Kentucky's obsession turns to celebration Wild about their 'Cats in unique way, fans get due

April 02, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Midnight Madness isn't one night in Kentucky's basketball season, it's every night in Kentucky's basketball season.

In the land of thoroughbred horses and fast-break offense, Wildcats basketball has bred a new, refined level of obsession. And with it, come the stories, the stuff of legend.

There was the doctor from Kentucky's medical school who sent a letter to coach Rick Pitino just before the Final Four, detailing a six-point plan that would assure a national championship.

There is the lawsuit filed by three siblings of a Kenton County man over control of Kentucky season tickets passed down after their mother died in 1984.

And there was the man who requested to be buried with an autographed Kentucky basketball.

This is big-league fanaticism in a small-town setting. It is Lexington, Ky., where daily life often draws its very breath from the Wildcats' latest outing.

"To me, it's like the basketball capital of the world, at least in college," said Kentucky senior Tony Delk. "When you lose, it's like the season's over. That's the emphasis they place on it."

The Wildcats' season ended last night not with a loss, but a 76-67 victory over Syracuse that earned Kentucky its sixth national championship.

Thus were met the giddy expectations that accompanied Pitino's arrival in Lexington seven years ago, when the school was reeling from a recruiting scandal and NCAA sanctions.

There is a price to be paid for this magnificent obsession, of course. The players pay it with the loss of their privacy, the coach pays it with the pressure of heightened expectations.

"We try not to be caught up in it," said Delk, who was recruited from Brownsville, Tenn. "We try not to focus as much on basketball. But it's hard to have a social life when everyone knows who you are. You have to sacrifice that."

In Lexington, players are treated as celebrities along the order of rock stars. There is no escaping the spotlight, center Walter McCarty said.

"You see 80-year-old women chasing players at the mall trying to get autographs," he said.

Pitino links Kentucky's current fever pitch to its title drought. The Wildcats' last championship had come 18 years ago, when Joe B. Hall was the coach and Jack Givens the star. Before last night, that was the only title Kentucky had won in 38 years. During the golden era under Adolph Rupp, the Wildcats won four titles in an 11-year period from 1948 to 1958.

If that means extra pressure, Pitino has skillfully tried to defuse it and use it to his advantage with his players.

"What we try to do is make good pressure, to try to focus more, run faster, jump higher, and do all the good things," he said.

Pitino, meanwhile, said he answers each of the 30 to 40 letters he receives each week. Last week, he got an envelope from Federal Express marked "Please Open Before The Meadowlands, Extremely Important." It was from a doctor at UK's medical school.

Pitino told the tale this week at one of his media briefings:

"It said, 'Dear Coach, you're not taking as many threes and it's going to hurt you in the tournament. Make sure Delk gets more screens, we need more threes.'

"And he listed six things we must do. 'If you listen to these six things, you'll be national champions.' "

Pitino couldn't wait to send his reply.

"I said, 'Dear Doctor so-and-so, there are six things I'd like to help you with. First thing, you're making too large an incision in surgery. You're giving too much anesthesia. Three, you're charging too much with your billing. Four, your nurses are not using the right procedures.'

"And I listed six things. I said 'When I come back, I'd like to meet you on that and help you with your surgery, because I think you're way off mark.' And I signed it, sent it Federal Express and [wrote], 'Please open before your next surgery.' "

In this season of Kentucky's magnificent obsession, Pitino has the final word.

Pub Date: 4/02/96

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