tavern — it has a Goodfellas inside. That is THE best pizza in Lexington. Don’t @ me.
Long gone are the days I used to find myself at the Pavillion walking down to my favorite basement bar — Redmon’s — as it was sold a few years back. If that’s your scene, you can check out Bluegrass Tavern, the best Bourbon bar in the state. After all, what’s a visit to Lexington without Bourbon?
My favorite Downtown Lexington dining spots:
Pies and Pints on W Main St — unique pizzas and a wide variety of craft beers
Parlay Social at the Pavilion — food and live music in the evenings, what more could you ask?
Tony’s Steak and Seafood on W Main (located in The Square) — this is for those of you looking for a high-end steak and seafood joint. So good.
Joe Bologna’s on W Maxwell — American Italian food. My fave? The Manicotti.
Find a Routine that Works For You, Stick With It
My entire week is spent generally in the same pattern. Morning games, Rupp Ice Cream, Hyatt fellowship, Rupp Ice Cream, evening games, Downtown.
Maybe I’ll see you out and about. You’ll find me at the Burl this Thursday night after the games — I hear they’ve got a pretty killer live music lineup.
Here’s hoping you fall in love with the sights, sounds, and scene of the Sweet Sixteen — just like I have, dear reader. We need more of you in our circle. Good luck!
Owner of @BluegrassBball and self-proclaimed Sweet 16 aficionado