University of Kentucky senior night celebrations were once so poignant and unique that even television networks felt compelled to cover them live. I remember Dick Enberg’s voice quivering with his signature “Oh my” immediately after he witnessed the festivities for the first time. Nowadays, with everybody staging their own versions of these farewell moments, the occasion has lost much of its luster. There’s simply not as much sentimentality, emotion, and glamour to trigger our jaded excitement levels.
One other obvious reason for the big letdown is that there just aren’t as many seniors to honor anymore. With John Calipari’s “one and done, players first” strategy, you barely get to know the athletes for a few short months before they’re suddenly millionaire superstars in the NBA. Many True-Blue fans miss the extended interaction of watching a James Lee or Jack Givens, a Chuck Hayes or Tayshaun Prince develop, struggle, and mature through a normal four-year college career. Don’t get me wrong, we still love De’Aaron, Malik, and Bam, but we’re just not quite as invested in them as we would be had we gotten to know them better. Plus, with “one and dones,” there’s no formal sendoff either—no running through hoops, no framed jerseys accompanied by photogenic family members, no Happy Chandler singing My Old Kentucky Home without a dry eye in the house.
That’s why this year’s festivities should better mimic those glorious occasions of yesteryear. The UK Men’s team this season features three graduating seniors. What’s more, each of the three–Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, and Mychal Mulder–can all claim significant on court contributions to this year’s successes. Derek and Dominique also happen to be four-year, in-state players, something that always invokes more of a passionate response from the loyal Big Blue fan base.
“This is my dream school,” Dominique gushed when asked why he stuck it out all four years at UK. “I definitely wanted to stay here and I felt like my time was going to come. I didn’t want to be one of those guys that would leave a school that I love. I never even thought about leaving, actually. I’m just blessed to be able to be a part of this.” Coach Cal recently referred to Dominique as Old Reliable, referencing his competitiveness, scrappiness, and toughness. Depending on how the season finishes out, Old Reliable could go down as an all-time fan favorite. Regardless, all of BBN will miss Dom’s reliably effervescent smile, infectious positive attitude, and huge heart. Louisville fans won’t miss any of the 3-point daggers the Richmond native reliably buried against them.
On the Women’s Basketball side, there can’t be many more stirring farewells than the ceremony honoring Makayla Epps. The former 2013 Kentucky Miss Basketball from Marion County, together with senior teammate Evelyn Akhator, were both recognized prior to the Wildcats final home game against Mississippi State. Those of us old enough to remember her father, Anthony Epps, during his senior night ceremonies as he clutched a 21-month-old Makayla in his arms, couldn’t help but feel an extra tinge of special emotion.
“When I put that jersey on and there’s Kentucky on my chest, it really meant something,” Makayla said. “I was born and raised in Kentucky so this state really means something to me.” That’s the kind of loyalty and passion for the commonwealth that has made her such a fan favorite in her four years as a Wildcat. “She just connects so well with people,” said Coach Matthew Mitchell. “You know, she has such a beautiful spirit about her. She has a great heart for people.”
Speaking of heart, Akhator’s ticker is just as passionate. The native of Lagos, Nigeria came to UK from Chipola Community College last season and immediately became a double-double machine with her high motor and aggressive post play. “She has given as much as anyone could ever give in the amount of time that she has been here because she has given her all,” Coach Mitchell offered. “She has given everything that she can give. I don’t know that we will ever sign anyone that is higher character as her.”
Considering all factors involved, I’m not sure the Men’s and Women’s basketball teams will ever have more significant senior night celebrations than those held this year. Unless the Unforgettables mysteriously resurface, or another father/mother/son/daughter lineage comes into play, or they change the one and done rule, these moments may be as good as they’ll ever get. I’m savoring it all–watching exceptional senior student-athletes relishing in their well-deserved Senior Night celebrations with their family, friends, and fans in attendance. Here at the University of Kentucky, with the greatest tradition in the history of college basketball, we shouldn’t settle for anything less. Not a dry eye in the house during strains of My Old Kentucky Home as an adoring Big Blue Nation looks on. Bravo! Well Done! Thank You!
John Huang is a columnist for Nolan Group Media. If you enjoy his writing, you can read more at www.huangswhinings.com. Follow him on twitter @KYHuangs.