Now This Is MadnessPosted by jstevrtc on October 2nd, 2009
He’s 66, he goes by Uncle Charlie, and he is the envy of most Kentucky fans all over the world on this day.
Why is that, you may ask? Because he is at the front of a line consisting of 311 tents and tarps that comprises the queue that has formed in front of Lexington’s Memorial Coliseum, the UK basketball team’s practice venue. The line exists because on Saturday morning the University will give out tickets to Kentucky’s version of Midnight Madness, which as we all know is the day that schools are allowed to start having official, full-staffed practices. The line of tents snakes around the Coliseum and up approximately two city blocks — on both sides, mind you — and that tent-count of 311 was as of Thursday evening. I heard one estimate that it could more than double by Friday night. The local news is reporting that this will be the longest line-up in the history of any Kentucky basketball ticket distribution.
No, that’s correct, you read that right…this is all for the first practice of the season. Not a game. People were allowed to start camping out at 8am on Wednesday, September 30th for the Saturday, October 3rd ticket distribution. That’s three and half days of sleeping on the ground for the privilege of attending…a practice.
“Let me tell you something, there is absolutely nowhere I’d rather be than this place,” confirms Uncle Charlie, who quotes stats from legendary Kentucky players like “Wah Wah” Jones and Cotton Nash with the quickness and accuracy of someone talking about his own children’s athletic talents. “Look at this, there’s no actin’ up, no bad stuff happening, no police having to tend to this. This is just a bunch of people — young people, old people like me — who love Kentucky basketball.”
A few months ago, we were writing about how the Big Blue Nation was, to say the least, crestfallen about themselves and their situation. Kentucky fans were enduring a season with what they perceived to be an underachieving bunch, a listless group of players who seemed out-of-synch under the leadership of former coach Billy Gillispie, a man who Kentucky supporters (and evidently University bigwigs) felt was not only a reluctant front-man for the Kentucky program from a public-relations standpoint both locally and nationally — but also a coach who looked a little in over his head at this level. Of course, UK would end up in the NIT, a simply unacceptable result in the eyes of the Big Blue Nation; Gillispie was soon gone (but not, um, forgotten), and John Calipari hired. Now, there’s a line of tents well over a mile long.
“We don’t talk about the past couple of years that much any more; not because we’re ashamed, but because — well just look at this,” notes Bruce, a 35-year-old firefighter who drove 180 miles from Owensboro, Kentucky to camp out here for tickets. “The campers would have still been here no matter who the coach was or who was on our roster. The line might not have been as long, and the mood might not have been as good around here. But with Coach Cal and this freshman class, and guys like (sophomore guard) Darius Miller and (junior forward/center) Patrick Patterson coming back, I’d rather talk about the future.”
This is the prevailing mood here at what the local press are calling Camp Memorial (I believe this name was coined by the gents at Kentucky Sports Radio, actually). “The excitement is back,” adds a man identifying himself as Dusty, a younger compatriot of the aforementioned Uncle Charlie. “We haven’t had it since 2004, or so. This is like it was when I was younger.” His friend Fish adds, “Calipari was an instant shot of adrenaline for this town and the entire Big Blue Nation.”
Interestingly, just earlier this week, the heat broke a little bit in Kentucky and autumn arrived. The temperatures have started dropping into the 40s at night, but that obviously hasn’t deterred these people. Sweatshirts are necessary during the day, and sturdier coats at night. Another way to get over a cold chill? “Oh, sometimes you have to go to the anti-freeze,” proclaims Fish, as he taps the left side of the front of his jacket, as if he is keeping something concealed that might contain a liquid of some sort. “But only when necessary.”
Most people spend the time reading (there are a lot of students in the line, to be sure), playing cornhole (that’s that beanbag-pitching game), tossing a football, or just walking the line to check it all out. The favorite pasttime, by far, is seeking autographs from basketball players walking out of Wildcat Lodge, an athletes’ dorm located across the street from the Coliseum. Indeed, while I was standing and talking to various campers, freshmen guards John Wall, Jon Hood, and Eric Bledsoe, likely trying to get to class, were instantly surrounded by fans and autograph-seekers. They stood for a while to sign for hundreds — yes, hundreds — of people, before moving on toward the campus. Bledsoe especially looked happily flummoxed by all of this, smiling ear-to-ear and shaking his head in amazement as he signed his name countless times. Later in the evening, coming back from class, Patrick Patterson got within a block of the dorm before he was engulfed by bivouacking fans, making a point to sign for and take pictures with the children first. The players have evidently bought into the prevailing spirit of positivity; not one fan is denied an autograph or photo, and many of the players have been coming over in their spare time to hang out with the tent-dwellers. Junior forward Josh Harrellson and freshman forward DeMarcus Cousins (who is a mountain, by the way) have played pick-up games with (and dunked over) campers taking time out from the line. Cousins is already a fan favorite, with all the time he’s spent among the fans in line, showing off his skills at cornhole and playing games with fans. Players have even been delivering breakfast to people in their tents on the chilly mornings.
“I had just awakened this morning and there was a 6-10 guy handing me an orange juice,” beams Abby, a sophomore History major, as she reclined in her tent with textbook in hand. “It was Josh Harrellson! I love him. Well, I loved him before the orange juice, but now even more.” She’s certainly not alone in her adoration for Harrellson or any other UK baller as this Era of Good Feeling washes over Lexington. I spoke with a 38-year old lady named Julie who held her 4-year old son Shawn in her lap inside yet another tent; with a huge smile, she told me, “Patrick Patterson took a picture with my son, and signed his basketball. This is one of the best days of his life. He’ll always remember this.” Shawn laughed and held up his basketball as proudly as a kid showing off after getting the number-one item on his Christmas list. I asked Shawn if I could see his basketball. He looked at me as if I had three heads (I don’t). He said nothing, and held onto it tighter, denying me. Shawn obviously would not be relinquishing possession of that basketball any time soon. His mother did not force him. “He just really loves Patrick,” she added. I understood and did not press the matter.
Many of my basketball-loving friends have noted that the idea of Midnight Madness at most colleges has become antiquated, that the celebration of the arrival of the first official practice date isn’t covered by ESPN as much as it used to be, and so its time has therefore passed…