When Coach Rick Pitino took the University of Kentucky Wildcats all the way to a NCAA championship in 1996, I was a senior in high school. I was perched on the couch at home, watching the madness erupt in Lexington, just 30 miles away. I was 17 and still living under Mama Virgo's roof and Mama Virgo's rules. I would not be attending the celebration. I would be watching the news and wishing desperately that I could be a part of the jubilation and all that it usually entails with a collegiate victory...burning couches, turning over cars, drinking vodka from a trash can. These are just 3 (of the hundreds) of the reasons I was not allowed to go.
After a year at the University of Louisville, I transferred to UK in 1997. Pitino had high-tailed it out of Lexington after the '96 victory in search of greener, more profitable pastures. He was down with the dough and even though what Lexington lacked in paychecks, we made up for in fan base, he saw dollars and cents with the Celtics. Tubby Smith had been hired to take over the program and in his first season of coaching Pitino's boys in blue, he found himself again competing for a national championship. But this time, I was a sophomore in college...well outside of a mother's grasp and living on my own on UK's campus.
I don't even remember who all was there in that campus apartment the night of the championship game...a few sorority sisters maybe, some coworkers from the gym, a couple of classmates from the Kinesiology program, a handful of others. And I remember very little from the actual game. What I do remember is meeting up with my high school friends down on Woodland Avenue, the epicenter of the celebration, about an hour later. They had been watching the game in someone's dorm room and traveled across campus as quickly as their feet would carry them after the game-ending buzzer. Somehow, in an age of very limited cell phone access (much less texting) and a crowd of thousands, we found each other.
The Lexington Police Department had learned an important lesson after the 1996 championship win: national titles inspire college students to riot. According to news reports, campus and the surrounding areas were a disaster the morning after the win in '96. Citizens who had the misfortune of parking their cars on the streets surrounding campus awoke to find nothing but a burned-out shell where their vehicles sat the night before. Store windows were smashed and buildings had been tagged with spray paint. Imagine if we had lost....
As my friends and I surfed the crowd and tried to discretely juggle red Solo cups of beer, we noticed that the LPD was not only heavy in numbers, they were also heavy in gear. Full-on riot gear. Kids who decided to scale the cross-walk poles were beaten down with batons. Body-surfing would get you pepper-sprayed. Exposing your breasts while straddling your best friend's shoulders would get you hand-cuffed. It was excessive, but deemed necessary, I'm sure. Even with the police presence, it was still the best block party I've ever been to. The computer science undergrads mixed with the fashion design majors. Football players danced with girls like me. And we all agreed...UK is #1!!
One of my friends who was with us that night managed to score a poster of an aerial shot taken over Woodland Avenue during the celebration. He located most of us in the photo, which is amazing considering the sheer mass of drunken bodies draped over each other. I've Googled every keyword I can think of to find that poster, but it seems to not be on the Internet. And that makes me a little sad because, after all, if there are no pictures, did it really happen?
On Saturday at 6PM, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, led by Coach Cal, will once again compete for a chance to advance to the championship game. We will go up against Coach Rick Pitino's University of Louisville Cardinals and all of the school/state rivalry and past pent-up feelings about Pitino's hasty exit in 1996 that comes with it. I can't imagine how more could possibly be riding on this game. Advancement to the championship round. Bragging rights around the state of Kentucky. Showing Pitino that UK doesn't need him to go all the way. It's intense. And if we win on Saturday, I expect to log on to the news websites from my couch in middle Georgia and see police in riot gear and college students taking matches to fire-friendly furniture. I expect to see the best block party ever.
Have you been a student at a school when they went all the way? Was it the best party you've ever been to?