By Ricky Blair
As a young college student at the University of Kentucky in 1982, I attended the first Midnight Madness. That is what Big Blue Madness was called at the time. Like most attendees at that first event, my friends and I did not make the decision to attend the practice until that very evening. It was just as exiting, but a lot different atmosphere in those days. There were no corporate sponsors, no high tech video screens; it was all about basketball, all about the players and all about the fans.
I’ve had the pleasure of attending more than 20 season opening practices. The event has gone from a fan fest to a recruiting tool and prime time show made for television.
Despite all the changes I still enjoy the event and it is incredible to see the love and passion the Big Blue Nation has for their team. The player’s names change from year to year, but the fan’s passion remains the same.
Unfortunately it will never go back to the old days when fans would stand in line the night of the event to get a chance to see their beloved Cats. It was a first come first serve event, so the fans that had the best seats where not there as a guest of some corporate sponsor, but because they had camped out for days or had spent hours standing in line, just to be part of the atmosphere. In those early days there was very little planned choreography, it was a fan led pep rally. The fans would chant “Go Big Blue”, C-A-T-S, cats, cats, cats or would start an impromptu “wave” throughout the arena. This was all unscripted; it was an excitement that would build for a couple of hours with the crescendo at the clock striking midnight and the birth of a new season. Today’s event, while impressive with the video screens and light shows, misses out on the eruption that used happen from the fan base when the players were unveiled for the first time. The cheers at recent events are not as loud, as they once were, because the flow is broken up by the steady flow of corporate sponsored fan games and announcer interview sessions, but the event is still worth attending.
Coach Calipari, which is a marketing genius, has used the event as a great recruiting tool. He normally does a speech directed at the recruits in attendance and it usually speaks of how many players have left the University of Kentucky to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA. This year the theme was family and Calipari invited all former players to attend and be recognized as part of the Big Blue family. Over a hundred former players left their seats in the stands to join each other on the grand stage. It was great to see players from every generation. You could see, Jack “Goose” Givens, Kenny Walker and Cotton Nash among the many others as the fans gave them all a nice round of applause. John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Willie Cauley-Stein were in town for an NBA exhibition game and were highlighted by John Calipari, because for him the theme of family is a natural gesture. Kentucky has a long lineage of great players and it was fun to see them come together as one big family.
So, it is here, a new season, a new team. The 2016-17 men’s basketball team has been unveiled. Freshmen, Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk and Deaaron Fox look to be destined for stardom. As on-lookers, we can’t wait to see if they can live up to the lofty expectations. Basketball season in the Bluegrass is a great tradition. Let the fun begin.