Tonight, I will be returning to Rupp Arena to cover the Texas A&M game. After having not played a game in Lexington since December 15, the Cats should be happy about returning to their old Kentucky home. But will the Big Blue Faithful show up to fill all the seats to welcome them back? Prior to Saturday’s SEC opener at Alabama, I had high hopes the fan base would be excited enough to grab all remaining tickets, but after the loss, “lukewarm” is a generous term for how a fair portion of fans is feeling about the Cats right now. Add to that the fact the students have not yet returned to campus, and it would be reasonable to expect to see plenty of empty seats tonight.
There has been much discussion of late about declining attendance and, while it is something that is happening all across the board, it seems almost unfathomable that it could happen at Kentucky. The Big Blue Nation, viewed as the most passionate and loyal fan base in the country, has not been filling Rupp Arena for all games for several seasons now. Some cite the expense as a reason for not attending. I fully understand that. By the time you purchase tickets, pay for parking, and get even a minimal amount of concessions, it can become a pricey outing. Budget concerns were definitely part of the reason I had to limit the number of games I could attend each season prior to joining the Cameron Mills Radio staff and being blessed to get media credentials.
Others will say that having all games available on television hurts attendance as well. Why go through the hassle of traffic, parking, and fighting crowds when you can be in the comfort of your own home and watch the Cats on your big screen HD television? Personally, I don’t think watching a game on television can come close to experiencing it in person, but maybe that’s just me.
More frustrating to me, however, are the fans that say they don’t want to shell out money to see an “inferior” opponent. They only want to be in Rupp for “marquee” games. That is the one reason that makes absolutely no sense to me. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting to tell people how to “fan.” I am simply stating that the opponent isn’t what makes the magic for me. It’s the opportunity to be in Rupp Arena and that will always be magical in my book.
I remember the first time I attended a game in Rupp Arena, which also happened to be the first time I ever saw the Cats in person. It was January 1978, and a friend had graciously invited me to attend a game with them. As we entered the hallowed halls of the Arena, goosebumps covered my arms. I barely remember that we played LSU, though I recall we defeated them rather handily. I was too enamored of being in the same building as Jack Givens, Kyle Macy, Rick Robey, Coach Joe B. Hall, and the rest of the Cats. I remember my heart fluttering when I saw, albeit from a distance, Cawood Ledford, the legendary Voice of the Wildcats that I had listened to my entire life.
Over the years, I attended more games and one thing was constant: regardless of the opponent and regardless of how good a season the Cats were having, I got goosebumps every time I entered the arena. Every single time.
Whether I was watching an exhibition game against Athletes in Action or a huge non-conference game against the North Carolina Tarheels, I stood and cheered the entire game. I always went home with no voice (much to the delight of my family and friends) and I was always proud to be a Cat fan, regardless of the final score.
Now that I am living the dream and get to cover the Cats, the magic remains. Tonight, as is my custom on game day, I will arrive at least 2 hours before tipoff. I will walk in the arena and head down to the floor and stand on the court. I close my eyes momentarily and wait for the feeling that I know will be coming: the goosebumps will appear on my arms and the years of tradition seem to wash over me. Before long, a player or two will arrive and you’ll hear the solitary bouncing of a basketball on the court. I’ll take a seat on the Kentucky bench and remember so many special players that have been there before me.
Once I take my seat in media row, I will tweet updates about the game action. No longer allowed to cheer until my voice is gone, I listen for the cheers of the youngest fans in the stands. They still have the joy. They still feel the magic of just being at the game. They don’t care if the Cats lost at Alabama and it won’t matter if our opponent is not ranked in the Top 10. They won’t wait for the Cats to go on a big run before they start cheering as loudly as they can. And that is the magic of Rupp Arena and being a Wildcat fan.
After the final horn sounds and the post-game interviews are complete, I will once again walk into the arena and step on the floor. It will once again be quiet except for the crew cleaning the stands. I will close my eyes one more time to get that last fix of the Blue Mist, and then I will go home.
Yes, Rupp Arena is always magical to me and I hope that never changes. And maybe if you take a moment and close your eyes, you can remember the magic, too.
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