For me to undertake to write a column about University of Kentucky basketball is ludicrous, but I never moved away from a challenge.
This morning, April 2, coach Calipari posted the following on Facebook: “I was leaving Mass this morning and thinking of the Big Blue Nation and what messages I could give you today before we embark on this ultimate challenge.” (Who among us is not thinking about the game tonight against Wisconsin?) “Let’s remember where we all started. It didn’t start with me. It all started with Coach Rupp, who created raving fans in a program that could withstand the test of time. It’s true leadership when the energy of the program, the appeal of the program and the legacy of the program sustain long after you’re gone. I’ve always wished I had an hour to spend with coach Rupp, but let’s not get away from the roots of this program. That’s why this is the Commonwealth’s program. That’s what he built here.”
How can I forget? My mother, Opal Adams, and her older sister, Lurlene, played basketball for Benham High school, so I had a parent who loved the game. In the late forties and early fifties, we gathered around the radio on game nights, totally enthralled. And with good reason for the UK team, under the direction of Coach Rupp, won the NCAA championship in 1948, 1949, 1951 and 1958. We were listening to great stuff, all of us, totally immersed as a family. Of course, I know about the scandals, but I’m dismissing that for now.
Adolph Rupp (1901-1977) was born in Halstead, Kan. and had an early interest in basketball. Wikipedia indicates that he and his brothers “stuffed rags into a gunny sack which his mother sewed up to use as a basketball on the family farm.” At 6’2” Rupp was a star high school player averaging 19 points in his junior and senior years and serving as captain. This was not to be the case at the University of Kansas where he was a reservist from 1919-1923.
It was probably during that time of observing that he began to consider what maneuvers would take basketball to the next level: Fast break, set offense, “guard around” play, inside screen, man-to-man and eventually the 1-3-1 defense.
A superstitious man, coach Rupp was known to us kids sitting at home listening as “the coach in the brown suit.” He had once bought a blue suit which he wore to a game. He lost that game, so he returned to brown suits – and he carried a lucky buckeye in his pocket.
Some folks are saying that coach Rupp would turn over in his grave if he knew coach Calipari’s starters were all African American freshmen. Not so. We must judge a man by his time and remember that UK was a white school and what black recruit would want to live in such an environment where racism was rampant? Also, schools in the deep south were a part of the schedule, and that presented all sorts of problems with housing, slurs from the crowd and even places for the team to eat when on the road.
This is the 50 anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and so many colleges and universities in the South did not admit blacks before some time after that when they were required to do so, at times with the help of law enforcement.
Coach Rupp (UK Coach 1930-1972) was a pragmatist, and when he signed 7’2” African American Tom Payne from Louisville in 1969, it was forever the end of an all-white University of Kentucky team.
In closing, I’d like to make one more comment. Coach Calipari writes that the University of Kentucky team is the commonwealth’s team. We all must remember that at one time the University of Louisville was a private school (joined the state system of higher education in 1970) and UK, a land grant university, has always been a school of the people and for the people. Add to that the fact that until 1998 all the community colleges scattered throughout the state were a part of the University of Kentucky.
Root for whom you wish, but remember history, as do I. I’ll be wearing my UK blue shirt tonight and sending my best wishes to coach Calipari and his team even as I recall my early childhood in our house on the banks of the Cumberland River. There I learned about basketball, and I was a part of what coach Rupp was building which coach Calipari so astutely recognizes.